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Whiggism, sometimes spelled Whigism, is a historical political philosophy that grew out of the Parliamentarian faction in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639-1651). The whigs' key policy positions were the supremacy of Parliament (as opposed to that of the king), tolerance of Protestant dissenters, and opposition to a Catholic (especially a Stuart) on the throne.[1] After the huge success of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689, Whiggism dominated English and British politics until about 1760, although in practice it splintered into different factions. After 1760 the Whigs lost power, apart from sharing it in a few short-lived coalitions, but Whiggism fashioned itself into a generalized belief system that emphasized innovation and liberty and was strongly held by about half of the leading families in England and Scotland, as well as most merchants, Dissenters and professionals. The opposing Tory position was held by the other great families, the Church of England, and most of the landed gentry and officers of the army and the navy.

Whigs who opposed Walpole often called themselves "Old Whigs" and comprised part of the Country Party.

Whiggism referred originally to the Whigs of the British Isles, but in its "Old Whig" form was largely adopted by the American Patriots in the Thirteen Colonies. American Whiggism was known as republicanism.

One meaning of 'whiggism' given by the Oxford English Dictionary is "moderate or antiquated Liberalism".[2]

Coining of "whiggism"

Quickly following the adoption of 'whig' as the name of a political faction, the word whiggism was already in use by the 1680s. In 1682 Edmund Hickeringill published his History of Whiggism.[3] In 1702 Daniel Defoe, writing satirically in the guise of a Tory, asserted, "We can never enjoy a settled uninterrupted Union and Tranquility in this Nation, till the Spirit of Whiggisme, Faction, and Schism is melted down like the Old-Money".[4]


The true origins of what became known as whiggism lie in the English Civil War and the power struggle between Parliament and King Charles I. However, the immediate origins of the Whigs and whiggism were in the Exclusion Bill crisis of 1678 to 1681, in which a "country party" battled a "court party" in an unsuccessful attempt to exclude James, Duke of York, from succeeding his brother Charles II as king of England, Scotland, and Ireland. This crisis was prompted by Charles's lack of a legitimate heir, by the discovery in 1673 that James was a Roman Catholic, and by the so-called "Popish Plot" of 1678.[5]

While a major principle of whiggism was opposition to popery, that was always much more than a mere religious preference in favour of Protestantism, although most Whigs did have such a preference. Sir Henry Capel outlined the principal motivation of the cry of "no popery" when he said in the House of Commons on 27 April 1679:

From Popery came the notion of a standing army and arbitrary Power... Formerly the Crown of Spain, and now France, supports this root of Popery amongst us; but lay Popery flat, and there's an end of arbitrary Government and power. It is a mere chimera, or notion, without Popery.[6]

Although they were unsuccessful in excluding the Duke of York from the throne, the Whigs, in alliance with William of Orange, brought him down in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. By that event, a new supremacy of parliament was established, which itself was one of the principles of whiggism, much as it had been the chief principle of the Roundheads in an earlier generation.[7]


Title page of Sidney's Discourses Concerning Government (1698)

Lee Ward (2008) argues that the philosophical origins of Whiggism came in James Tyrrell's Patriarcha Non Monarcha (1681), John Locke's Two Treatises of Government (1689), and Algernon Sidney's Discourses Concerning Government (1698).[8] All three were united in opposing Sir Robert Filmer's defence of divine right and absolute monarchy. Tyrrell propounded a moderate Whiggism which interpreted England's balanced and mixed constitution "as the product of a contextualized social compact blending elements of custom, history, and prescription with inherent natural law obligations."[9] Sidney, however, emphasized the main themes of Republicanism. He based Whig ideology in the sovereignty of the people by proposing a constitutional reordering that would both elevate the authority of Parliament and democratize its forms; Sidney also emphasized classical republican notions of virtue.[10] Ward says that Locke's liberal Whiggism rested on a radically individualist theory of natural rights and limited government.[11] Tyrrell's moderate position came to dominate Whiggism, and British constitutionalism as a whole, from 1688 to the 1770s.[12] The more radical ideas of Sidney and Locke, argues Ward, became marginalized in Britain, but emerged as a dominant strand in American republicanism. The issues raised by the Americans, starting with the Stamp Act crisis of 1765, ripped Whiggism apart in a battle of parliamentary sovereignty (Tyrrell) versus popular sovereignty (Sidney and Locke).[13]

Across the Empire

Whiggism took different forms in England and Scotland, even though from 1707 the two nations shared a single parliament.[14] While English whiggism had at its heart the power of parliament, creating for that purpose a constitutional monarchy and a permanently Protestant succession to the throne, Scottish Whigs gave a higher priority to using power for religious purposes, including maintaining the authority of the Church of Scotland, justifying the Protestant Reformation, and emulating the Covenanters.[14]

There were also Whigs in the North American colonies, and while whiggism there had much in common with that in Great Britain, it too had its own priorities. In the unfolding of the American Revolution such whiggism became known as republicanism.[15]

In India, Prashad (1966) argues that the profound influence of the ideas of Edmund Burke introduced Whiggism into the mainstream of Indian political thought. The Indians adopted the basic assumptions of Whiggism, especially the natural leadership of an elite, the political incapacity of the masses, the great partnership of the civil society, and the best methods of achieving social progress, analyzing the nature of society and the nation, and depicting the character of the ideal state.[16]

Further reading

  • Carswell, John, The Old Cause: Three Biographical Studies in Whiggism (London: The Cresset Press, 1954) online text, deals with Thomas Wharton, George Dodington, and Charles James Fox
  • H. T. Dickinson, Walpole and the Whig Supremacy (University of London Press, 1973)
  • Dickinson, H. T. 'Whiggism in the eighteenth century', in John Cannon, ed., The Whig Ascendancy: Colloquies on Hanoverian Britain (1981), pp. 28–44
  • William Herbert Dray, 'J. H. Hexter, Neo-Whiggism and Early Stuart Historiography' in History and Theory, vol. 26 (1987), pp. 133-149
  • Goldie, Mark, "The Roots of True Whiggism, 1688-94", in History of Political Thought 1 (1980), pp. 195-236
  • Guttridge, George Herbert, English Whiggism and the American Revolution (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1942)
  • Mitchell, Leslie, Whig World: 1760-1837 (2006)
  • O'Gorman, Frank, The Rise of Party in England: The Rockingham Whigs 1760–1782 (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1975)
  • Robbins, Caroline. The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman: Studies in the Transmission, Development, and Circumstance of English Liberal Thought from the Restoration of Charles II until the War with the Thirteen Colonies (1959, 2004). table of contents online
  • Smith, Ernest Anthony, Whig principles and party politics: Earl Fitzwilliam and the Whig party, 1748-1833 (Manchester University Press, 1975)
  • Ward, Lee, The Politics of Liberty in England and Revolutionary America (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
  • Williams, Basil, and C. H. Stuart, The Whig Supremacy, 1714-1760 (Oxford History of England) (2nd ed. 1962)
  • Womersley, David, Paddy Bullard, Abigail Williams, "Cultures of Whiggism": new essays on English literature and culture in the long eighteenth century (University of Delaware Press, 2005)

Primary sources

  • Burke, Edmund, An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791)
  • De Quincey, Thomas. "Dr. Samuel Parr: or, Whiggism in its relations to literature" in Works of Thomas de Quincey, vol. v, from p. 30
  • Disraeli, Benjamin, ed. William Hutcheon, Whigs and Whiggism: political writings (new edition, 1971)
  • Hickeringill, Edmund, The history of Whiggism: or, The Whiggish-plots, principles, and practices (London: Printed for E. Smith, at the Elephant and Castle in Cornhill, 1682)

See also


  1. Hamowy, Ronald (2008). "Whiggism". The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE; Cato Institute. p. 542–3. ISBN 978-1-4129-6580-4. LCCN 2008009151. OCLC 750831024.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Whiggism, n. at oed.com, accessed 16 August 2011 (subscription required)
  3. Edmund Hickeringill, The history of Whiggism: or, The Whiggish-plots, principles, and practices, (mining and countermining the Tory-plots and principles) in the reign of King Charles the first, during the conduct of affaires, under the influence of the three great minions and favourites, Buckingham, Laud, and Strafford; and the sad forre-runners and prologues to that fatal-year (to England and Ireland) 41: Where in (as in a mirrour) is shown the face of the late (we do not say the present) times [In two parts] (London: Printed for E. Smith, at the Elephant and Castle in Cornhill, 1682)
  4. Daniel Defoe, The shortest way with the Dissenters: or Proposals for the establishment of the Church (1702), p. 15
  5. Odai Johnson, Rehearsing the revolution (2000), p. 14
  6. John Kenyon, The Popish Plot (Phoenix Press, 2000), pp. 2–3
  7. Melinda S. Zook, Radical Whigs and conspiratorial politics in late Stuart England (1999), p. xiv
  8. Lee Ward, The Politics of Liberty in England and Revolutionary America (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
  9. Ward, p. 14
  10. Ward, ch. 6
  11. Ward, ch. 8-9
  12. Ward, ch. 11
  13. Ward, pp. 327-350
  14. 14.0 14.1 Jonathan Hearn, Claiming Scotland: national identity and liberal culture (2000), p. 138
  15. George Herbert Guttridge, English whiggism and the American revolution (1974), pp. 10, 68
  16. Ganesh Prashad, "Whiggism in India," Political Science Quarterly Vol. 81, No. 3 (Sep., 1966), pp. 412-431 in JSTOR