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Whiggism, or Master Billy learning his task, cartoon of 1784. Lord Thurlow acts as schoolmaster to William Pitt the Younger. The schoolroom contains images of King George III, labelled a "Great Whig", and implied to be under Scottish influence; Charles James Fox, labelled a "True Whig"; and Lord Shelburne, labelled a "False Whig." Whiggism, or Master Billy learning his task. (BM 1868,0808.5105).jpg
Whiggism, or Master Billy learning his task, cartoon of 1784. Lord Thurlow acts as schoolmaster to William Pitt the Younger. The schoolroom contains images of King George III, labelled a "Great Whig", and implied to be under Scottish influence; Charles James Fox, labelled a "True Whig"; and Lord Shelburne, labelled a "False Whig."

Whiggism (in North America sometimes spelled Whigism) is a 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 "Papist" (Roman Catholic) on the throne, especially James II or one of his descendants. [1] It is associated with early conservative liberalism. [2]


After the huge success (from the Whig point of view) of the Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689, Whiggism dominated English and British politics until about 1760, although in practice the Whig political group splintered into different factions. After 1760, the Whigs lost power – apart from sharing it in some short-lived coalition governments – but Whiggism fashioned itself into a generalised belief system that emphasised 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 the middle classes. The opposing Tory position was held by the other great families, the Church of England, most of the landed gentry and officers of the army and the navy. Whigs also opposed Jacobitism, a movement of traditionalists tolerant of Roman Catholicism, with substantial Tory overlaps. While in power, Whigs frequently referred to all opponents as "Jacobites" or dupes of Jacobites.

Whiggism originally referred to the Whigs of the British Isles, but the name of "Old Whigs" was largely adopted by the American Patriots in the Thirteen Colonies. Following independence, American Whiggism became known as republicanism. The term "Old Whigs" was also used in Great Britain for those Whigs who opposed Robert Walpole as part of the Country Party.

Another meaning of whiggism given by the Oxford English Dictionary is "moderate or antiquated Liberalism". [3]

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. [4] In 1702, writing satirically in the guise of a Tory, Daniel Defoe 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". [5] The name probably originates from a shortening of Whiggamore referring to the Whiggamore Raid. [6]


The true origins of what became known as whiggism lie in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms and the power struggle between the Parliament of England and King Charles I, which eventually turned into the English Civil Wars, but only after the example of the successful use of violent opposition to the king set by the Bishops' Wars, which were fought between the same king in his capacity as king of Scotland on the one side and the Parliament of Scotland and the Church of Scotland on the other. 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. [7]

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. [8]

Although they were unsuccessful in preventing the accession of the Duke of York to 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. [9]

The great Whiggish achievement was the Bill of Rights of 1689. [10] It made Parliament, not the Crown, supreme. It established free elections to the Commons (although they were mostly controlled by the local landlord), free speech in parliamentary debates, and claimed to give all the king's English subjects freedom from ‘cruel or unusual punishment’. [11]


Title page of Sidney's Discourses Concerning Government (1698) Algernon Sidney 1622-1683 Discourses 1698.jpg
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). [12] 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". [13] However, Sidney emphasised the main themes of republicanism and based Whig ideology in the sovereignty of the people by proposing a constitutional reordering that would both elevate the authority of Parliament and democratise its forms. Sidney also emphasised classical republican notions of virtue. [14] Ward says that Locke's liberal Whiggism rested on a radically individualist theory of natural rights and limited government. [15] Tyrrell's moderate position came to dominate Whiggism and British constitutionalism as a whole from 1688 to the 1770s. [16] The more radical ideas of Sidney and Locke, argues Ward, became marginalised 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). [17]

Across the British Empire

Whiggism took different forms in England and Scotland, even though from 1707 the two nations shared a single parliament. [18] 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. [18]

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. [19]

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, analysing the nature of society and the nation and depicting the character of the ideal state. [20]

Further reading

Primary sources

See also


  1. Ronald Hamowy, "Whiggism" in The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, Cato Institute 2008), ISBN   978-1412965804, OCLC   750831024, LCCN   2008-9151, doi : 10.4135/9781412965811.n328 pp. 542–543
  2. Efraim Podoksik, ed. (2013). In Defence of Modernity: Vision and Philosophy in Michael Oakeshott. Imprint Academic. p. 14. ISBN   9781845404680. ... For Whig liberalism is also known as 'conservative liberalism' ...
  3. Whiggism, n. at oed.com. Retrieved 16 August 2011 (subscription required)
  4. 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)
  5. Daniel Defoe, The shortest way with the Dissenters: or Proposals for the establishment of the Church (1702), p. 15
  6. "whig | Origin and meaning of the name whig by Online Etymology Dictionary". www.etymonline.com. Retrieved 13 February 2018.
  7. Odai Johnson, Rehearsing the revolution (2000), p. 14
  8. John Kenyon, The Popish Plot (Phoenix Press, 2000), pp. 2–3
  9. Melinda S. Zook, Radical Whigs and conspiratorial politics in late Stuart England (1999), p. xiv
  10. Maurice Adams; Anne Meuwese; Ernst Hirsch Ballin (2017). Constitutionalism and the Rule of Law: Bridging Idealism and Realism. Cambridge UP. p. 97. ISBN   978-1316883259.
  11. Robert Blackburn, "Britain's unwritten constitution" British Library (2015)
  12. Lee Ward, The Politics of Liberty in England and Revolutionary America (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
  13. Ward, p. 14
  14. Ward, ch. 6
  15. Ward, ch. 8–9
  16. Ward, ch. 11
  17. Ward, pp. 327–350
  18. 1 2 Jonathan Hearn, Claiming Scotland: national identity and liberal culture (2000), p. 138
  19. George Herbert Guttridge, English whiggism and the American revolution (1974), pp. 10, 68
  20. Ganesh Prashad, "Whiggism in India," Political Science Quarterly Vol. 81, No. 3 (Sep. 1966), pp. 412–431 in JSTOR

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