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Whig Party

The origin of the term "Whig" has been much controverted; it has been associated with the Scots for "whey," as implying a taunt against the "sour-milk" faces of rtic western Lowlandcrs; another theory is that it represented the initials of the Scots Covenanters' motto, "We hope in God"; another derives it from the Scots word "whiggam," used by peasants in driving their horses. It was, however, a form of the Scots Gaelic term used to describe cattle and horse thieves, and transferred to the adherents of the Presbyterian cause in Scotland.

After the Restoration there was a country party and a court party, and to tnese the names of Whig and Tory were applied in 1679, in the heat of the struggle which preceded the meeting of the first short parliament of Charles II. The words were nicknames given by the opponents of each party. To call a man a Whig was to compare him with the Presbyterian rebels of the west of Scotland. To call a man a Tory was to compare him with the Papist outlaws of Ireland. In fact, at this time the Whigs were maintainers of parliamentary power over the crown and of toleration for Dissenters, the Tories maintainers of the hereditary indefeasible rights of the wearer of the crown and of the refusal of toleration to Dissenters. The relation between the parties was further qualified by the fact that the heir to the crown was a Roman Catholic, whose claim to succeed was defended by the Tories and assailed by the Whigs.

The persistency of the names of the two parties is mainly owjng to their essential unmeaningness. As new questions arose, the names of the old parties were retained, though the objects of contention were no longer the same. On the whole, during the last years of the 17th and the first years of the 18th century the Whigs may be regarded as the party of the great landowners, and of the merchants and tradesmen, the Tories as the party of the smaller landowners and the country clergy. The Whigs established, through their hold upon the boroughs under the influence of the great landowners, a firm government, which could keep in check, and at last practically set aside, the power of the crown.

With the accession of George III, the struggle about the Dissenters was now a thing of the past, and the king was accepted as a leader in carrying on the attack against the power of the great Whig families. The attack was the easier because the Whig families had split into factions. For some time the dividing line between Whigs and Tories was this: the Tories asserted that the king had a right to choose his ministers and control their policy, subject to the necessity of securing a majority of the House of Commons, whilst the Whigs thought that the choice should lie with leading* members of parliament, and that the king should have no controlling power. The Whig view appears to resemble that subsequently adopted; but in the middle of the 18th century the corruption which prevailed rendered the analogy worthless, and the real conflict was between the corrupt influence of the crown and the influence of a clique of great landowners resting on their possession of electoral power through the rotten boroughs.

In 1770 the king had his way and established Lord North at the treasury as his nominee. The Whigs, deprived of power, improved their position by the loss of one great instrument of corruption; but they were weakened by the establishment of two distinct currents of opinion in their own ranks. The main body under Rockingham was influenced by Burke to demand practical reforms, but set its face against any popular changes in the constitution. The Whigs who followed Chatham wished to place parliament on a more popular basis by the reform of the House of Commons.

The Whigs had no wish to destroy the throne, no conscious desire to reduce the king to a mere figurehead, but intended only to surround and offset him with a system of constitutional checks and balances which should regulate his otherwise arbitrary course and make it at least always calculable. They had made no clear analysis of the matter in their own thoughts; it has not been the habit of English politicians to be clear theorists. It was left to a Frenchman to point out to the Whigs what they had done. They had striven to make Parliament so influential in the making of laws and so authoritative in the criticism of the king's policy that the king could in no matter have his Own Way without their cooperation and assent, though they left him free, the while, if he chose, to interpose an absolute veto upon the acts of Parliament. They had striven to secure for the courts of law as great an independence as possible, so that they might be neither over awed by parliament nor coerced by the king. In brief, as Montesquieu pointed out to them in his lucid way, they had sought to balance executive, legislature, and judiciary off against one another by a series of checks and counterpoises, which Newton might readily have recognized as suggestive of the mechanism of the heavens.

The refusal of Wellington to listen to any proposal for altering the constitution of the House of Commons threw power once more into the hands of the Whigs in 1830. Shortly afterwards the name Tory gave place to that of Conservative, though it was cherished by those Conservatives who wished to assert their power of originating a definite policy, and who disliked to be branded with a puFely negative appellation, and it was also retained as a term of opprobrium by the Liberals for those whom they regarded as old-fashioned opponents of reform. The name of Whig was replaced by that of Liberal, being frequently, however, assigned to the less progressive portion of the party, the "moderate Liberals" or even to half-and-half Conservatives, as a term more or less of reproach It ceased to be a name accepted by any definite English political section.

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Page last modified: 08-09-2017 18:19:02 ZULU