Decorative Initial Like Tory, a complex and ambiguous political designation, originally applied to cattle-drovers in south-west Scotland. Later in the seventeenth century it was applied first to extremist Covenanters and then to the political and military faction defeated by Charles the II. Later it was applied to those who opposed, on religious grounds (he was a Roman Catholic) the succession of James, Duke of York, to the throne of England. After the Glorious Revolution in 1688, the Whig party adhered, at least in theory, to the following principles: they were advocates of personal freedom, maintaining that the king governed at the people's consent ("the people" was itself, of course, an ambiguous term at this time, since it did not include, for example, women), and that sovereignty rested, ultimately, with the people. They were strong supporters of William III and his consort Mary, and maintained a virtual monopoly of political power during their reign.

The Whigs, though their leadership was aristocratic, were also the party of the new financial and mercantile interests who would profit, in the early eighteenth century, from the wars against France; just as the Tories represented the old landed interests who, because they were taxed to support the same wars, opposed them. The Whigs were adherents of the Hanoverians when that dynasty succeeded to the throne, and in fact reigned supreme from 1714 until 1760. Between 1760 and 1800 the party, which had become increasingly corrupt and dependent upon political patronage, disintegrated into a number of smaller groups, and would not return to power until 1830. Between 1830 and 1841 they put through a great deal of reformist legislation. In later years the Whigs were identified, too, with the Low Church or Evangelical faction of the Church of England. After 1841 the term Whig was gradually replaced by the term Liberal.

Recent Publications about the Whigs

Peter Mandler's February 2006 review of Leslie Mitchell's The Whig World wittily sums up how Victorian and modern views of this party differ:

While the Victorians found the high Whig aristocracy snobby, dilettantish, irresponsible and impious, we moderns have rather taken to celebrating them for roughly the same reason. From at least the time of David Cecil's biography of Melbourne, published in 1939, which found the Grand Whiggery 'the most agreeable society England has ever known,' we have learned to relish the relaxed loucheness, the sweet reasonableness, the civilized amiability of the Whig beau monde of the late Georgian period. Recently the biographies of Stella Tillyard and Amanda Foreman have given a mild feminist twist to the legend, helping us see the Whigs as better human beings, with aches and pains, pregnancies and sexual dysfunctions, spousal troubles and heartbreak.

According to Mandler, a delightful reviewer, the ideal Whig was a member of "that inbred cluster of extensively landed families who had since 1688 given England reform and thus saved it from revolution. He attends Harrow instead of Eton "just to be different," but his "real education comes on the Grand Tour, where he picks up a light dose of the clap and much Parisian sociability, and, when war forbids foreign travel, in Edinburgh, for bracing lessons in political economy. He spends the rest of his life in one house or other of Parliament, preferably in opposition, for the work is easier and the sense of martyrdom at the hand of lesser, meaner landlords is gratifying." [GPL]

References

Cecil, Lord David. Melbourne. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1954. Parts I & II appeared in 1939 with the title The Young Melbourne.

Foreman, Amanda. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. New York: Random House, c. 1998.

Mandler, Peter. "An Ideal Idea." Times Literary Supplement. (17 February 2006): 15.

Mitchell, Leslie. The Whig World. Hambledon and London, 2005.

"For almost forty years the Oxford don Leslie Mitchell has been refurbishing and expanding on the old stories for a modern audience, in a series of sparkling biographical studies. . . . The Whig World is the epitome of Mitchellism." — Peter Mandler

Tillyard, Stella. Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa, and Sarah Lennox, 1740-1832. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.

Williams, Basil. The Whig Supremacy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939.


Victorianism Overview Victorian History

Last modified 1988; section on Mandler, 13 May 2006.