The term Whiggism refers to the philosophical principles of the British Whig party, the name attached to the reformist political party that, by the mid-19th century, had come to be called the Liberal party. The term Whig appears to be Scots Gaelic, a derogatory term for horse thief, that was used to describe adherents of the Presbyterian cause in Scotland in the early 17th century. The Tory Party, the traditional political opposition to the Whigs, fared no better in its designation, “Tory” having derived from an Irish term for those associated with the Papist outlaws loyal to the deposed James II.
Following the Restoration of the Stuarts to the English throne in 1660, the House of Commons found itself divided between a Country party, who regarded themselves as representing the interests of the people, and a Court party, whose primary loyalty was to the King and Court. To those groups, the names Whig and Tory were attached in 1679, during the bitter struggle between the two parties over the succession of the Roman Catholic Duke of York (later James II) to the throne. The Whig party supported the supremacy of Parliament and toleration for Protestant dissenters and was adamantly opposed to a Catholic on the throne. The Glorious Revolution of 1688, which deposed James II and replaced him with his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange, was an unqualified triumph for Whig party principles. The Revolution permanently settled the issue of constitutional sovereignty in England and ushered in a period of Whig domination of British politics, which, with the exception of a period of 4 years when Anne was on the throne, lasted until the mid-18th century. Throughout that period, the Whigs tended to be the party of the nation’s great landowners and of its merchants and tradesmen, whereas the Tories more often represented the interests of the smaller landowners and the rural clergy.
The principal influence on Whig thought following the Revolution settlement was that of John Locke. Locke’s political views, as set down in his Two Treatises of Government, underpinned Whig ideology and shaped its notions regarding the nature and scope of government. Locke and the radical Whig political writers who followed him affirmed that all men in the state of nature are equal and that the basis of all legitimate government is the consent of the governed; that all men are possessed of certain natural, inalienable rights; and that the civil magistrate is bound by the terms of the original contract by which he holds authority to govern. Should the sovereign violate the terms of that contract, as had James II, men had a right to resist him and to substitute in his place a sovereign prepared to adhere to the terms under which men surrendered their original power to judge and punish their fellow men. Those conclusions were in sharp contrast to the claims of James II and the Tories who supported him—namely, that the sovereign was the bearer of hereditary indefeasible rights and the final arbiter of all things affecting the governance of the nation. With the success of the Revolution of 1688, however, the Tories were forced to abandon their earlier extravagant monarchist views and to come to terms with the revolutionary settlement and the relationship between Crown and Parliament.
In the years following the Revolution, a large number of political tracts and dissertations were written by a host of authors in an effort to secure its benefits and to extend its influence. Among those writers were Matthew Tindal, Benjamin Hoadly, and, more important, Robert Molesworth. Molesworth, who had been forced into exile during the reign of James II, wrote An Account of Denmark in 1693 in an attempt to warn his fellow Englishmen of the dangers to individual liberty that can follow from an ignorance or indifference to political affairs. Molesworth’s essay underscored the need for constant vigilance and for an electorate that actively participates in public life. That theme was reiterated by a number of Whig authors, whose tracts combined elements of classical republicanism with a Lockean theory of rights and of the legitimacy of resistance to tyranny.
Perhaps the best example of the political language of post-Lockean Whig thought appears in the writings of John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, whose Cato’s Letters were published between 1720 and 1723. The letters are a splendid example of the literature of political opposition during the first half of the 18th century and over the next 50 years were to serve as an important source of revolutionary inspiration in the colonial struggle against the British. While Cato’s Letters embraced a Lockean conception of rights, it also borrowed from the language of English republican thought, which emphasized the temptations of political corruption, the dangers in gratifying the private passions at the public expense, and the need for an active electorate as guardians of the polity.
Like most Whigs, Trenchard and Gordon strongly supported the removal of the civil disabilities under which religious dissenters then suffered. John Locke in his Letter Concerning Toleration had earlier called for the removal of restrictions on religious practice. Indeed, toleration for religious dissidents was a cardinal principle of Whig ideology. But the arguments put forward in Cato’s Letters were even more forceful than those in Locke’s writings. In one of the most impassioned defenses of freedom of conscience published during the 18th century, Trenchard and Gordon maintained that our consciences constitute the most integral part of our being and, as such, are exempt from all regulation by the civil magistrate. Those exhortations for religious toleration did not go unheeded by the various Whig governments, and a number of disabilities were repealed over the course of the first 50 years of the 18th century. Unfortunately, the easing of disabilities did not extend to Roman Catholicism, which many regarded as combining the most primitive elements of superstition with political oppression.
Although no formal Whig or Tory parties existed as such during the early part of the reign of George III, who ascended the throne in 1760, they emerged in the Commons following the appointment of William Pitt the Younger as first minister and head of the Tory Party in 1783. At that point, a revived Whig party, representing religious dissenters, entrepreneurs, and other reformist elements, coalesced around the leadership of Charles James Fox. The name finally fell into disuse after the turn of the century when the more radical members of the reformist party began to call themselves Liberals and employed “Whig” as a term of opprobrium for those members they regarded as too conservative.
Hamowy, Ronald. “‘Cato’s Letters,’ John Locke, and the Republican Paradigm.” History of Political Thought 11 (Summer 1990): 273–294.
Robbins, Caroline. The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman. New York: Atheneum, 1968.
Stephen, Sir Leslie. History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century. 2 vols. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962 .
Williams, Basil. The Whig Supremacy, 1714–1760. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.
Wootton, David, ed. Republicanism, Liberty, and Commercial Society, 1649–1776. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.
Originally published .