The Whigs were one of the two main political parties in Britain between the later 17th and mid‐19th cents. The term, which derived from ‘whiggamore’, the name by which the Scots covenanters had been derogatorily known, was first used by the Tories during the Exclusion crisis to brand the opponents of James, duke of York. Whiggery thus began as a distinctly oppositional and populist ideology, which saw political authority stemming from the people, a ‘contract’ existing between them and their king, whom they might resist if he overrode their interests. Early Whig principles played a key part in shaping the 1689 revolution settlement. As firm supporters of the Hanoverian succession the Whigs presided over George I's accession in 1714 and afterwards engineered the long‐term proscription of their Tory rivals. The resulting ‘Whig oligarchy’ achieved a hitherto unseen stability in political life over the next few decades, with power concentrated in the hands of the great Whig families.
By the 1760s all politicians regarded themselves loosely as Whigs, but the term was consciously appropriated and used by the remnants of the old corps who had regrouped as an aristocratic country party led by Rockingham. Their consciousness as a ‘party’ was promoted by Burke in the 1770s and 1780s, with economical reform and the reduction of the power of the crown essential to their evolving ideology. The political crisis at the end of the American war brought them briefly to office until Rockingham's sudden death in July 1782. The Rockingham Whigs, now led by the duke of Portland and Charles James Fox, split in 1794 over their reaction to the French Revolution, with ‘conservative’ Whigs under Portland joining Pitt's administration, and the Foxites remaining in opposition. The latter kept alive the name of Whig, associating it with political, religious, and social reform. The mid‐19th cent. saw Whiggery largely subsumed into liberalism, and the Whig label disappeared from political vocabulary.
Subjects: British History.