Clay Begins American Whig Party Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The creation of the Whig Party strengthened the two-party system in American politics and accentuated the sectional divisions that were to lead to the U.S. Civil War.

Summary of Event

The emergence of the Whigs as a national party would have advanced more rapidly had there been a single overriding issue or outstanding leader to rally around. Since there was neither, the opponents of the Democrats were a hodgepodge of malcontents, an “organized incompatibility” with only one unifying theme: an undying hatred of Andrew Jackson Jackson, Andrew [p]Jackson, Andrew;opponents of . They disliked the seventh president of the United States, whom they dubbed King Andrew I because of his ostensibly ruthless and dictatorial manner, and they slowly drew together into the Whig Party. They gave themselves the name “Whigs” because they ostensibly opposed tyranny and monarchy, as did the English Whigs. The name “Whig” became official when Senator Henry Clay Calhoun, John C. [p]Calhoun, John C.;and Whig Party[Whig Party] gave it his stamp of approval in a speech that he delivered before the Senate on April 14, 1834; however, the name had been used unofficially for at least two years prior to then. Whig Party (American);formation of [kw]Clay Begins American Whig Party (Apr. 14, 1834) [kw]Begins American Whig Party, Clay (Apr. 14, 1834) [kw]American Whig Party, Clay Begins (Apr. 14, 1834) [kw]Whig Party, Clay Begins American (Apr. 14, 1834) [kw]Party, Clay Begins American Whig (Apr. 14, 1834) Whig Party (American);formation of [g]United States;Apr. 14, 1834: Clay Begins American Whig Party[1860] [c]Government and politics;Apr. 14, 1834: Clay Begins American Whig Party[1860] [c]Organizations and institutions;Apr. 14, 1834: Clay Begins American Whig Party[1860] Calhoun, John C. [p]Calhoun, John C.;and Whig Party[Whig Party] Clay, Henry [p]Clay, Henry;and Whig Party[Whig Party] Jackson, Andrew [p]Jackson, Andrew;and Whig Party[Whig Party] Van Buren, Martin [p]Van Buren, Martin;and Whig Party[Whig Party] Harrison, William Henry [p]Harrison, William Henry;and Whig Party[Whig Party] Webster, Daniel [p]Webster, Daniel;and Whig Party[Whig Party] White, Hugh Lawson

The old Federalists and the National Republicans who opposed Jackson Jackson, Andrew [p]Jackson, Andrew;and Whig Party[Whig Party] Jackson, Andrew [p]Jackson, Andrew;election of 1828 in 1828 were later joined by many who had supported Jackson in that election but had turned against him over his positions on such divisive matters as his attack on the Second Bank of the United States and the South Carolina nullification Nullification Controversy controversy. These desertions were serious jolts to the Democratic Party and strengthened the ranks of a coalescing opposition. This opposition was strongest among the high-tariff merchants and manufacturers in the Northeast, wealthy planters in the South, and western farmers who desired internal improvements.

If there were common ideological denominators to the Whig Party, they were support for property rights and interest in government’s capacity to build and improve the nation’s institutions. Thus, there was both a conservative and a progressive side to the Whig Party. Like the earlier Federalists, the Whigs tended to represent the financial and business establishment. Unlike the Federalists, the Whigs understood the impetus toward westward expansion that was seizing the United States during the 1830’s.

The Whigs also became champions of small businessmen—a class that might later have been called the petit bourgeois. Their constituency often included entrepreneurs who were in what is now the Midwest and mid-South, who were seeking prosperity and wanted a strong government, friendly to business, to ensure that they got what they sought. The Whig Party did not have the common touch of the Democrats, but it was never so thoroughly a captive to southern, slaveholding interests as its counterparts. Indeed, it was out of the Whig Party that the Republican Party, the primary antislavery party, would later emerge. The Whig Party eventually split, over slavery among other things. During its less-than-thirty-year existence, it elected two presidents and maintained the idea that the U.S. party system consisted of two equally strong but ideologically opposed parties, both representing a broad range of interests.

After a time of local party building, the Whigs first tested their national strength in the presidential campaign of 1836. Presidency, U.S.;election of 1836 Either Kentucky’s Henry Clay Calhoun, John C. [p]Calhoun, John C.;election of 1836 , the glamorous “Harry of the West,” or Daniel Webster Webster, Daniel [p]Webster, Daniel;election of 1836 , the eloquent Massachusetts defender of the union, would have seemed a logical choice to head the ticket. However, their positions on issues were too well known. In addition, the two men were bitter rivals whose differences threatened to split the infant party. Furthermore, many southern states’ rights Whigs looked to John C. Calhoun Calhoun, John C. [p]Calhoun, John C.;and Whig Party[Whig Party] Calhoun, John C. [p]Calhoun, John C.;election of 1836 for leadership. However, although Calhoun joined Clay and Webster in their hatred of Jackson Jackson, Andrew [p]Jackson, Andrew;and Whig Party[Whig Party] , he never truly considered himself a Whig.

Henry Clay.

(Library of Congress)

With so many diverse elements, agreement about a candidate or a platform was impossible. Consequently, the party held no national nominating convention in 1836. Instead, Whig strategy was to run several candidates from the different sections of the nation. These candidates included Daniel Webster of Massachusetts; William Henry Harrison Harrison, William Henry [p]Harrison, William Henry;election of 1836 of Ohio, who had been a military hero in the Indian wars; and Hugh Lawson White White, Lawson of Tennessee, who, it was alleged, had killed a Cherokee chief with his own hands and thus gained credence and acclaim among frontier settlers. The Whigs did not expect that any one of their candidates would receive a majority in the electoral college. However, they hoped to draw enough votes away from the Democratic candidate to prevent him from receiving a majority. The election would then be thrown into the House of Representatives, where a Whig would have a good chance of being chosen.

This multipronged strategy was deemed foolhardy by many at the time and did not augur well for the Whigs’ chances in the 1836 election. Leaving nothing to chance, Jackson Jackson, Andrew [p]Jackson, Andrew;and Whig Party[Whig Party] used his prestige and party organization to win the Democratic nomination for his own vice president, Martin Van Buren Van Buren, Martin [p]Van Buren, Martin;election of 1836 , on the first ballot. The Whigs selected Hugh Lawson White White, Lawson of Tennessee, William Henry Harrison of Ohio, and Webster as their standard-bearers. The grand strategy backfired, because the Whig candidates split the anti-Jackson vote and enabled the well-disciplined Democrats to put Van Buren in office easily.

The new president inherited a multitude of problems and had been in office only three months when the Panic of 1837 occurred. New York banks suspended specie payments, other banks and businesses began to fail. unemployment rose, and railroads and canals were abandoned as the panic evolved into a lengthy depression. This condition was caused by many things, including Jacksonian financial measures, especially the bank war and the Specie Circular; ravaging of the wheat Wheat;in United States[United States] crop by the Hessian fly; overspeculation in land; and easy credit, which left most Americans in debt. Labor, the backbone of the Democratic Party, suffered heavily, and by late 1837, 90 percent of the eastern factories were closed. The lingering depression hit the farmers of the South and West hardest, adding stress to their status as debtors.

Following the typical political thinking of the day, Van Buren Van Buren, Martin did little to fight the depression, and his administration ended under a cloud of gloom. Opposition came not only from the Whigs but also from dissident Democrats. The political impact of the depression was immediately apparent as Whig strength rapidly increased.

Voters became Whigs for various reasons. Westerners, caught between their needs and resentments, were badly divided on both the banking and internal improvement issues. Southerners were equally divided between those who, like Calhoun Calhoun, John C. [p]Calhoun, John C.;and Whig Party[Whig Party] , saw in Van Buren’s Independent Treasury sound Democratic policy and those who, like John Tyler of Virginia, still bitterly resented the Democratic administration’s attack on nullification Nullification Controversy . In the Northeast, conservative business interests who called for wider government activity became more sharply divided from the working groups and farmers than ever before. New political alignments were emerging, and the Democrats, as the party in power, suffered the most from these new developments.


In the election of 1840 Presidency, U.S.;election of 1840 , the Whigs Whig Party (American);election of 1840 showed the extent to which they had learned the lessons of popular appeal. When they nominated the old western military hero, William Henry Harrison Harrison, William Henry [p]Harrison, William Henry;and Whig Party[Whig Party] , rather than Webster Webster, Daniel [p]Webster, Daniel;and Whig Party[Whig Party] or Clay Calhoun, John C. [p]Calhoun, John C.;and Whig Party[Whig Party] , and placed Tyler, an anti-Jackson Democrat, on the ticket as the vice presidential candidate, the Whigs demonstrated their political sophistication. By proclaiming the true democratic qualities of their candidates—exemplified by such slogans as “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” and “Log Cabins and Hard Cider”—and refusing to write a platform, they allowed dissatisfied elements in all sections to assume that they would gain their ends.

The Whigs’ populist campaign in 1840 led almost inevitably to some distortions of the truth. Harrison, for example, was said to have been born in a log cabin, proving his humble origins; in fact, he had been born on a Virginia plantation. The U.S. electorate either did not know this fact or preferred to forget it; they accorded Harrison great popularity. Van Buren Van Buren, Martin [p]Van Buren, Martin;and Whig Party[Whig Party] , though tainted by the economic depressed, was sullenly renominated by the Democrats and was immediately denounced by the Whigs as an aristocrat of the worst sort. The campaign that developed was all sound and fury, slogan and vituperation. More than any other, the 1840 campaign may be said to have set the tone for what later came to typify presidential campaigns. An emphasis on image and personality rather than ideology and a premium placed on the skillful use of the mass media would from then on be necessary to elect a party candidate president of the United States. Issues were forgotten or ignored as the glamorous Harrison Harrison, William Henry [p]Harrison, William Henry;and Whig Party[Whig Party] was elected. The rise of the Whigs was now a fact of political life.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baxter, Maurice G. Henry Clay and the American System. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995. Thorough examination of Clay’s politics, views on economic development, and impact upon American government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Thomas. Politics and Statesmanship: Essays on the American Whig Party. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. An important collection that surveys the American Whig Party from various informative perspectives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Howe, Daniel Walker. The Political Culture of the American Whigs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. Discusses the ideology and social affiliations of the Whig Party.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCormick, Richard P. The Second American Party System. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966. Shows how the Whigs fit into the structure of mid-nineteenth century U.S. politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peterson, Merrill D. The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Examines three important Whig senators of the nineteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sibley, Joel H. Martin Van Buren and the Emergence of American Popular Politics. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. Political biography of the winner of the 1836 presidential election that examines the development of partisan politics in decades leading up to Van Buren’s election.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Watson, Harry L. Andrew Jackson vs. Henry Clay: Democracy and Development in Antebellum America. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998. Dual biography, describing the two men’s conflicting visions for the future of the United States. Includes reprints of twenty-five primary documents, including speeches and letters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Widmer, Ted. Martin Van Buren. New York: Times Books, 2005. Unflattering political biography of Van Buren by a former adviser to president Bill Clinton.

Battle of Tippecanoe

U.S. Election of 1828

Webster and Hayne Debate Slavery and Westward Expansion

Jackson Vetoes Rechartering of the Bank of the United States

Nullification Controversy

Panic of 1837 Begins

U.S. Election of 1840

Birth of the Republican Party

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

John C. Calhoun; Henry Clay; Andrew Jackson; Millard Fillmore; Martin Van Buren; Daniel Webster. Whig Party (American);formation of

Categories: History