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Like Tory, this is 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 II. Later it was applied to those who opposed, on religious grounds the succession of the Roman Catholic 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

The Whigs, though their leadership was aristocratic, were also the party of the new financial and mercantile interests. These interests profited in the early eighteenth century from the wars against France. The Tories represented the old landed interests that, because they were taxed to support the same wars, opposed the growing middle classes. 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.

In 1815, Sir James Mackintosh said

I do not regret the obloquy with which we have been loaded during the present session: it is a proof that we are following, though with unequal steps, the great men who have filled the same benches before us. It was their lot to devote themselves to a life of thankless and often unpopular opposition, with no stronger allurement to ambition than a chance of a few months of office in half a century, and with no greater inducement to virtue than the faint hope of limiting and mitigating evil; always certain that the merit would never be acknowledged, and generally obliged to seek for the best proof of their services in the scurrility with which they were reviled. [Parliamentary Debates, 1st series, Vol. 4, col. 896 (1815)]

Possibly another reason why the Whigs were out of office for so long was that noted by Squire Western in a letter to Thomas Creevey on17 February 1816:

There is no superior mind amongst us; great power of speaking, faculty of perplexing, irritation and complaints, but no super-eminent power to strike out a line of policy, and to command the confidence of the country. Brougham has shown his powers rather successfully, and exhibits some prudence in his plans of attack; but I cannot discern that superiority of judgement and of view (if I may so express myself) which is the grand desideratum. Tierney is an expert, narrow and wrong as ever; Ponsonby as inefficient; Horner as sonorous and eloquent, I must say, but I cannot see anything in him, say what they will, though he certainly speaks powerfully. [The Creevey Papers]

Between 1830 and 1841 they put through a great deal of reforming legislation including the 1832 Reform Act, a Factory Act in 1833 and the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. In this period they were led by Earl Grey and Lord John Russell . In later years the Whigs were identified, too, with the Low Church or Evangelical faction of the Church of England.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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