The Whig Party was a political party active in the middle of the 19th century in the United States. Four United States Presidents belonged to the party while in office. It emerged in the 1830s as the leading opponent of Jacksonians, pulling together former members of the National Republican (one of the successors of the Democratic-Republican Party) and the Anti-Masonic Party. It had links to the upscale traditions of the Federalist Party. Along with the rival Democratic Party, it was central to the Second Party System from the early 1840s to the mid-1860s. It originally formed in opposition to the policies of President Andrew Jackson (in office 1829–1837) and his Democratic Party. In particular, the Whigs supported the supremacy of the United States Congress over the presidency and favored a program of modernization, banking and economic protectionism to stimulate manufacturing. It appealed to entrepreneurs, planters, reformers and the emerging urban middle class, but had little appeal to farmers or unskilled workers. It included many active Protestants and voiced a moralistic opposition to the Jacksonian Indian removal. Party founders chose the "Whig" name to echo the American Whigs (aka the Patriots) of the 18th century who fought for independence. The underlying political philosophy of the American Whig Party was not directly related to the British Whig party. Historian Frank Towers has specified a deep ideological divide:
Democrats stood for the 'sovereignty of the people' as expressed in popular demonstrations, constitutional conventions, and majority rule as a general principle of governing, whereas Whigs advocated the rule of law, written and unchanging constitutions, and protections for minority interests against majority tyranny.
The Whig Party nominated several presidential candidates in 1836. General William Henry Harrison of Ohio was nominated in 1840, former Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky in 1844 and General Zachary Taylor of Kentucky in 1848. Another war hero, General Winfield Scott of New Jersey, was the Whig Party's last presidential nominee in 1852. In its two decades of existence, the Whig Party had two of its candidates, Harrison and Taylor, elected president and both died in office. John Tyler succeeded to the presidency after Harrison's death in 1841, but was expelled from the party later that year. Millard Fillmore, who became President after Taylor's death in 1850, was the last Whig President.
The party fell apart because of internal tension over the expansion of slavery to the territories. With deep fissures in the party on this question, the anti-slavery faction prevented the nomination for a full term of its own incumbent President Fillmore in the 1852 presidential election—instead, the party nominated General Scott. Most Whig Party leaders eventually quit politics (as Abraham Lincoln did temporarily) or changed parties. The Northern voter base mostly gravitated to the new Republican Party. In the South, most joined the Know Nothing Party, which unsuccessfully ran Fillmore in the 1856 presidential election, by which time the Whig Party had become virtually defunct. Some former Whigs became Democrats. The Constitutional Union Party experienced significant success from conservative former Whigs in the Upper South during the 1860 presidential election. Whig ideology as a policy orientation persisted for decades and played a major role in shaping the modernizing policies of the state governments during Reconstruction.
The name "Whig" derived from a term that Patriots used to refer to themselves during the American Revolution. It indicated hostility to the British Sovereign and despite the identical name it did not directly derive from the British Whig Party (see etymology).
The American Whigs were modernizers who saw President Andrew Jackson as "a dangerous man on horseback" with a "reactionary opposition" to the forces of social, economic and moral modernization. The Democratic-Republicans who formed the Whig Party, led by Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, drew on a Jeffersonian tradition of compromise, balance in government and territorial expansion combined with national unity and support for a Federal transportation network and domestic manufacturing. Casting their enemy as "King Andrew", they sought to identify themselves as modern-day opponents of governmental overreaching.
Despite the apparent unity of Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans from 1800 to 1824, the American people ultimately preferred partisan opposition to popular political agreement. As Jackson purged his opponents, vetoed internal improvements and killed the Second Bank of the United States, alarmed local elites fought back. In 1831, Henry Clay re-entered the Senate and started planning a new party. He defended national rather than sectional interests. Clay's plan for distributing the proceeds from the sale of lands among the states in the public domain was intended to serve the nation by providing the states with funds for building roads and canals, which would stimulate growth and knit the sections together. However, his Jacksonian opponents distrusted the federal government and opposed all federal aid for internal improvements and they again frustrated Clay's plan. Jacksonians promoted opposition to the National Bank and internal improvements and support of egalitarian democracy, state power and hard money.