Whig Party


The Whig Party thrived in the Philadelphia region from its founding in 1834 through its demise twenty years later. The party, which emerged from the National Republicans in opposition to Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) and his Democratic Party, claimed the Whig name from the patriots of the American Revolution. Whigs controlled Philadelphia government through electoral victories and circulation of Whig-leaning papers like the Philadelphia Inquirer and the North American during a tumultuous period of racial conflict, nativism, and the consolidation of the city with Philadelphia County.

A lithograph of Henry Clay, who is seated as he looks into the distance away from the viewer of the portrait.
A leader of the Whig Party and one of the most influential politicians in U.S. history, Henry Clay is depicted in this 1844 lithograph. Clay advocated a system of policies that he dubbed the “American System,” a program of internal improvements and tariffs to help spark the development of industry. (Library of Congress)

Whigs often struggled from appearing to be little more than an opposition party to Jackson and the Democrats. Generally, though, Whigs championed Henry Clay’s (1777-1852) American System, a program of tariffs and internal improvements. They also supported a national bank to manage currency. The party achieved more success regionally than at the national level, finding issues that drew in voters. In the Philadelphia region, these included improvements to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal (in which Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland invested) and the widening of the Morris Canal in New Jersey. Throughout the era, Pennsylvania and New Jersey remained competitive statewide. Pennsylvania Democrats kept a strong hold on the state House of Representatives and governorship. Whigs sometimes controlled the state Senate. New Jersey Whigs ruled state offices from 1837 to 1848. Newark, Trenton, Elizabeth, Burlington County, and Jersey City were anti-Jackson strongholds. Camden County, which favored Democrats, formed from Whig-leaning Gloucester County in 1844. Delaware Whigs controlled Kent and Sussex Counties and sent a Whig delegation to Congress.

A ninteenth century political cartoon depicting Andrew Jackson being roasted over a barbecue, with several people watching and commenting on his demise.
Opposition to the defunding of the Second Bank of the United States was one of the central issues of the early Whig Party. This 1834 political cartoon features President Andrew Jackson roasting over the fires of Public Opinion over his war against the Second Bank of the United States. (Library of Congress)

Philadelphia’s Whig Party developed from economic concerns and, as a result, appealed to voters of all socioeconomic groups. Although Pennsylvania supported Jackson in the 1828 presidential election, the president waged war against the Second Bank of the United States (headquartered in Philadelphia), protective tariffs, and internal improvements—all important to the commonwealth’s voters. Nevertheless, Jackson remained very popular despite his administration working against Pennsylvania’s interests. He lost Philadelphia in the 1832 election, but carried the state. He also won New Jersey, but the Garden State elected an anti-Jackson legislature. In congressional elections, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware all voted for candidates who opposed Jackson in the bank debate. In 1834, despite the early gains, anti-Jacksonians, by then called Whigs, lost seats in Congress and the Pennsylvania legislature, partly from the economic malaise that followed Jackson’s veto of a new charter for the national bank. The bank’s credit restrictions during the Bank War, Jackson’s popularity, and Election Day riots contributed to Whig defeats.

Riots and Nativism

Whigs saw both successes and challenges through the following years. Lawyer John Swift (1790-1873), a Whig, served as Philadelphia’s mayor for much of the 1830s. In 1839, he won reelection by popular vote, the first mayor so chosen (rather than by vote of the City Council). Racial conflicts marked Swift’s years as mayor. Many Whigs were anti-slavery; some leaned toward abolitionism. A riot in August 1834 became an election issue. Whigs claimed that Democrats in Southwark and Moyamensing started it for political reasons; Democrats countered that the riots resulted from the ineptitude of Whig governance and called for a combined city-county government. Swift was unsuccessful in preventing violence in 1834, and he failed again in 1838 when he lukewarmly tried to prevent anti-abolitionists from burning Pennsylvania Hall, built by abolitionist groups.

A black and white photographic portrait of Theodore Frelinghuysen. Frelinghuysen is seated in an appointed parlor looking into the camera.
Theodore Frelinghuysen, posing in this 1855 photograph by Matthew Brady, was a U.S. Senator from New Jersey who became the Whig candidate for Vice President in 1844. A leader in the nativist, anti-Catholic American Bible Society, he was put on the ticket to appeal to the nativist base of the party. (Library of Congress)

The city’s voters continued to back Whigs despite setbacks, hoping that their policies would lead to economic growth. Swift’s successor was John Scott (1789-1858), who led the city through additional turmoil as the Whigs became more associated with nativism (policies favoring native-born Americans over immigrants). In the summer of 1844, when nativist riots occurred in immigrant (particularly Irish) and Catholic neighborhoods, Scott tried to end to the violence. At St. Augustine Church on May 8, he pleaded with the rioters for peace to no avail. The mob hurled rocks at the mayor and burned the church. Such nativist violence likely cost the Whigs Philadelphia in the 1844 presidential election, when their candidate for vice president was former New Jersey Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen (1787-1862), a leader of the nativist, anti-Catholic American Bible Society. Whig President John Tyler (1790-1862) vetoed a national banking bill, further damaged Philadelphia Whigs’ election hopes, despite the fact that national leaders expelled Tyler from the party.

A man dressed as a nineteenth century general sits atop a throne of skulls.
Two Mexican-American war heroes, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, were among the competitors for the Whig Party’s presidential nomination in 1848. In this 1848 political cartoon, the central figure (not clearly identified as representing Scott or Taylor), sits atop a pile of skulls. The caption reads, “An Available Candidate, the one qualification for a Whig President.” (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

By the time Whigs convened in Philadelphia for their national convention in 1848, the party was splitting along sectional lines. In the aftermath of the Mexican-American War, many Whigs rallied around war hero Zachary Taylor (1784-1850). As a slaveholder, Taylor drew in some southern support. Some northerners backed Taylor, seeing him as a ticket to regaining the White House. Other northern Whigs backed Henry Clay. At the convention, which opened on June 7 in the former Chinese Museum building at Ninth and Sansom Streets, Pennsylvanians favored Taylor but New Jersey Whigs preferred Clay. Taylor ultimately defeated his divided opposition in four ballots. With Whigs actively seeking the nativist vote, Millard Fillmore (1800-74) received the vice presidential nomination. In the campaign, Whigs tried to lure working-class voters by blaming a recession on the 1846 Walker Tariff, which substantially cut duties. The bill was so unpopular that Philadelphians burned city native Vice President George M. Dallas (1792-1864) in effigy for casting the tie-breaking vote. Philadelphians, regardless of class or party, believed tariffs to be economically beneficial to the city’s businesses. This matter helped to put Pennsylvania into the Whig column. Taylor also comfortably won New Jersey and Delaware on his way to defeating Democrat Lewis Cass (1782-1866) and Free Soil candidate Martin Van Buren (1782-1862) for the presidency.

City-County Consolidation and Demise

A ninteenth century map of Philadelphia after its consolidation with the surronding County in 1854. Various parts of the City are shaded in different colors.
Throughout the antebellum era, Democrats and Whigs debated the issue of consolidating the City of Philadelphia with surrounding Philadelphia County. Although Whigs in the city opposed the merger, it eventually passed in the heavily Democratic state legislature and was signed into law by a Democratic governor. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Through the 1840s, Philadelphia Whigs and Democrats debated the idea of consolidating the city (then bounded by South Street, Vine Street, and the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers) with Philadelphia County. The 1844 nativist riots called attention to the need for greater law enforcement in the city’s suburbs. Whigs, who controlled the city through the decade, opposed merging with the Democratic-leaning county. After years of effort in the legislature, on February 2, 1854, Democratic Governor William Bigler (1814-80) signed the Act of Consolidation that joined the city with Philadelphia County. It set up twenty-four wards with a mayor serving a two-year term. Despite the expanded territory of the city, Whigs retained control of the mayor’s office as a coalition between Whigs and Know Nothings (a nativist political movement) elected Robert T. Conrad (1810-58), a businessman, judge, and playwright, the first mayor after consolidation.

While nativism propelled Conrad into elected office, it ended the career of another Whig politician, Joseph Chandler (1792-1880). He served on the City Council from 1832 until 1848, when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He also helped the Whig paper Gazette of the United States gain some national attention. Highly respected by Philadelphians because of his work to improve the city, he was not renominated in 1854, he believed, because of his conversion to Catholicism. His supporters blamed Know Nothing influence in the faltering Whig Party.

Many identified as Whigs because of politics or economics, but a reformist movement within the party contributed to its demise. Nationally, the Whig Party splintered over sectional tensions—particularly over slavery. The Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 divided Whigs in Congress. After New Jersey’s two Whig senators voted against the Compromise of 1850, voters replaced them with conservative, unionist Democrats. In Delaware, the party’s antislavery wing pushed for an abolition bill that narrowly failed in the legislature. Upper-class Protestants steered the party toward nativism, advocacy for temperance, and high tariffs, which hurt the party among immigrants, Catholics, and the working class. Philadelphia voters split between the American Party (which formed from the Known Nothing movement), the new Republican Party, and the People’s Party (which avoided the slavery issue but was ideologically similar to the Republicans). By the early 1860s, the city was becoming a Republican stronghold.

The work of the Whigs’ elder statesman, Henry Clay, on measures such as the Compromise of 1850 gained for the party a reputation for compromise and union. Long after the demise of the nineteenth-century Whigs, this legacy inspired the Modern Whig Party, a centrist, grassroots movement founded in 2007 with the goal of luring voters disenchanted with the Republicans and Democrats. In 2013, a candidate running under this revived Whig banner, Robert Bucholz (b. 1974), won election as a Judge of Elections in Philadelphia’s  56th Ward. He was the first Whig elected to an office in nearly 160 years since Whigs dominated the region’s politics.

Andrew Tremel is an independent researcher and public historian at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2017, Rutgers University.


Roasting Andrew Jackson

Library of Congress

Opposition to the defunding of the Second Bank of the United States was one of the central issues of the early Whig Party. In this cartoon from 1834, during the controversy surrounding Andrew Jackson's removal of federal deposits from the Bank of the United States, Jackson (with the body of a pig) is roasted over the fires of “Public Opinion.”

The fire is stoked by former Secretary of the Treasury William Duane, at lower right, while Jack Downing, lower left, splits kindling. Downing remarks: “I jest split a little kindleying wood, so Amos can jest make Broth for all hands &c.” Duane: "I am opposed to Removing the Deposits, as I was when I was Secretary, but prefer gently Stirring them up."

Five men, opponents of Jackson's bank program, stand behind the barbecue. They are (from left to right) Senators Henry Clay, Daniel Webster (holding a knife), William B. Preston, bank President Nicholas Biddle, and an unidentified fifth man. Vice President Martin Van Buren, as an imp, flies off to the right with a sack of Treasury Notes over his shoulder. Clay comments: “Dan this is what they call in Kentuc our High Game to their Low Jack.” Webster: “In Massachusetts they call it Roasting.”

Preston: “In South Carolina t'is called Barbecue only he wants a little more Basteing.” Biddle: “In Pennsylvania we find it difficult to find a home for the animal but have concluded to call him Nondescript pertaking of the General, Hog, Man and Devil.” Fifth man: “We think he pertakes strongly of the Rooter, for he has rooted our treasures all over the country and was squeeling for the Pension-fund when Clay caught him and put a ring in his nose, and we've all given it a twist.” Van Buren: “T'is my business to get folks in trouble and their business to get themselves out.” (Caption adapted from text by the Library of Congress)

Theodore Frelinghuysen

Library of Congress

Before running for Vice President on the ticket with Henry Clay in 1844, Theodore Frelinghuysen was a U.S. Senator from New Jersey. Frelinghuysen led opposition to President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. He served as mayor of Newark, New Jersey, a Whig stronghold, during 1837 and 1838.
The Whigs chose Frelinghuysen, a nativist anti-Catholic, as their vice presidential nominee in the wake of the Nativist Riots of 1844, In the context of the nativist violence in region, his nomination was highly controversial. Frelinghuysen later served as the President of New York University and Rutgers University.

An Available Candidate

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

This 1848 political cartoon satirizes the competition for the Whig nomination for President. The Whigs held their nominating convention in 1848 in Philadelphia at the Chinese Museum building at Ninth and Sansom Streets. Northern and southern factions of the party divided over whom to nominate. The southern faction, and Pennsylvania, wanted to nominate Taylor, while the northern faction, and New Jersey, favored Henry Clay. Ultimately, Taylor prevailed. To appeal to the nativist base, the party nominated Millard Fillmore for Vice President.

In this 1848 political cartoon, the central figure sits atop a pile of skulls and the caption reads, “An Available Candidate, the one qualification for a Whig President.”

Henry Clay

Library of Congress

Henry Clay served as a U.S. Congressman and Senator for most of the antebellum era and as Secretary of State in the administration of John Quincy Adams. Although Clay, depicted in this 1844 lithograph, ran for President several times under the banner of the Whig Party, he never won. His legacy lies in his advocacy for his American System and his role in the Compromises of 1820 and 1850. During both compromises, Clay reconciled opposing views on the issue of the expansion of slavery in the United States.
The American System, and the internal improvements it called for, found support in the Delaware Valley. Whigs in the region attracted voters by advocating improvements to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and widening of the Morris Canal in New Jersey. In Pennsylvania, Whigs had limited success in securing statewide office, although they controlled the Pennsylvania State Senate for a time.

Map of Philadelphia as Consolidated in 1854

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

After the Riots of 1844, many in the Philadelphia region began to call for consolidating the City of Philadelphia with the surrounding County of Philadelphia. Whigs opposed the merger because of the Democratic leanings of county politics, but Democrats’ control of statewide offices overpowered their resistance. Despite this blow, voters elected a Whig Mayor of Philadelphia in 1854. This was accomplished by a coalition between Whigs and the Know Nothings, an anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic political movement.

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Related Reading

Birkner, Michael. “New Jersey in the Jacksonian Era, 1820-1850. In New Jersey: A History of the Garden State, edited by Maxine Lurie and Richard Veit. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012.

Dorwart, Jeffrey M. Camden County, New Jersey: The Making of a Metropolitan Community. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Ershkowitz, Herbert. The Origin of the Whig and Democratic Parties: New Jersey Politics, 1820-1837. Washington: University Press of America, 1982.

Gerrity, Frank. “The Disruption of the Philadelphia Whigocracy: Joseph R. Chandler, Anti- Catholicism, and the Congressional Election of 1854.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 111 (April 1987): 161-94.

Holt, Michael F. The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Howe, Daniel Walker. The Political Culture of the American Whigs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Miller, Randall and William Pencak, eds. Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.

Munroe, John A. A History of Delaware, 5th ed. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2006.

Warner, Sam Bass, Jr. The Private City: Philadelphia in Three Periods of Growth. University Park: Penn State University Press, 1987.

Weigley, Russell F. Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. New York: W.W. Norton, 1982.

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