What Is A Whig?

The term Whig is used to describe different groups in different times and places.  The first Whigs were a political faction and then a political party in England between the 1680s and the 1850s.  The American Revolutionaries were also known as Whigs, and later the Whigs were a political party that existed in the United States roughly between the 1830s and the 1850s.  This blog takes its name from the American Revolutionaries, and specifically from a series of articles written in England under the title The Independent Whig by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, who later wrote Cato’s Letters, and who were a major influence of American Revolutionary thought.

Whigs were British citizens in America who sought to protect their inherited rights and duties as Englishmen against an overzealous Crown they understood to be abridging those rights. The American Founders were Whigs.  In the same sense, modern American conservatives, including the Tea Party, could also be considered Whigs.

All remaining text in this post is quoted from:

Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World, by Daniel Hannan. HarperCollins, 2013, Kindle Edition.

Quotes are not contiguous, but they are in order, see page numbers


In 1931, a Cambridge professor, Herbert Butterfield, published The Whig Interpretation of History, perhaps the single most influential work of historiography ever written. (p.14)

Historians began to grasp, for example, that the opponents of royal power were often, in their own eyes, not progressives but conservatives, defending what they believed to be an ancient constitution against a modernizing court. (p.15)

The Whig historians glimpsed important truths. Modern research tends to sustain their view that constitutional liberty has its roots in pre-Norman England. The exceptionalism they took for granted , and from which most twentieth-century historians flinched for fear of being thought supremacist or racist, turns out to be real enough. It is even possible to discern, as they did, two enduring factions within the English-speaking peoples: one committed to the values that underpinned that exceptionalism, and one hankering after the more statist models favored in the rest of the world. To label these factions “Whig” and “Tory” is, without question, anachronistic; yet it is also an invaluable shorthand. (pp. 15-16)

One popular pamphlet published in 1775 defined the Patriot’s creed as resting on “the principles of Whigs before the Revolution [the Glorious Revolution of 1688] and at the time of it.” What were these principles? The pamphleteer listed them concisely. Lawmakers should be directly accountable through the ballot box; the executive should be controlled by the legislature; taxes should not be levied, nor laws passed, without popular consent; the individual should be free from arbitrary punishment or confiscation; decisions should be taken as closely as possible to the people they affected; power should be dispersed; no one, not even the head of state, should be above the law; property rights should be secure; disputes should be arbitrated by independent magistrates; freedom of speech, religion, and assembly should be guaranteed. (p. 16)

As Churchill was to put it in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, “The Declaration [of Independence] was in the main a restatement of the principles which had animated the Whig struggle against the later Stuarts and the English Revolution of 1688.” Indeed it was, often in the most literal way: the right of petition, the prohibition of standing armies, the protection of common law and jury trials, the right to bear arms— all were copied from England’s revolutionary settlement of 1689. Some of the clauses of England’s 1689 Bill of Rights were reproduced without amendment. Here, for example, is the English Bill of Rights on criminal justice: “Excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” And here is the U.S. Constitution: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Both these clauses themselves looked back to Magna Carta. Both were understood by their authors not as the creation of a new privilege, but as the confirmation of an ancient one.

Indeed, the more we see of the commonalities between American and British constitutional documents, the more meaningless it is to talk of the one having copied the other. Both are expressions of an inherited folkright of constitutional freedoms— a folkright that was and is the common property of Anglosphere societies.

If Paul Revere’s imagined cry [The British are coming!] was an invention of later writers [he actually cried “The regulars are out!” or, according to one source,” the redcoats are out!”, because the citizens of Massachusetts perceived themselves as British], what are we to make of the word patriot, in use in the American colonies long before anyone dreamed of a rupture with London?

During the second half of the eighteenth century, the word had the same connotations in America as in Great Britain. A Patriot was someone with a pronounced devotion to liberty and property; someone who stood for the interests of the nation as a whole, rather than those of its supposedly effete ruling class. Yet, before 1776, there was no American nation. An American’s loyalty to his colony was contained within a wider sense of allegiance to the British imperium . To what, then, was he referring when he called himself a Patriot?

The answer is that he saw himself as a British patriot, standing up for his inherited freedoms against those seemingly bent on eroding them—namely an autocratic King and his fawning ministers. By patriotism, the American meant being loyal to the people around him. He meant sticking up for his community instead of fawning to the authorities. He meant being prepared to forgo the salaries, pensions, and sinecures that might have come his way had he been readier to ingratiate himself with his governor and the colonial administration.

To put it more cynically, “Patriot” was the name that Whigs, on both sides of the Atlantic, gave themselves. In doing so, they were consciously stressing the unique political inheritance of the Anglo-American empire— common law, Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights— and implicitly accusing their opponents of favoring illiberal, authoritarian, and foreign alternatives . Patriots loudly asserted— and not without justice— that personal freedom and resistance to autocratic power were the distinguishing features of the English-speaking peoples. (pp.49-51)

Neither side used patriot to mean someone who favored American over British interests . Not until much later did novelists and scriptwriters start pretending that the word had been employed that way. The notion of an exclusively American patriotism was born after 1776. Before then, a patriot was someone , on either side of the Atlantic, who was determined to preserve the libertarian exceptionalism of the English-speaking polity against its enemies, internal or external. (p.52)

It used to be fashionable to claim that Magna Carta was “revived” in the seventeenth century, that it was conscripted to serve in a wholly unrelated constitutional dispute of that era, and that we shouldn’t see it as anything more than a deal between a cornered king and his mutinous nobles—a deal that was promptly broken the moment the King could get away with it. Plenty of historians still take this line, terrified of saying anything that might seem to endorse a self-congratulatory, anachronistic, or Whig view of history.

Yet the stubborn fact remains that Magna Carta was quoted throughout the Middle Ages in precisely the way that Whig historians were later to claim: as a defense against arbitrary government. It was seized on by the tax-weary subjects of Edward I, who forced that martial monarch to reissue it in 1297. It was cited repeatedly during the fourteenth century in the cause of baronial or parliamentary supervision of the government. A statute of 1369, during the reign of the equally martial Edward III, declared Magna Carta to have constitutional force, overriding lesser laws: “If any Statute be made to the contrary , that shall be holden for none.”

By the fifteenth century, Magna Carta had been reconfirmed by various monarchs more than forty times. The idea that Sir Edward Coke found a copy in some old collection , and gave contemporary relevance to a text that had until then been of antiquarian interest, depends upon disregarding a great deal of what was said during the intervening four centuries. It depends, too, on disregarding the most immediate practical consequence of Magna Carta, namely the establishment of an elected assembly whose duty was to hold the monarchy to its side of the bargain. (pp. 116-117)

In 1673, in a mood of almost hysterical paranoia about Catholic conspiracies, Parliament passed the Test Act, requiring all officeholders to swear an oath denying aspects of Catholic doctrine. James resigned as high admiral rather than comply, thereby advertising to all the faith he had practiced privately for some years. The rest of Charles’s reign was dominated by attempts to change the succession rules so that someone other than James should be next in line. It was now that the Whig and Tory factions came into being. Whigs wanted to exclude James II, fearing that a Catholic monarch would impose a French- or Spanish-style despotism upon them. Tories, while generally no lovers of Catholicism, believed in hereditary right, and balked at the idea that an assembly of mortals could tamper with succession rules they saw as divinely sanctioned. Although the struggle was, on one level, sectarian, it turned on a deeper question: was sovereignty vested in the King or in Parliament? (p.186)

In February 1689, Parliament drafted a Declaration of Right— which later that year became a parliamentary statute, and so is now known as the Bill of Rights. Its form and content, to our eyes, closely anticipate the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution— though the authors were not looking forward, but back at the various petitions of the 1640s and, ultimately, Magna Carta.

Like the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights began by laying a series of grievances against the king. He had abused his executive power; he had sought to tamper with parliamentary elections; he had illicitly disarmed his Protestant subjects; he had interfered with the judiciary ; he had prejudiced the right to trial by jury; he had levied excessive fines and inflicted “illegal and cruel punishments ” on people. It then went on to define, in the most unequivocal terms, the sovereignty of Parliament. It declared that only Parliament might raise revenue through taxation. It rejected the idea that an act of Parliament might be struck down other than by a subsequent act of Parliament. It protected the right of petition. It ruled out the maintenance of a standing army in peacetime. It guaranteed the right of every Protestant subject to bear arms. It forbade the levying of excessive bail and of “cruel and unusual punishments.” It established the principle of parliamentary privilege, and declared that what was said in the chamber “ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.”

These were seen as traditional freedoms, not as new ones. The Glorious Revolution was the last and greatest of the conservative reactions against the Stuarts. As Edmund Burke, the most eloquent Whig of all, was to put it a century later, “The Revolution was made to preserve our ancient indisputable laws and liberties, and that ancient constitution of government which is our only security for law and liberty.” The Glorious Revolution was, like the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, an Anglosphere event, touching every land where English was spoken, albeit with local differences. (p.197)

It cannot be stressed too strongly that the American Revolution was an internal argument followed by a civil war. Only after the French became involved in 1778 did it occur to anyone to treat the conflict as one between different states. American Tories emphasized their loyalty to British institutions , above all the Crown-in-Parliament; American Whigs, by contrast, were loyal to the British values upon which the legitimacy of those institutions rested, and which they believed the king himself was violating.

When we look at the great historical panoramas painted by nineteenth-century artists , or watch the versions of the war dreamed up in Hollywood studios, we see colonists marching under the stars-and-stripes. While Betsy Ross’s famous flag was certainly displayed by some Patriots , their favored banner was one that Americans have now largely forgotten: the Grand Union Flag. Known also as the Congress Flag and the Continental Colors, it had the thirteen red and white stripes as they are today, but in the top left-hand quarter, instead of stars, it showed Britain’s flag, made up of the St. George’s Cross for England and the St. Andrew’s Cross for Scotland.


The Grand Union Flag

The Grand Union Flag

That emblem neatly demonstrates what the Patriots believed they were fighting for, namely a recognition of their rights as Britons. The Grand Union Flag was the banner that the Continental Congress met under, the banner that flew over their chamber when they approved the Declaration of Independence. It was the banner that George Washington fought beneath, that John Paul Jones hoisted on the first ship of the United States Navy . That it has been almost excised from America’s collective memory tells us a great deal about how the story of the revolution was afterward edited. (pp 210-211)

The American Revolution was made by Englishmen who, as their ancestors had done during the 1640s, asserted their rights against a monarchy that they viewed as alien and innovatory. (pp. 214)

“We need to remember that the quarrel was still seen by all sides as a family row. We must not think, anachronistically, of British radical sympathy with the American Patriots as being support for a foreign ally. Whigs formed a single faction within a single polity, and felt equally threatened by a ministry that seemed bent on returning to Stuart Toryism.

“I rejoice that America has resisted,” Pitt had proclaimed when, a few years earlier, he had torn into the Stamp Act. “Three million people so dead to all feelings of liberty as voluntarily to submit to be slaves would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest [of us].”

Burke, one of the greatest orators ever to have graced Parliament, made powerful speeches on behalf of the colonists, whom he unquestioningly took for fellow countrymen. Indeed, Americans were, for him , more British than those who had remained in the mother island, for they had exaggerated the peculiar concept of liberty that was the distinguishing feature of English-speaking peoples: “The colonists emigrated from you when this part of your character was most predominant; and they took this bias and direction the moment they parted from your hands. They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas, and on English principles.”

Burke was in no doubt that, in pressing their rights, the American radicals were asserting rather than denying their English heritage. (p. 224)

The Tory-Whig division, though its balance had varied from place to place, had existed throughout the Anglosphere. After 1776, however, the Whigs won more or less total political control of one part of the English-speaking world. What followed was the most perfect consummation of English Whig philosophy in the form of the U.S. Constitution and, most especially, the Bill of Rights. All states develop according to the DNA that was fixed at the moment of their conception . The United States of America was founded on a series of premises: that concentrated power corrupts; that jurisdiction should be dispersed; that decision makers should be accountable; that taxes should not be raised, nor laws passed, save by elected representatives; that the executive should be answerable to the legislature.

The men who met in the old courthouse at Philadelphia were determined to prevent a repetition of the abuses through which they had lived. In consequence, they came up with the most successful constitution on earth: one that, to this day, has served to keep the government under control and to aggrandize the citizen. The peculiarities of the American governmental model—states’ rights, the direct election of almost every public official, an accountable judiciary, primaries, ballot initiatives, balanced budget rules, term limits— all are a working out of the Jeffersonian ideal of the maximum devolution of power.

If the Second Anglosphere Civil War was the genotype, they are the phenotype.
Yet again, we need to remind ourselves that the Founders saw themselves as conservatives, not innovators. In their own eyes, all they were doing was guaranteeing the liberties they had always assumed to be their heritage as Englishmen. Far from creating new rights, they were reasserting rights that they traced back through the Glorious Revolution, through the First Anglosphere Civil War, through Simon de Montfort’s campaigns, through even the Great Charter itself to the folkright of Anglo-Saxon freedoms. (pp. 237-238).


One thought on “What Is A Whig?

  1. Oddly, a couple of days ago I changed my Facebook political information to Whig, sparked by running across a reference to the error of “Whiggish history” . Today, I was searching for references regarding the fact (as demonstrated by Jonathan Haidt) that conservative understand liberals better than than liberals understand conservatives, and I ran across this site. I have only read a couple of postings but found them quite clarifying. I think I will go put up my Grand Union flag now.


    Posted by Chad McClung | April 24, 2020, 6:27 pm

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