Whig or Tory

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    A very brief explanation
    Politics in the late eighteenth century England could be broadly divided into two diametrically opposed camps - Whigs and Tories. What separated them? Broadly defined, The Tories beleived in the divine right of Kings to rule - that they were ordained by God. Whigs believed that the King was there at the request and goodwill of the ruling families of the country so could only continue to rule at their approval.

    Despite their philosophical differences both parties were firmly entrenched in the political system of patronage and nepotism which meant seats in the lower house were essentially gained through patron's who were peers. An analysis of MP's in the late eighteenth century there were few actual 'commoners'and as one wit put it, it was a collection of younger brothers. This was for two reasons, first because suffrage was limited to property owning classes (and naturally only men) so not everyone was able to vote where they pleased. Secondly and more insidiously constituencies were also not fairly divided up by property so a disporportionate number of seats were held by a few influential men.There were somewhere around 300 boroughs affected by this patronage, they were known as Rotten or Pocket boroughs. For a fuller explanation of how this worked see Marjorie Bloy's glossary. Essentially it was not until the 1832 Reform that this system was reformed.

    Politics was a family concern and marriages between children allied families for greater political influence. Lady Melbourne, one of the most famous political hostesses of her time was anxious to ally her family with the powerful and influential Whig family, the Cavendish's (dukes of Devonshire). She succeeded in marrying two of her sons into that family.

    In general political terms for the period the conflict between George III and his son the Prince of Wales, later Regent, and subsequently George IV, could be divided between parties. The Prince of Wales supporters were the Whig families, while the King hated them and did his best to move them out of power. He spent thousands of pounds during the 1780 election in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Charles Fox's re-election to parliament. The creation of his supporters as peers had a gradual effect on shifting the power base from the Whig majority.

    The terms 'Whig' and 'Tory' arose as abusive terms during what was known as the 'Exclusion Crisis', in the late seventeenth century over the Catholic heir to the throne, James, Duke of York (later briefly King James II).

    James' supporters were referred to by their opponents as 'Torys' from the Irish word 'Toraidhe' which means cattle thief or outlaw. They lost power for a considerable period of time after their support for the Jacobite cause in 1715, and it was not until the 1780's that they were really to beat the Whig monopoly on power. 'Whig' comes from the derogartory term 'Whiggamore' which was meant conservative Scottish 'Covenanters'.

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    To Read more about politics in the nineteenth century and political reform, I highly recommend you look at The Peel Web which is by Marjorie Bloy. Return to Regency Collection