Whig Party

By: Walter L. Buenger

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: February 1, 1996

Personality, not party, dominated politics in the Republic of Texas. Sam Houston was the dominant personality, and political groups were usually foes or supporters of the hero of San Jacinto. While the image and legend of Houston and other famous leaders like Andrew Jackson continued to bind political partisans, annexation brought more complex political parties to the state. Antebellum political parties were held together by common interest, ideology, allegiance to a popular leader, and the desire to win political office and political power. Antipathy born of repeated political struggles also separated Whig from Democrat. Naturally, new immigrants from the United States brought their political loyalties with them and quickly moved to establish their traditional parties. By the time of the presidential election of 1848 the rising number of immigrants had established the Whig party in Texas. The Whigs began their political career in Texas with several handicaps. Before he came to Texas, Sam Houston, the most influential Texas politician, had been a close supporter of Andrew Jackson, a Democrat, and Houston quickly reestablished his ties to the Democratic party. Perhaps more detrimental was the Whigs' long-running opposition to the annexation of Texas. Whigs also had often opposed the Mexican War, which had widespread support in Texas, and the Whig candidate for president, Gen. Zachary Taylor, had earned the enmity of many Texans during the war. Despite these handicaps the Whigs held a state convention, selected a slate of presidential electors, and organized "Rough and Ready" clubs in several Texas towns. Whig newspapers were established, and party spokesmen toured the state. Taylor and Millard Fillmore, the party candidates, wound up with 31 percent of the statewide vote. They were strongest in northeast Texas and along the coast. By 1851 Whig candidates were running for state and local offices. William B. Ochiltree was also a candidate for Congress from the eastern district that year. Though Ochiltree and the Whigs running for state office lost, in some counties, such as Harrison County, the Whigs did enjoy modest success.

In the 1852 presidential election, the Whigs again suffered from having a candidate generally unpopular in Texas. Texas Whigs had supported Millard Fillmore in the national convention and were disappointed when Winfield Scott received the nomination. General Scott was closely linked to the antislavery wing of the party and was roundly criticized in the Democratic newspapers of the state. Again the Texas party carried on an organized campaign led by their presidential electors and editorial spokesmen. Voter interest was low in 1852, and the Whigs garnered only 26 percent of a meager turnout. They failed to carry a single county. Bitter national debates over the slavery issue caused a rift between proslavery and antislavery Whigs and soon brought about the demise of the party in Texas. Unable to organize on a national level, the Texas Whigs drifted into other political groups. In 1853 William Ochiltree drew some votes for governor, but by 1855 the Whig party was dead in Texas.

The end of the party did not destroy the impulses that had compelled its members to be Whigs. Analysis of Whig strength in Texas reveals that party members generally came from urban counties with strong interests in commerce and improved transportation. The largest slaveholders in other southern states were likely to be Whigs, but this was less true in Texas. Conservative Unionists, however, were strongly inclined to belong to the party. The party stressed a reverential regard for the nation and a pragmatic concern for improving business conditions. It also opposed the Democrats. Many immigrants to Texas in the period of 1848 to 1854 had long opposed the Democratic party. They habitually voted for the Whigs and, despite the unpopularity of their candidates in 1848 and 1852, could not bring themselves to vote for a Democrat. The inability of the Whigs to find a strong leader around whom to rally and their inability to win elections cost them dearly. Without the promise of political office and patronage they could not attract ambitious adherents. Ultimately, the Whigs' Unionist ideology, which was perhaps their greatest strength, was compromised by the debate over slavery. For Texas Whigs, slavery was a legal right to be maintained in the Union, and anyone who agitated against it not only disregarded the law but threatened the Union. Texas Whigs considered slavery a subject that should be buried because it raised tempers and held the portent of a civil war. When the northern wing of the party refused to bury the slavery issue, the nature of the Texas Whigs' unionism and their belief in the legality and necessity of slavery compelled them to abandon their party. Over the course of the 1850s and early 1860s prominent Whigs like Ochiltree, James W. Throckmorton, and Benjamin H. Epperson searched for another party that could defeat the Democrats and achieve their purposes. They had some degree of success in the state elections of 1859, but they lost badly in their struggle to keep Texas from seceding in 1861.

Walter L. Buenger, Secession and the Union in Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984). Arthur Charles Cole, The Whig Party in the South (Washington: American Historical Association, 1914; rpt., Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1962). Stanley Siegel, A Political History of the Texas Republic (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1956).
Time Periods:
  • Antebellum Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Walter L. Buenger, “Whig Party,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 23, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/whig-party.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

February 1, 1996