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The Whigs, 1780-1832

French Revolution

Initial Whig reaction was triumphant - it was hoped France was following the 1688 pattern - quickly divergences became apparent as revolution became more extreme - led finally to schism in party in 1794 - steps to schism:

  • a) estrangement of Burke from party with publication of Reflections on the Revolution in France, Nov 1790
  • b) Formation of Association of the Friends of the People, Oct 1792, to use the momentum of the French Revolution to pressure for reform at home
  • c) Execution of Louis XVI, declaration of war with France
  • d) Withdrawal of Portland Whigs
Views of the Schism
  • a) It emphasises the instability of politics at the time and destroys the notion of continuous party politics from 1760 - it was a disaster for the Whig grouping and a triumph for Pitt - secession from Parliament emphasises hopelessness of Whig case [the Namierite line]
  • b) It strengthened the Whig party by purifying the ideology, committing the party to reform and making it the dominant party in parliament for the first half of the nineteenth century [O'Gorman]

1794 [after schism] 60 MPs

1801 80-90 MPs

Still aristocratic party dependent upon influence for seats: 4 stood for counties, 6 for large boroughs, remainder dependent on influence for election

Ideology: Rockingham ideas of liberty and resisting illegitimate influence plus commitment to reform

1797-1801 Foxites seceeded from Parliament because of disillusionment with Bonaparte and poor results in 1796 election. Can be seen as move of desperation or of strength of democratic views (Parliament only existed as a rubber stamp for Pitt and King)

1801: fall of Pitt gave instant revitalisation to Whig party - Pittites split and new opposition group emerged around Grenville and Windham and formed coalition with Fox - agreed on foreign policy, Catholic emancipation and economy

1804 Parliament: Pitt - 60 followers; court - 80; Addington - 60; Fox/Grenville 140; Prince of Wales 30

1806 Ministry of All the Talents

Ministry in Rockinghamite tradition, Grenville appointed all ministers court and King had no role

But seen as a compromise ministry unfaithful to its radical credentials, death of Fox led to its downfall and dissolution of Parliament


Whigs again used period in opposition to rejuvenate themselves, helped by a number of unpopular, repressive government measures, however were not able to remove Liverpool's government and take office themselves


Whigs happier in opposition, still developing their ideology in reaction to fall out of French Revolution, were unable to deliver once in government - were in desperate need of leader after Fox - main problem of 19th century Whigs was failure to reconcile aristocratic mien with radical pretensions