The Whigs, the 19th century political party that disbanded before the Civil War over the question of slavery, is trying making a comeback as the voice of reason between embittered modern day Republicans and Democrats.
In Philadelphia, the election of Heshy Bucholz, a software engineer and first candidate to run and win as a Whig in that city in 157 years, has brought national attention to the party and spurred hundreds of new members to sign up.
In Maryland, where the Whigs held four of their national conventions in the mid-19th century, the hub of the renaissance is in Cecil County. Tim Zane, a registered Republican and a former vice president and senior cash manager at a large international bank, is in talks to be in charge of the Maryland branch of the new and improved Modern Whig Party.
Like Maryland, Idaho, Arizona, Virginia and Hawaii are seeking new chapter leaders.
There are about 200 members of the Modern Whig Party in Maryland, and another 200 support the group by receiving its newsletter. Maryland would benefit from a third party because of its problem with representation, Zane said.
“Maryland has two major parties and two minor parties. It’s a strange way of looking at it,” Zane said.
The major parties, in Zane’s view, are the progressive Democrats and moderate Democrats, while moderate Republicans and conservative Republicans form the minor parties. He cites tax increases, including Gov. Martin O’Malley’s infamous “rain tax,” a stormwater fee, as evidence that a Democratic monopoly on decision-making is bad for Maryland’s citizens.
“Everything in Maryland is controlled by the counties between Baltimore and Washington,” Zane said.
Four Whig National Conventions were held in the old Maryland Institute in Baltimore, a grand building which stood at the corner of Market Place and East Baltimore Street. It burned down in 1904, and now in its place is the Power Plant Live! entertainment center.
After a century and a half of dormancy, the Modern Whig Party was relaunched in 2007 by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and claims 30,000 members. Historically a party of compromise, the Whigs believe in incorporating ideas from multiple viewpoints to arrive at the best solution.
Modern Whigs favor allowing issues to be decided at the state and local level, painting themselves as the party of logic, research and reason. The Whigs see themselves in stark opposition to the two main political parties, which brought about the recent government shutdown.
In Washington today, “one side shuts down so the other side doesn’t talk,” said Brendan Galligan, chairman of the New Jersey chapter of the Modern Whig Party, and an elected school board member in Westfield, N.J.
Galligan’s own foray into Whigism began after he discovered the Westfield, N.J., school budget had increased by nearly 30 percent in five years. Propelled into action, he ran unopposed as an independent in 2012 and was elected to the Westfield School Board with 7,000 votes at age 23.
“They haven’t done anything for a couple hundred years, but let me click on their link,” Galligan said about his discovery of the Whigs.
An electrician working in New York City, he was recently re-elected to a three-year term, coming second by 200 votes among four candidates.
“The old Whigs were about building the country. Now it’s about helping us from falling apart,” Galligan said.
A historical comparison between the old and Modern Whig Party is difficult because the United States is dealing with a completely different set of issues, said William Anthony Hay, an associate professor of history at Mississippi State University, and author of a book on 19th century Whigs.
“It is a rebellion against gridlock in Washington,” Hay said.
But that doesn’t mean the party will resonate today.
“I think if you ask people about the Whig tradition today, they’d think you were talking about a hairpiece,” Hay said.
While they date back to 17th century Scotland, the American Whig Party was originally formed in 1833 to oppose what opponents saw as President Andrew Jackson’s imperialist presidency and government expansion. The party split just before the Civil War over issues like state’s rights and slavery.
As a moderate party that tried to appeal to as many people as possible, its lack of concrete ideology seemed to contribute to its implosion. Many northern Whigs went on to form the core of the Republican Party, while southern Whigs turned to the Democratic Party.
“The Whigs … can claim to be the first real party of the people,” said Andrew Evans, national chairman of the Modern Whig Party, who counts Abraham Lincoln and John Locke among the party’s notable alumni.
“We are very proud of our history. We are a rebirth,” Evans said. “We’re not trying to take everything back to the 19th century, that’s crazy.”
A final death knell for the Whig Party was at its last official convention in 1856. The candidate nominated for vice president was Andrew J. Donelson, the nephew of “King Andrew” Jackson, the president the party was originally created to rally against.
The Whigs went into hibernation, and are now trying to re-emerge on the political stage as a third option for beleaguered voters.
During the government shutdown in October, a Gallup poll found that 60 percent of
Americans asked believed a third party was needed. Only 26 percent of those asked believed the two main parties adequately represent Americans.
“There’s not a need for more parties. There’s a need for Americans to have options that can really represent them,” Evans said. “It’s about competition, as well. The quality of the product improves, the price goes down. Things are supposed to be better. Politics is the same.”
Interest in the Modern Whig Party coincides with public malaise at the gridlocked two-party system, Evans said. The party saw an uptick of new members during the recent government shutdown, and following the election of Bucholz to Judge of Elections in the Rhawnhurst section of Philadelphia there were 2,500 new Whigs in two or three days.
Bucholz garnered national attention as a breakthrough candidate in a political climate of near-constant partisan fighting, and won by 36-24 votes. Evans was “a little surprised” by Bucholz’s victory.
“Since we have two major parties here, I definitely think that a third party could mediate and move conversation,” Bucholz said.
But even three parties might not be enough.
Galligan believes the U.S. should adopt a five-party system, with the Socialists and Democrats on the left, the Whigs in the center, and the Republicans and Libertarians to the right of the spectrum. Multiple parties would allow people to caucus together, Galligan said.
“I’ve seen 4-year-olds in a minivan act better” than politicians in Washington, Galligan said.