Or for that matter, what’s a Whig?
They’re both good questions, but I think, even in distant America, “Whig” is a vague term, despite the fact that we once had Whigs of our own. But the British word “Tory” has always been loaded. The image above gives you a rough idea of what revolutionary Americans thought of them, using the elimination method the French called á la lanterne! or hang them from the nearest Liberty Tree. But really, even in 21st century America, the word Tory just sounds like a snotty, brandy-sniffing aristocrat, the Powers That Be. I remember, back in high school, when I once saw Tories defined as Catholic rebels against the king. It left me scratching my head.
The word Tory started out as slang for an outlaw, with a layer of cheap racial shot to boot.
When we watch British historical drama, Americans are confused about the difference between a Tory and a Whig. I think even some of the writers of Regency period romances don’t really understand it. It isn’t surprising; it’s hard enough sometimes to understand the difference between a Democrat and a Republican, particularly because, at this moment in time, our two parties are undergoing a seismic shift, though not for the first time. People forget that the political party that gets the overwhelming number of African-American votes in this nation was, for a century, the party of slavery and Jim Crow. But in 1900, it would have been nearly impossible to find a black man who didn’t vote Republican.
Something similar has occurred over the course of the last three centuries in Britain with Whigs and Tories. In the period I write about, the Regency, roughly 1790 to 1820, the Tories were the party of King and Stability, while the Whigs were the party of Parliament and Change. Even then that’s a very, very broad brush.
During the entirety of the Regency the Whigs were out of power, an opposition party, but throughout the 1700s they were calling the shots – it was the Whigs who put a foreigner on the throne, George I, a Hanoverian who couldn’t even speak English, because he was a Protestant and therefore acceptable to them. In that period, there wasn’t much concern for Catholic civil rights in the Whig party.
I’m going to make this pill as easy as possible to swallow, but you won’t get any of this without a brief thrill ride through British history. It begins with the bloody English Civil War. When Cromwell won it, he had the Stuart king, Charles I, beheaded, in 1649, and ruled for more than a decade as “Lord Protector.” When England got fed up with the grim reign of Cromwell and his Puritans, they put the son of Charles I on the throne, in the Restoration, though they remained a Protestant country. Charles II was a gay blade, with more mistresses and bastard children than the stars in the sky, but no legitimate heir except his brother. Charles believed in religious freedom, but he was a Catholic in his heart. Unfortunately his brother James, who came to the throne as James II when Charles died, wasn’t a Catholic on the quiet, as the wise Charles – he was belligerently open about it. The first shots in the new war of religion were fired within six months of his coronation. James was a lousy king and a major pill, with all the diplomatic finesse of a Hun. He was tossed off the throne in favor of his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange. (Charles II wisely had his two nieces, Mary and Anne, raised as Anglicans.) Parliament decreed that no Catholic could sit on the British throne. The men who engineered all this were the Whigs, and the 1700s was the great age of their power.
Along with the Whigs, there were already Tories around. Since before the death of Charles I, a “tory” was a brutal and murderous Irish highwayman. In the old Gaelic tory means “pursuit,” with hostile intent. In those days, right or wrong, when a Brit thought “Catholic,” he thought “Irish.” Some of James’ supporters at Court actually were Irish. It was an easy slam against your enemies, to label them a bunch of ragged Catholic thugs – hence the term “Tory.” The Whigs tried others at first, especially “bogtrotters,” another slam on the Irish, but Tory was the word that stuck.
The entire century from the ousting of James until the mid-1700s was marked by incessant rebellions, the many attempts to put James’ son, and then his grandson, the Old Pretender and the Young Pretender, onto the throne. It ended with the great uprising of 1745, which was soon put down, in their rout at Culloden, and the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, escaped to the Continent to drink himself to an early death. But those who wanted to put the Stuarts back on the throne were not necessarily Catholic. Many were, particularly those of high Stuart blood, while others were passionate monarchists who believed that God put the Stuarts on the throne, and Man had no right to object. They were called Jacobites, a word so easily confused with “Jacobin,” the violent revolutionaries in France. It was a name they took from the Latin for James, Jacobus. In the end it didn’t win them any friends that so often their revolts were backed by England’s perennial enemy, Catholic France.
It’s interesting that even in Francis Grose’ slang dictionary, written in 1785, he defines Tory not only as “An advocate for absolute monarchy and church power,” but secondarily as “An Irish vagabond, robber or rapparee.” Rapparee is another word for an Irish bandit; a rapparee was a short half-pike, a weapon used by the Irish guerrilla fighters who gave Cromwell such grief, and later by Irish highwaymen who were veterans of these wars. Which means that decades after the last of the Jacobite wars, the negative connotation of the word was hanging around, understood by all.
Actually, both words were once derogatory slang terms. The origin of “whig” is debated. Some tie it to the term “whiggamore,” which was a cattle driver, and the political roots of the word seem solid, since the Whiggamores staged a famous march on Edinburgh, in opposition to a faction of their own party of Scottish Covenanters with ties to the King. But the Oxford English Dictionary sticks to its guns, that these are two separate words, and that the political party called Whigs got their name from slang for impoverished Scots who drank whey milk, something like buttermilk. In either case, whig definitely carried the connotation of a country bumpkin, with a subtext of both radical and rebel.
In the Regency the Whigs were led by the great Charles James Fox, and they were known then as the “party of the buff and the blue,” these being the colors of George Washington’s uniform, colors they wore to show their sympathy for American rebels. Ironically, even the Prince Regent claimed, at least, to be one of them, probably to annoy his father, who was too nuts at that point to notice. The just-as-great William Pitt was leader of the Tories, bulwark of King George. These parties shifted over time, in a complex fashion, and lightening issues like the Corn Laws could cause tectonic shifts of allegiance. Historically, the wealthiest of the aristocrats and the poorest of the peasantry were the passionate party of the King, and this was true for later Tories, who favored the small landholders, the yeoman class of farmers, as well as some of the gentry. The high middling classes were often Whigs, as well as some of the great aristocratic families, and wealthy industrialists, all of them backing Parliament against royal autonomy. It’s strange that the Whigs, who so despised the Catholics, eventually became the party of Catholic emancipation, as well as supporters of the so-called Dissenters, the many other Christians who weren’t Anglicans, all of whom lived under some very degrading laws. Although it was a Tory, the Iron Duke, Wellington, who pushed the Act of Catholic Emancipation through Parliament. The Whigs as a party died out in Britain in the 1860s, though there’s been a recent attempt to revive them. The Labour Party became the fighting liberals, in opposition to conservative Tories, the name that, once again, stuck.
So the next time you’re watching Masterpiece Theatre, trying to follow the Whig/Tory grudge match, just remember they were the Irish highwaymen versus the bumpkin Scots, labels they both wore with pride.