Whig Party and William Ochiltree
Source: The Handbook of Texas Online
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
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
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
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
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).
Walter L. Buenger
was last updated March 17, 2003.