The 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 traditional
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 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
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
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 January 9, 2014.