What are Whigs?

If you perform a web search for the term “Whig,” you will find many different definitions of the term or no definition at all. You will also find that Whigs have enjoyed a sort of revival – some people have latched onto the idea that “Whig” is synonymous with “moderate” or “pragmatic, as opposed to ideological.” These characterizations of Whig political philosophy fall short of the mark. Moderation implies that seeking a middle ground or compromise between two competing positions will lead to a wise outcome; yet, it is often necessary to take a strong stance. For example, if one possesses republican virtue, there is no moderate position on the question of whether torture is acceptable. Also, if one is seeking a moderate position between two interested parties, that is, two parties vying for separate advantage at the expense of the public good, there is no moderate position to be found simply because the contending interests do not desire compromise. Pragmatism often favors the status quo; also, it is the antithesis of qualities such as virtue and idealism. A careful understanding of the Whigs recognizes that Whigs are distinguished by (1) a principled stance that is grounded in social contract theory (see below), (2) the goal of encouraging the public to move beyond positional ideologies, and (3) the goal of identifying bases for consensus and collective action. 
On these pages, we are primarily concerned with the Whigs that are known alternatively as “Commonwealth” or “Radical” or “Old Whigs” or "neo-Harringtonians." Again, Whig political philosophy aims to transcend traditional ideological dualisms. To this end, the Whig examines, from a safe distance, the opposition between liberty and tyranny, leaders and those who are led, and between private and public interests. The Whig understands that the typical pattern among human beings is to succumb to self-interested behavior; when self-interested individuals join together in common cause, they can and will influence the law if they are allowed to do so. The role of good government is to prevent this from happening. The role of good government is to protect the public interest against private ambitions for wealth and power.
John Locke's Grave.

A very good explanation of the purpose of radical Whig philosophy, to paraphrase historian Gordon Wood, is the desire to make the social contract more enforceable.[1]  The term “social contract” is perhaps most closely linked with the name Jean-Jacques Rousseau; however, many political philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries (e.g., Hobbes, Grotius, Sidney) contended with some variation of the same idea. In essence, social contract theory is the view that human beings possess certain natural rights such as life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of enjoyment. If people wish to enjoy additional benefits that accrue from living in a society – then they will choose leaders to coordinate the roles of various members of society. The people give up a portion of their freedom in exchange for just and equitable leadership. If the leader is not just and equitable, they can elect different leaders. If the leader is unwilling to accept the results of the election the people may regard the social contract as null and void, and take collective action.
The word "Whig" was initially a derogatory term applied to 17th opponents of the monarchy*, and means "horse-driver" or, more loosely, "country folk." People who descended from these early opponents of monarchy called themselves "Whigs." Whig political philosophy did not refer to an organized set of beliefs until the Enlightenment, and among the people responsible for this development were Algernon Sidney, John Locke, Montesquieu, Joseph Addison, John Milton, and James Harrington. They, in turn, had a strong influence on the thinking of the Founding Fathers, who led the American colonists to revolution against the corrupt British Empire. The traditional adversaries of the Whigs at this time were the Tories. The Tories were advocates of monarchy and believed, in essence, that ordinary citizens are not entitled, or intelligent enough, to presume to question their king.
In America, a Whig party started around the year 1828 and continued until the 1850's. The American Whigs of this period made some important contributions to Whig philosophy, most notably with respect to: (1) valuing internal improvements (e.g., in terms of infrastructure) as a national priority, (2) recognizing that domestic manufacturing and low unemployment are essential to the health of a nation, and (3) non-interference in the domestic matters of foreign nations. The Whig party fell apart during the 1850’s - 1860's, being unable to offer a satisfactory peaceful resolution to the hostilities between North and South: the Whigs' goal of consensus-finding could not hold up under the weight of sectional interests at that time. Abraham Lincoln was the last of the notable American Whigs.   
Henry Clay
There have been five American Whig presidents: William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, and Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is sometimes excluded from this list, because he changed his affiliation to Republican as the Whig Party collapsed. John Quincy Adams officially became an American Whig after serving as president, although he exemplified Whig principles while in office. There have also been influential Whig members of Congress, including Daniel Webster, William Seward, and Henry Clay
Clay, it should be noted, was instrumental in forming an American Whig Party, and is memorable for having endorsed a set of economic policies known as the "American System." The American System calls for a moderate level of protectionism and emphasizes (as mentioned earlier) the importance of robust infrastructure and low unemployment. In contrast, the British System had emphasized free trade and laissez-faire economic policies.
Whig philosophy is also concerned with the question of power. Whigs believe that, in order to be effective, members of government must be given power; and yet, because power is guaranteed to corrupt its possessor, it is also necessary to place limits on it. Hence, the idea of balance between opposing forces is very much at the heart of Whig philosophy. The devil is, of course, in the details. How does one go about making the government more accountable than it is today? How does the public go about peacefully and yet adamantly instructing its political leaders to enact reforms if they are unwilling to do so? The New Independent Whig will consider, and encourage others to consider, possible answers to these questions. 

The first locomotive explosion: Power can be a force for good, but only if it is effectively contained.

[1] Gordon Wood. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776 – 1787. 1969