By 1836, it was clear that the Jackson Revolution was here to stay. The Democrats had totally transformed American politics, specifically the electoral process! But could they benefit a candidate other than Andrew Jackson? Martin Van Buren was ready to put the party organization to the test.
The Last Four Years
Jackson’s gonna Jackson. More of the same here. Andrew Jackson’s second term continued to revolve around his opposition to the Second Bank of the United States. He removed federal deposits from the bank and gave them to smaller, local banks that were friendlier to his policies. These were appropriately named “pet banks.” Jackson burned through Treasury Secretaries to make this a reality. He eventually got his way, though, which of course pissed off lots of people. Nicholas Biddle, the head of the US Bank, used his power to intentionally destabilize the economy to put pressure on Jackson. But, being the hot-head that he was, Jackson didn’t budge and his supporters just hated the bank more.
Henry Clay’s faction still did their best to fight Jackson from Congress. In a presidential first, Congress voted to censure Jackson, which is basically just a very formal way to say that they didn’t approve of him. But there were enough Jackson supporters to get his agenda done. The Second Bank of the United States was finished. Jackson also managed to completely eliminate the national debt, a feat not accomplished before or since!
An unexpected feat for Jackson was America’s first presidential assassination attempt. While leaving a funeral at the Capitol in 1835, Jackson was attacked by a man named Richard Lawrence. Born in England, Lawrence believed that he was King Richard III. Yep, the one from the 1400s. As king, he believed that the US Bank owed him money, and that Jackson’s meddling was preventing his payment from being fulfilled. So he did what any reasonable person would do and he set out to murder Jackson. When he confronted Jackson outside of the Capitol, he shot twice, but both pistols misfired, likely due to the high humidity. Jackson proceeded to beat Lawrence with his cane, which was very on-brand of him. The scuffle was broken up by nearby politicians, including Tennessee Representative Davy Crockett. Lawrence was later deemed insane and institutionalized. The pistols were tested again after the ordeal and worked perfectly fine. Jackson survived through God’s will. This violent attempt on his life added to his mythos.
While the war against the bank was a huge issue for Jackson and Clay, most people were simply concerned with the growth of executive power under Jackson. Many saw his heavy reliance on the veto, willingness to fire cabinet members, and generally aggressive attitude against Congress as tyrannical. After Jackson, what would the Democratic Party stand for? What about the presidency?
Henry Clay capitalized this anti-Jackson sentiment by coalescing these groups into the brand new Whig Party, named after the English political party that had opposed the monarchy. The Whigs were formed from a combination of the National Republicans and the Anti-Masonic Party, plus some Southern Nullifiers and old New England Federalists. At this stage, their only real goal was to bring down the Democrats. They had done well in Congress, but were still too disorganized to hold a nominating convention for the presidency. Instead, they formed a scheme. The Whigs ran four different candidates (only one in each state), hoping to secure regional support and prevent Jackson from winning the electoral college outright. From there, a runoff election could be decided by the House, as it had been in 1824 (and we all know how well THAT turned out!).
Following precedent, Jackson chose to step down after two terms. While the Democratic Party still held a nominating convention, it was clear that the heir apparent was Vice President and Democratic Party strategist, Martin Van Buren.
Van Buren was born into a Dutch family in Kinderhook, New York. His campaign nickname, “Old Kinderhook,” helped popularize the term, “OK.” He was very active in New York state politics and became an important Democratic-Republican leader. He backed the unsuccessful William H. Crawford for president in 1824. Four years later, he campaigned for Andrew Jackson, hoping to restore the two-party system that he saw as integral to democracy. His advocacy for party organization played a huge role in both of Jackson’s presidential victories. Unlike Jackson though, Van Buren was big-city northerner that was seen as less connected to the “Average Joe.”
To balance this ticket, the Democrats picked Kentucky Representative Richard Mentor Johnson as Van Buren’s running mate. Johnson was a military man, like Jackson, that claimed to have fired the fatal shot that filled Tecumseh, the leader of a Native American confederacy during the War of 1812. This nomination ruffled a lot of feathers, however, because Johnson had a long-term relationship with one of his family’s slaves, which resulted in two children. Southern Democrats did not like Johnson’s openness about his interracial relationship.
The most notable Whig candidate was William Henry Harrison. Harrison was a former senator from ohio and, besides Jackson, the other major hero of the War of 1812. He had first gained fame by winning the Battle of Tippecanoe against Tecumseh’s forces, and later with the Battle of the Thames, in which Tecumseh was killed. Also like Jackson, Harrison held slaves and wasn’t as in-touch with the average laborer as he made it seem.
Next on the Whig roster was Hugh Lawson White. White had filled Jackson’s Tennessee senate seat when he resigned to focus on his first presidential run. He had initially been a big supporter of Jackson, but switched sides when he felt that Jackson was abusing his power. White’s job was to pick off support in the South. As a states’ rights proponent, he had John C. Calhoun’s support.
In Massachusetts, Daniel Webster led the Whig ticket. Webster was a New England Federalist that had stuck with Henry Clay to become a National Republican.
Lastly, Willie Person Mangum was an anti-Jackson Democrat from North Carolina that was aiming to infiltrate South Carolina’s elections.
There were two vice presidents running on the Whig ticket. The North had Frances Granger, a New York representative. In the South, voters could choose John Tyler, who had served as a representative, governor, and senator for Virginia. Tyler had had a difficult time picking a party, as he disliked both the National Republicans and the Democrats. But it’s a little too early too get into Tyler’s flip flopping!
Welcome new states, Michigan and Arkansas! You’ll notice that their admittance continues the North/South buddy-system of the Missouri Compromise.
Looks like the Whigs aren’t having a lot of luck. Webster and Mangum won their respective states. Although, that was easy for Mangum since South Carolina was still the only state that chose its electors by the state legislature, not by popular vote. But there’s not enough Harrison and White on the board to force a runoff. At least not for the presidency…
Toledo War Pause!
(You knew this one was coming…)
As you might recall from my very first blog post (The Constitution!), the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 set aside land in the Great Lakes region to someday be divided into three to five states. These states became ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. One of the state dividing lines was to be drawn from the southern tip of Lake Michigan east to Lake Erie. South of that line became ohio, and north became Michigan. Because maps in the 1700s were not very accurate, it was believed that the state line fell north of the Maumee Bay and the future city of Toledo. Turns out, it lands south of Toledo, making it legally Michigan territory. But ohio didn’t want to give up its claim because Toledo had become an important port city. The dispute got so heated that Michigan and ohio actually declared war on each other. After a few skirmishes, Andrew Jackson intervened with a bill forcing Michigan to cede the territory before joining the Union. As a concession, they would get the Upper Peninsula. The Michigan convention eventually caved, but the hatred between the states lives on.
Martin Van Buren overcame the Whigs’ plot and earned his spot as America’s eighth president! He earned 170 electoral votes, enough to prevent a runoff. Notably, he is the only president to learn English as a second language (his first was Dutch). He was also the last vice president to ascend to the presidency without the prior death or resignation of the president until George HW Bush in 1988! William Henry Harrison did the best out of the four Whig candidates, winning 73 electors. We haven’t seen the last of him!
But things weren’t as simple on the vice presidential ticket. Virginia’s 23 electors couldn’t stand the thought of Richard Mentor Johnson’s relationship with a black woman, so they went faithless and voted for someone else. Johnson was one vote short of winning the electoral college. By the rules of the 12th Amendment, vice presidential runoffs are settled by the Senate. Despite this hiccup, Johnson easily won his VP spot over Frances Granger. This is the only time the VP runoff rule has been used.
What Did It Say About America?
Jackson had finally angered enough people that a true second political party had formed, under Clay’s supervision. Van Buren was not Andrew Jackson, but he would carry the burden of his worst policies. While the Democrats had just won a three-peat, their base had some cracks in it, and rough times were ahead for the country.
Was It The Right Decision?
I’m a little indifferent on this one. I definitely don’t like the policies of Jackson and the Democrats. But the Whig message is not a unified one just yet. Plus, Harrison was also a slave owner. Not much to get behind on either side of the aisle.