Uhh, good luck, Democrats! I can’t imagine how they will overcome the fired up base that William Henry Harrison built, especially after he cleans up the mess Van Buren left him. He will surely have the most successful presidential term ever! 1844, here we come!
The Last Four Years
In 1840, the Whigs finally had an answer to the Democrats’ domination. President William Henry Harrison was the savior of the American everyman. On March 4, 1841, he took his oath of office. It was a cold, wet day, but that didn’t bother tough Old Tippecanoe, even if he was 68 years old. He arrived on horseback (rather than in a fancy, warm carriage), didn’t wear a coat, and gave what is still the longest inauguration address (almost two hours!). In it, he assured Americans that he would end Andrew Jackson’s disastrous policies, re-establish the National Bank, and usher in the Whig era!
Exactly one month later, William Henry Harrison got pneumonia and died.
As you may know, the lasting joke has been that Harrison was sick because of his insistence on appearing tough in the face of bad weather at his inauguration. But it is more likely that the real culprit was the unclean water supply in the White House (he won’t be its only resident to die unexpectedly!). Although he was diagnosed with pneumonia at the time, modern researchers believe he contracted typhoid through the water.
Tippecanoe Curse Pause!
Many believe that William Henry Harrison brought a curse to the office of the president. Starting with him, all presidents elected in years divisible by 20 died in office.
1840 – William Henry Harrison (typhoid)
1860 – Abraham Lincoln (assassinated)
1880 – James A. Garfield (assassinated)
1900 – William McKinley (assassinated)
1920 – Warren G. Harding (heart attack)
1940 – Franklin D. Roosevelt (cerebral hemorrhage)
1960 – John F. Kennedy (assassinated)
The trend held true until the curse was broken by Ronald Reagan, after he survived an assassination attempt! The origin of the curse is thought to be from Tecumseh, the Native American leader that Harrison fought against during the War of 1812. Of course, if every president that was responsible for the deaths of Native Americans was cursed, we’d have a lot more prematurely dead presidents, wouldn’t we?
So now what? Well, you might think it’s obvious that the vice president becomes president, but the Constitution isn’t so clear. Its wording is ambiguous as to whether the vice president truly becomes the new president, or is simply the acting president. Should a new election be held? It doesn’t say! Americans in 1841 were a little lost.
Knowing that Vice President John Tyler was more of an anti-Jackson states-righter than a true Whig, Henry Clay and Harrison’s cabinet members determined that Tyler should be the acting president. Tyler… thought otherwise. He considered himself to be the new president, no prefix or asterisk required. He went so far as to not open letters addressed to him as “Vice President” or “Acting President.”
Tyler initially kept Harrison’s cabinet, to not seem too power-hungry, but they hated him anyways. His relationship with the Whigs really soured when he vetoed Clay’s bill for a new-new National Bank. Since he was not willing to carry out the Whig’s agenda, his entire cabinet (save one member) resigned in September, 1841. The Whigs hoped this would encourage Tyler to resign too, but he didn’t flinch. The Whigs then voted to officially remove him from the party. They later even proposed impeachment, but the resolution didn’t pass the House. Tyler was a man without a party. If he had any hope of re-election, he was going to have to swing big.
Tyler’s Grandson Pause!
John Tyler fun fact! He has two grandsons that are still alive today! President John Tyler (born in 1790) had 15 children, more than any other president. One of those kids, Lyon Tyler, was born in 1853. Lyon himself went on to father Lyon Tyler, Jr. in 1924 and Harrison Tyler in 1928, the two living descendants!
The issue Tyler was most passionate about was the annexation of Texas. Remember, Texas had recently won its independence from Mexico, and its population was growing with slaveholders from the American South. Tyler saw a chance to gain support by admitting Texas to the Union. The North, increasingly influenced by abolitionists, feared the consequences of adding a large slave state. Tyler submitted his treaty for annexation in April, 1844. It was accompanied by the Packenham Letter, written by infamous racist Secretary of State John C. Calhoun, which outlined the “benefits” of slavery and urged Southerners to protect it as an institution. The Senate voted against the treaty, but it forced the upcoming presidential hopefuls to pick sides.
Party Watch & The Candidates
The leading candidate going into the 1844 Democratic Convention was former President Martin Van Buren. He was still opposed to annexation, believing that it would lead to war with Mexico. In his own published letter (a response to Calhoun), he urged voters to oppose Tyler’s plan, and instead wait for President Van Buren to win Texas through proper negotiations with Mexico. But he significantly underestimated the support for annexation in the South. To make matters worse, party founder Andrew Jackson also became an avid annexation supporter. Although it allied him with former nemesis, Calhoun, Jackson actively spoke against his former vice president, Van Buren.
At the Convention, the Democrats added the annexation of Texas AND Oregon to their party platform, popularizing the idea of Manifest Destiny (though the term would be coined a year later). With Oregon included, Democrats could draw attention away from the slavery issue and appeal to Western expansionists. As voting started, Van Buren failed to secure enough support for nomination. The next most popular candidate was Lewis Cass, former Michigan Territorial Governor, Secretary of War, and current Minister to France. But he couldn’t win enough votes, either. On the eighth ballot, the party finally agreed upon dark horse candidate James K. Polk. Polk had previously served as Speaker of the House and Governor of Tennessee. As an expansionist, he had Andrew Jackson’s support. His running mate was George M. Dallas, a Pennsylvanian politician and former Minister to Russia (also, probable namesake of the Texan city).
For his part, John Tyler attempted to coalesce his pro-Texas squad under the banner of the new Democratic-Republicans, a revival of Thomas Jefferson’s party. However, once he was assured that the Democrats would also fight for annexation, he saw the writing on the wall, dropped out, and endorsed Polk.
The Whigs decided to take the easy route and nominate their party leader, Henry Clay, for his third presidential run. With his national fame, they thought he would re-create the excitement that William Henry Harrison earned in 1840 and easily win the election. Following the trend, Clay outlined his initial opposition to annexation in a published letter, which cited the growth of slavery (even though he owned slaves himself). He later backtracked this position in another letter, arguing that annexation was ok, but that it simply wasn’t the right time. He also wrote that abolitionists should not worry about pro-slavery’s power in the federal government because the institution would slowly die out on its own. This thinly veiled attempt to gain Southern support angered a lot of Northern voters, leading to Clay flipping AGAIN to pure opposition to Texas statehood.
The Whigs picked former New Jersey Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen (what a name!) as Clay’s running mate. Known as the “Christian Statesman,” Teddy-Fre offered a moral balance to Clay’s sometimes dubious character. He was also a member of the American Colonization Society, which called for the creation of a new country in Africa for freed American slaves, attracting abolitionists voters.
Lastly, the Liberty Party is here again. This abolitionist party ran James Birney, as they had four years earlier. With their support growing, they threatened to weaken Clay’s appeal in the North.
The Whigs didn’t take Polk’s candidacy very seriously. Even though he had been Speaker of the House, they saw him as a no-name compared to Henry Clay, who had been a major player in national politics for twenty years. Whigs supporters attacked his lack of qualifications and called him out for being a slaveowner (even though Clay was too!).
As they had before, Democrats went after Clay’s seemingly lack of Christian morals. He was labelled as a drinker, gambler, and womanizer. Supporters also used some racist arguments, saying Clay would help the slaves. The most damaging accusation was that he was a flip-flopper on annexation.
It’s going to be a close one! The popular vote had a very slight preference to Polk. It looks like the South and West really liked his expansionist ideas.
James K. Polk won! He became the 11th president with 170 electoral votes to Clay’s 105. At the time, he was the America’s youngest president. He pledged to only take one term to enact his agenda.
Sitting President Tyler considered the election to be a mandate on Texas statehood. He sponsored another annexation treaty. In early 1845, Congress finally agreed and added Texas to the Union.
What Did It Say About America?
Americans wanted more America. Manifest Destiny was starting to take hold and it would shape the rest of the century. The Democratic party was all-in for the Southern vote and the trend of North/South division continued. Moderate Northerners like Van Buren had no place in the party, although Jackson still had a lot of influence.
Although no one agreed with him at the time, the Tyler Precedent (that the vice president gets promoted to president when the office is vacant) stood unofficially until the 25th Amendment finally put the rule in the Constitution in 1967.
Was It The Right Decision?
Not really. Polk was very directly aiding the cause of slavery. Although, I’m not really a fan of the anti-slavery flip-flopping coming from the Whigs, either. These last few elections have been fun to write about, but none of the candidates have been very good people.
One last John Tyler fact. Years after his presidency, he was instrumental in Virginia’s secession from the Union in 1861. He was even elected to the Confederate House of Representatives, but died before its first session. So, screw that guy (no offense to his grandsons)!