Tyler Too?

This was the situation in April, 1841. Newly inaugurated president, William Henry Harrison died after only a month in office. The aged Harrison apparently succumbed to pneumonia after delivering an exceptionally long inaugural address in the rain. Harrison, the first Whig to win the presidency, was also the first chief executive to die in office, and the Constitutional protocol of succession had never before been exercised.

Harrison’s Vice President, John Tyler, moved quickly upon learning of the President’s demise. He located a judge to administer the oath of office, and moved into the White House. When members of Harrison’s cabinet informed Tyler they would take care of the daily business of governing, he cooly responded that they could either work with him, or resign.

Tyler had been an odd choice for the Whigs to make. The party had gelled during the Jackson administration, promoting financial and internal developments over sectionalism and states rights. The Whigs further found slavery not only inconsistent with liberty, but also an obstacle to the growth of a modern nation-state. Foremost among this group was the Whig Party’s greatest voice, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky. Clay had first been a presidential candidate in 1824, and again in 1836. However, when the Whigs met in Harrisburg, PA to choose their 1840 candidate, Clay failed to gain the  nomination, and declined the second spot in a regrettable moment of pique.

Though John Tyler had been a Virginia Democrat, he had broken with Andrew Jackson over Jackson’s misuse of presidential power. In particular, Tyler objected to Jackson’s threats against South Carolina in the Nullification Crisis, leading Tyler to forsake the Democrats, but not the philosophy of states’ rights, or the protection of slavery.

The Whigs decided that Tyler’s opposition to Jackson was good enough to offer him the second spot on the Whig ticket, and Tyler accepted. Then a month into his term, Harrison died, and this Southern Democrat, a wall-to-wall sectionalist assumed the presidency.  From there, events quickly unraveled.

If the Whig Party hoped to realize their platform of national economic growth, their hopes died under President Tyler’s veto pen. Predictably, the Whig cabinet soon grew frustrated, then disgusted with presidential obstruction. Members began to resign. Only Secretary of State Daniel Webster hung on, as he was in the middle of boundary discussions with the British. Then he, too, submitted his resignation. Shortly after the cabinet fled, the Whigs formally expelled Tyler from the party.

To their credit the Whig leadership didn’t excuse Tyler, or defend his contrary actions. No one said ‘let Tyler be Tyler.’ They publicly broke and denounced the President’s antics, though the cost, for the Whigs, came due ten years later when they disbanded. 

Yet, the story doesn’t end with the death of the Whigs, but begins anew with a stronger and more principled political movement. For, from the ashes came the birth of the Republican Party, much like a rising Phoenix. And that party still exists today, if they don’t squander their good name on the shoals of Trumpism. 

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January:Figure Eight.” Both are available on Kindle and at http://www.river-of-january.com.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

A Reasonable Man

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The Senator visualized a clear future for America, a nation of groomed roadways, busy canals, sturdy bridges, and sleek iron railways. He believed the country, in order to bloom into a truly great nation, required the best in structural innovation. But this practical Statesman encountered an insurmountable barrier impeding his dream, an obstacle built of senseless political partisanship.

Henry Clay first arrived in Washington DC, from Kentucky in 1803. After serving In the House for three years, Clay moved over to the Senate, filling an unexpected vacancy.

Early in his career Clay made his share of blunders. A fierce booster for war in 1812, Clay worked with other young ‘ War Hawks,’ who favored a fight against Great Britain. However, by the end of that conflict Clay realized this second war against England had generated nothing of real value for the young Republic.

Embracing his new understanding, the young Senator devoted his career to building America from within. Clay crafted a long-range program of growth he called The American System. The components of his plan were three-fold: a strong protective tariff to nurture America’s fledgling industrial base, a Second Bank of the United States to house federal monies, which would then underwrite his ‘internal improvements,” (infrastructure projects). For Henry Clay this multilevel proposal would provide a solid foundation for a mighty nation-state to prosper, equal to any principality across the Atlantic. And Clay enthusiastically embraced his crusade as a quasi-secular faith.

Clay’s program attracted a great deal of support with fellow legislators, and The American System appeared on the brink success. 

Unfortunately, for Clay, a dashing war hero rose to challenged his vision. Tennessean, Andrew Jackson, the victor of New Orleans, conquerer of Spanish Florida, and vanquisher of the Creek Nation, now intended to become president. At first Clay thought little of the uneducated, volatile militiaman, believing voters would not take this brawler seriously. But Clay was dead wrong. Jackson’s popularity soared among all  classes, especially poor whites, and Jackson won not only his first term, but reelection four years later. Most significantly, for Henry Clay, this  President did not like him, not one little bit.

The temperament of Congress shifted dramatically after Jackson’s election, as well.  Jacksonian supporters filled the  House, and to a lesser degree the Senate, leaving Clay hard pressed to pass any of his program. In fact Jackson made fast work on Clay’s earlier successes killing the Second Bank, vetoing countless internal improvement projects, and only defended the Tariff because a separate Jackson enemy threatened to violate the law in his state.

Henry Clay found himself fighting politically for every economic belief he championed. The mercurial man in the Presidential Mansion (White House) thwarting Clay at every turn. 

Adding more turbulence to the era, the intractable issue of slavery soon dwarfed all other concerns. Clay, a slave owner who believed in gradual emancipation, found enemies in both the North and South; Northerners because he was a slave owner, Southerners because he believed in emancipation. The man couldn’t win.

Over Clay’s lifetime of public service, he forged three major Union-saving compromises. An ardent patriot, the Senator believed men of good will could solve all problems for the greater good of the nation. First there was the Missouri Compromise,  the Compromise Tariff of 1833, and last, his swan song, the Compromise of 1850, giving America California. 

Sadly, Senator Henry Clay did not live to see his American System a reality. But there is a silver lining to this tale. Abraham Lincoln, a staunch Clayite saw passage of the Pacific Railways Act, the Morrill Act, and a National Banking Act. These three laws built the Transcontinental Railroad, Land Grant Universities in the west, and funding the Union war effort.

Oh, and Clay’s desire to emancipate slaves became real in 1863.

The moral of the story transcends time: America stalls when irrational politics displaces thoughtful, reasonable policies and the legislators who promote them.

Note-I have co-authored a new play celebrating the life of this remarkable, essential American simply titled “Clay.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Both are available on Kindle, or in hard copy at www.river-of-january.com

You can contact Gail for questions or enquiries at gailchumbley@gmail.com