Posts Tagged ‘Martin Van Buren’

The Election of 1848

March 10, 2016

As the election of 1848 approached, it was starting to become impossible to ignore the increasingly divisive issue of slavery in the United States. Hardly anyone wanted to abolish slavery where it existed, but there was a growing feeling in the North that slavery ought to be contained and not permitted to expand into any new territories. This had been made more difficult by the aftermath of the recently concluded Mexican War. The territories which had been gained from Mexico which were south of the line established in the Missouri Compromise of 1820 were open to slavery. The Whigs, at least the northern branch of the party, had been opposed to the Mexican War for this reason. Led by an obscure congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln, the northern Whigs accused the Polk administration of waging an aggressive war against Mexico for empty military glory and to expand the slave territories. The relatively quick and easy American victory over Mexico made such anti-war sentiments politically incorrect however, and the Whigs found they had to backtrack before the upcoming election.

Missouri_Compromise_map

The Missouri Compromise

 

There was no question of the incumbent President James K. Polk running for reelection. He had promised to serve only one term and he was exhausted from performing his duties as president. Polk died only three months after leaving his office. The Democrats met at their national convention in Baltimore on May 22. There they selected Senator Lewis Cass for president. Cass had been the territorial governor of Michigan from 1813 to 1831 and then had served as Secretary of War under Andrew Jackson, minister to France and then from 1845 to 1848 a Senator from Michigan. His running mate was William Orlando Butler, a veteran of the War of 1812, who had served as a Congressman from Kentucky from 1839-1943.

There was a problem with Cass, however, at least as far as the New York delegation was concerned. Cass was an advocate of “squatter” or popular sovereignty on the issue of slavery, believing that the people of a territory should determine whether a state should be admitted as a free or slave state. Some of the New York delegation, the Hunkerers because they “hunkered” after offices, supported Cass’s nomination, while others, the Barnburners believed Cass to be too soft on slavery. In the end, the Barnburners left the convention and, along with other anti-slavery people and organized the Free Soil Party. The Free Soilers, with their slogan, “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor and Free Men” nominated former president Martin van Buren and John Quincy Adams’s son, Charles Francis Adams.

The Whigs were anxious for the voters to forget that they had even been against the Mexican War, so when they met in Philadelphia in June, they nominated General Zachary Taylor, Old Rough and Ready for president. Taylor had never held any political office, had no set political opinions on any issue, and had never even voted, but he had led an American army to victory in Mexico, so he seemed to be perfect for the job of president. The Whigs also nominated Millard Fillmore, a congressman from New York who had served from 1833 to 1843, who had then served as the New York State Comptroller, as Taylor’s running mate.

Many Whigs were anxious about nominating a candidate with absolutely no political experience. Daniel Webster feared that a man he regarded as “an illiterate frontier colonel” would be unelectable. Other Whigs, including Lincoln, made a virtue out of Taylor’s inexperience, pointing out that he would be sure to follow the will of the people.

There was the usual mudslinging throughout the campaign. The Democrats portrayed Taylor as an ignorant, illiterate military autocrat who thirsted for martial glory and establish himself as a dictator, after the example of Caesar or Napoleon. He was stingy and cruel to his slaves. The Whigs retaliated by claiming that Cass was dishonest, and involved in graft from his tenure as Superintendent of Indian Affairs. They also mocked Cass’s pretensions to military glory. There wasn’t much substantive debate on any issues.

The election of 1848 was the first presidential election in which the election was held on the same day in every state, November 7. From this year on, the national elections would be held on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November. Zachary Taylor won the election without too much trouble, getting 1,360,099 votes (47.3%) to Cass’s 1,220544 (42.5%). Martin van Buren and his Free Soil Party received 291,263 (10.1%) popular votes. Obviously, anti-slavery sentiments were gaining ground, at least in the North. In the Electoral College, Taylor got 163 votes, mostly in the East with all of the largest states, except for Ohio, while Cass won 127 electoral votes. The Free Soilers didn’t win any states, but it is possible they split the Democratic vote, especially in New York, allowing the Whigs to win.

The Election of 1848

The Election of 1848

Although born in Virginia and raised in Kentucky, and a slave owner himself, President Taylor turned out to be a staunch nationalist who sought to prevent the spread of slavery in the new territories.Taylor hinted that he would sign the Wilmot Proviso, which banned slavery in the territories gained from Mexico, if it ever passed Congress, and he wanted California to be admitted as a state without first being organized as a territory so that the slavery issue could be decided by the people of California rather than Congress. Taylor’s highest priority was keeping the Union together and he threatened to personally lead an army against anyone who attempted secession.

Unfortunately, Zachary Taylor died of either Cholera or food poisoning just seventeen months into his term. The new president, Millard Fillmore, lacked Taylor’s strength of character and although he was moderately anti-slavery, was more willing to give in to the demands of Southern slave owners than Taylor had been. Perhaps it was just as well. It is possible that the Civil War might have begun a decade earlier if Taylor had lived. On the other hand, Fillmore’s administration began a decade of inaction when the United States badly needed strong leadership to resolve the increasing sectional tensions.

The Election of 1840

July 12, 2015

People often complain that modern presidential politics is more about personalities than issues. The news media and the readers and viewers they serve seem less interested in what the candidates plan to do once in office and more interested in personalities, slogans, and sound bites. Political debates have devolved from the stately, informative Lincoln-Douglas debates in which the issues dividing the country were discussed at length to opportunities for politicians to deliver focus group tested zingers and one liners. People who idolize a past in which presidential candidates earnestly discussed detailed solutions for resolving the issues of the day had best not look too closely at the election of 1840. This was an election singularly devoid of any discussion of any issue except which candidate was born in a log cabin and drank hard cider. Actually, there was one serious issue which was beginning to divide the nation between North and South, but no one wanted to talk about it. Hint: it began with “S” and ended with “lavery”.

By 1840, the Jacksonian revolution was complete. Property requirements had been abolished in every state and every White male had the vote, beginning a new era of mass politics in the United States. The Whig Party had gotten its act together to form a truly national party and they learned enough from Andrew Jackson’s victories in 1828 and 1832 to understand the necessity of developing an organization for stirring up mass enthusiasm for their candidate and ensuring a good turnout at the polls on Election Day. The Whigs also learned to cast their candidate as a military hero and a man of the people. As events turned out, the Whigs had learned these lessons all to well as far as the Democrats were concerned.

The Whigs met in their national convention at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in December 1839, and nominated a military hero, William Henry Harrison over his rival Henry Clay. Harrison had been a senator from Ohio and governor of the Indiana Territory and had fought against the Indian leader Tecumseh, defeating his forces at the Battle of Tippecanoe. He had been one of the three Whig candidates in 1836 and since he had gotten the most votes of the three in that election, he seemed a good pick for 1840, even though at 68 he was the oldest man to be elected president until Ronald Reagan. Although Harrison had been born in Virginia, he was associated with the North so, in order to balance the ticket, the Whigs nominated the Virginian, John Tyler as his running mate. Tyler had served in both houses of Congress and as governor of Virginia. As a Democrat, he had supported Andrew Jackson at first, but turned against the president over state’s rights and the spoils system, and had joined the Whigs by 1835. His selection as the Whig’s vice-presidential candidate later proved to be not a particularly good idea.

 

For their part, the Democrats met at Baltimore in May, 1840, and easily nominated Martin van Buren for a second term as president. Van Buren’s Vice-President, Richard Mentor Johnson was still very unpopular in the South because of his romantic relationship with his slave Julia Chenn. Van Buren was reluctant to drop him from the ticket, but the Democrats simply refused to nomination Johnson for another term as Vice-President, so no running mate was nominated at the convention. They had an understanding that each state would vote for its own candidate and the Senate would pick the Vice-President, if van Buren won. Undaunted Johnson went ahead and campaigned for the vice-presidency as if he had been nominated.

Van Burn was fairly unpopular throughout the country as the economy was still in recession as a result of the Panic of 1837, so the election was Harrison’s to lose, provided he did not do anything divisive or unpopular like making any statements about the issues of the day, particularly the one involving the “S-word”. So, Harrison and his supporters made it a point to say very little. Instead, they promoted their candidate as a humble man of the people. It was one of Clay’s supporters who gave them the idea for their campaign theme. During the convention, he had said derisively of Harrison that  he would be perfectly happy living in a log cabin and drinking hard cider. Harrison’s supporters took this and ran away with it, tirelessly depicting their man as born in a log cabin and drinking simple hard cider, as opposed to the aristocratic van Buren who lived in luxurious mansions and drank only the finest and most expensive wines. The Whigs organized parades demonstrations, and gatherings with a log cabin theme and served hard cider while praising Harrison for his simple lifestyle. Along with the log cabin went the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too”.

It was all a lie, though. Harrison had, in fact, been born into one of the wealthiest and politically prominent Virginia families with plantations and slaves. He had attended college and studied medicine, but it was not a field that appealed to him and upon the death of his father, he had left college to join the army. The aristocratic van Buren was the one who had been born in humble circumstances and had worked his way up in New York politics. But, politics and truth seldom intersect.

The Democrats responded by attacking Harrison’s age and military record. He was old and senile, they claimed and a vulgar, profane man who slept with Indian women while in the Army and then resigned his commission just a year before the War of 1812, abandoning his country in its hour of need.

It was not a close election. The Democrats were never able to muster enough enthusiasm for their candidate to match the Whigs and the faltering economy weighed down van Buren’s efforts at re-election. The popular vote was 1,275,390 to 1,128,854 or 52.9% to 46.8% in Harrison’s favor. A third party, the anti-slavery Liberty Party, with James G Birney as its candidate gained 6,797 votes, This was utterly insignificant at the time but the Liberty Party was a harbinger of the anti-slavery movement which would create the Republican Party and tear the nation apart. In the Electoral College, Harrison won 234 votes from all over the country, while van Buren only got 60 votes, winning New Hampshire, Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas.

The Election of 1840

The Election of 1840

William Henry Harrison did not have long to enjoy his presidency. After giving the longest inaugural speech in history on March 4, 1841 and a month later had died of pneumonia making the Harrison administration at only thirty days, the shortest in American history. Harrison was the first president to die in office, causing something of a constitutional crisis as it was not clear to what extent the vice-president assumed the powers and responsibilities of the presidency. Most of Harrison’s cabinet assumed that Vice-President John Tyler was only an acting president until such time as new elections could be arranged. Tyler, however, insisted that he was the new president upon taking the oath of office and with the support of  Chief Justice Roger Taney, his view prevailed. Tyler was not a particularly successful president since his political views were not much aligned with those held by his fellow Whigs in the cabinet or in Congress, or for that matter with the Democratic opposition, and this along with the then unprecedented manner in which Tyler became president made it difficult for him to get much done.

 

The Election of 1836

May 3, 2015

At the end of his second term as president, Andrew Jackson was still popular enough that he could have run for a third term if he wanted. Jackson decided to abide by the two term limit precedent set by the previous presidents and instead promoted the candidacy of his vice-president and hand picked successor, Martin Van Buren. It was curious choice given how very different the two men were. Jackson was a rough and ready frontiersman who had worked his way up from an impoverished youth to become a military hero. Van Buren was a smooth politician from New York who was descended from an old Dutch family. Although they agreed on most of the issues, the two men didn’t really have a lot in common. The thing that actually brought them closer together and convinced President Jackson that Van Buren was just the right man to continue his legacy was the Peggy Eaton, or petticoat affair.

Peggy Eaton was a pretty young woman from Washington D. C. who had developed a certain reputation by her teens. In 1816, at the age of 17, Peggy eloped with a thirty-nine year old Navy Purser named John Timberlake. Timberlake died at sea in 1828 and Peggy married an old friend, Senator John Henry Eaton. This would not normally be considered scandalous, except that there were rumors that John and Peggy had been somewhat more than friends and that Timberlake had committed suicide because he learned of her infidelities.

At the beginning of his first term, in 1829, President Jackson had appointed Martin Van Buren as his Secretary of State and his friend Senator Eaton as Secretary of War, and that was when the scandal broke. Peggy Eaton was accused in Washington society of being an adulteress who had married Eaton indecently quickly after the death of her first husband instead of spending a proper time in mourning. In mean girls fashion, all of the wives of the men in Jackson’s cabinet snubbed John and Peggy Eaton and get their husbands to do likewise. Vice-President John C. Calhoun‘s wife Floride was the ringleader of this clique and this, along with their differences over state’s rights led to Jackson dropping Calhoun from the ticket when he ran for his second term, since Jackson, recalling the vicious gossip about his own marriage to his beloved Rachel, took the side of the Eatons, against his whole cabinet, except for Martin Van Buren, who being a widower did not have a wife to fear.

Because President Jackson became involved the petticoat affair caused a schism in his cabinet that made it impossible to govern. Jackson was unwilling to ask his friend Eaton to resign, so in 1831, he had everyone in his cabinet resign and began again with a new cabinet. Since Martin Van Buren was the only member of the cabinet who had treated the Eatons decently, Jackson made him his vice-president for his second term  selected Van Buren as his political successor.

With Jackson’s support, Van Buren easily won the Democratic nomination for president at the convention that met in Baltimore in May 1836. For his running mate, the convention selected Congressman Richard Mentor Johnson from Kentucky. Although Johnson balanced the ticket, being from the South, and something of a war hero from the War of 1812 and the conflicts against the Indians, he was a controversial choice because he had had a longstanding affair with a slave named Julia Chinn, who he treated as his wife.

The American Second Party System was still developing in 1836. There had been some opposition to Jackson from a variety of factions and these came together to oppose Van Buren. The National Republicans from the previous election joined with state’s rights supporters and the Anti-Masonic Party to form the Whig Party. The Whig Party was only united in their opposition to Andrew Jackson and they never did form a coherent party identity before breaking up over the slavery issue. In 1836, this disparate group could not settle on a site for a national convention or a single candidate, so they nominated three presidential candidates with each man appealing to a different region of the country. First there was Senator Daniel Webster from Massachusetts. He was a supporter of Henry Clay and could win New England and the Anti-Masons. Senator Hugh White from Tennessee could attract voters from the South. Finally, there was William Henry Harrison, a Senator from Ohio and the first governor of the Indiana Territory, he was most famous for leading the military force that defeated Tecumseh’s coalition of Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe. Harrison, then, was a war hero who could really the West. The Whigs hoped that each candidate would be popular enough to defeat Van Buren in his region and since no candidate could gain a majority. The House of Representatives would select the new president from among the top three, presumably Whig, candidates. It was an unusual strategy that has never been tried again. Perhaps because it didn’t work.


There is not much to say about the actual campaign. There was a great deal of personal invective from both sides. The Whigs assailed Van Buren for being merely a clever politician without character or principles who was evasive on where he stood on the issues. The Whigs in the Senate, over which Van Buren presided as part of his duties as Vice-President, tried to embarrass Van Buren and arranged for tie votes, which would oblige Van Buren to cast a deciding, and possibly controversial, vote. The Democrats portrayed Van Buren as a worthy successor to Jackson and attacked the honor and credentials of the three Whigs.

In the end, the Democrats proved to be far better organized than their opponents and proved to be far better at rallying their supporters. Van Buren won the majority he needed. He won 764,168 or 50.9% of the popular vote.  He won 170 electoral votes from states all around the Union. Of the three Whigs, William Henry Harrison proved to be the most popular with 550,816 or 36.6% of the popular vote. Harrison won the mid western states Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio, as well as Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and Vermont for a total of 73 electoral votes. Hugh got 146,109 or 9.7% of the popular vote carrying only Tennessee and Georgia with 26 electoral votes. Daniel Webster won only his home state of Massachusetts and 14 electoral votes. Webster received 41,201 or 2.7% of the popular vote.

The Election of 1836

The Election of 1836

There was one more Whig, Willie Person Magnum who got South Carolina’s 11 electoral votes. South Carolina was the only remaining state in which the electors which selected by the state legislature rather than by popular vote.

Willie Person Magnum

Willie Person Magnum

 

There was one other oddity about the election of 1836. This was the only election in which the Senate selected the Vice President, as provided by the twelfth amendment,

The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States.

Van Buren’s running mate, Richard Johnson, proved to be very unpopular in the South because of his relationship with Julia Chenn, and 23 of Virginia’s electors who supported Van Buren refused to vote for Johnson. As a result he only received 147 electoral votes, one short of a majority. Johnson easily won the Senate vote which was along party lines 36 for Johnson to 16 for the Whig Francis Granger.

 


%d bloggers like this: