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.
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.
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.
- Martin Van Buren, Eighth American President (1837-1841) (visual.ly)
- Martin Van Buren (snippett.wordpress.com)