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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard
» PART IV. THE WEST AND JACKSONIAN DEMOCRACY
» CHAPTER XI

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The Rise of the Whigs

Jackson’s Measures Arouse Opposition.—Measures so decided, policies so radical, and conduct so high-handed could not fail to arouse against Jackson a deep and exasperated opposition. The truth is the conduct of his entire administration profoundly disturbed the business and finances of the country. It was accompanied by conditions similar to those which existed under the Articles of Confederation. A paper currency, almost as unstable and irritating as the worthless notes of revolutionary days, flooded the country, hindering the easy transaction of business. The use of federal funds for internal improvements, so vital to the exchange of commodities which is the very life of industry, was blocked by executive vetoes. The Supreme Court, which, under Marshall, had held refractory states to their obligations under the Constitution, was flouted; states’ rights judges, deliberately selected by Jackson for the bench, began to sap and undermine the rulings of Marshall. The protective tariff, under which the textile industry of New England, the iron mills of Pennsylvania, and the wool, flax, and hemp farms of the West had flourished, had received a severe blow in the compromise of 1833 which promised a steady reduction of duties. To cap the climax, Jackson’s party, casting aside the old and reputable name of Republican, boldly chose for its title the term “Democrat,” throwing down the gauntlet to every conservative who doubted the omniscience of the people. All these things worked together to evoke an opposition that was sharp and determined.

An Old Cartoon Ridiculing Clay’s Tariff and Internal Improvement Program

Clay and the National Republicans.—In this opposition movement, leadership fell to Henry Clay, a son of Kentucky, rather than to Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Like Jackson, Clay was born in a home haunted by poverty. Left fatherless early and thrown upon his own resources, he went from Virginia into Kentucky where by sheer force of intellect he rose to eminence in the profession of law. Without the martial gifts or the martial spirit of Jackson, he slipped more easily into the social habits of the East at the same time that he retained his hold on the affections of the boisterous West. Farmers of Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky loved him; financiers of New York and Philadelphia trusted him. He was thus a leader well fitted to gather the forces of opposition into union against Jackson.

Around Clay’s standard assembled a motley collection, representing every species of political opinion, united by one tie only—hatred for “Old Hickory.” Nullifiers and less strenuous advocates of states’ rights were yoked with nationalists of Webster’s school; ardent protectionists were bound together with equally ardent free traders, all fraternizing in one grand confusion of ideas under the title of “National Republicans.” Thus the ancient and honorable term selected by Jefferson and his party, now abandoned by Jacksonian Democracy, was adroitly adopted to cover the supporters of Clay. The platform of the party, however, embraced all the old Federalist principles: protection for American industry; internal improvements; respect for the Supreme Court; resistance to executive tyranny; and denunciation of the spoils system. Though Jackson was easily victorious in 1832, the popular vote cast for Clay should have given him some doubts about the faith of “the whole people” in the wisdom of his “reign.”

Van Buren and the Panic of 1837.—Nothing could shake the General’s superb confidence. At the end of his second term he insisted on selecting his own successor; at a national convention, chosen by party voters, but packed with his office holders and friends, he nominated Martin Van Buren of New York. Once more he proved his strength by carrying the country for the Democrats. With a fine flourish, he attended the inauguration of Van Buren and then retired, amid the applause and tears of his devotees, to the Hermitage, his home in Tennessee.

Fortunately for him, Jackson escaped the odium of a disastrous panic which struck the country with terrible force in the following summer. Among the contributory causes of this crisis, no doubt, were the destruction of the bank and the issuance of the “specie circular” of 1836 which required the purchasers of public lands to pay for them in coin, instead of the paper notes of state banks. Whatever the dominating cause, the ruin was widespread. Bank after bank went under; boom towns in the West collapsed; Eastern mills shut down; and working people in the industrial centers, starving from unemployment, begged for relief. Van Buren braved the storm, offering no measure of reform or assistance to the distracted people. He did seek security for government funds by suggesting the removal of deposits from private banks and the establishment of an independent treasury system, with government depositaries for public funds, in several leading cities. This plan was finally accepted by Congress in 1840.

Had Van Buren been a captivating figure he might have lived down the discredit of the panic unjustly laid at his door; but he was far from being a favorite with the populace. Though a man of many talents, he owed his position to the quiet and adept management of Jackson rather than to his own personal qualities. The men of the frontier did not care for him. They suspected that he ate from “gold plate” and they could not forgive him for being an astute politician from New York. Still the Democratic party, remembering Jackson’s wishes, renominated him unanimously in 1840 and saw him go down to utter defeat.

The Whigs and General Harrison.—By this time, the National Republicans, now known as Whigs—a title taken from the party of opposition to the Crown in England, had learned many lessons. Taking a leaf out of the Democratic book, they nominated, not Clay of Kentucky, well known for his views on the bank, the tariff, and internal improvements, but a military hero, General William Henry Harrison, a man of uncertain political opinions. Harrison, a son of a Virginia signer of the Declaration of Independence, sprang into public view by winning a battle more famous than important, “Tippecanoe”—a brush with the Indians in Indiana. He added to his laurels by rendering praiseworthy services during the war of 1812. When days of peace returned he was rewarded by a grateful people with a seat in Congress. Then he retired to quiet life in a little village near Cincinnati. Like Jackson he was held to be a son of the South and the West. Like Jackson he was a military hero, a lesser light, but still a light. Like Old Hickory he rode into office on a tide of popular feeling against an Eastern man accused of being something of an aristocrat. His personal popularity was sufficient. The Whigs who nominated him shrewdly refused to adopt a platform or declare their belief in anything. When some Democrat asserted that Harrison was a backwoodsman whose sole wants were a jug of hard cider and a log cabin, the Whigs treated the remark not as an insult but as proof positive that Harrison deserved the votes of Jackson men. The jug and the cabin they proudly transformed into symbols of the campaign, and won for their chieftain 234 electoral votes, while Van Buren got only sixty.

Harrison and Tyler.—The Hero of Tippecanoe was not long to enjoy the fruits of his victory. The hungry horde of Whig office seekers descended upon him like wolves upon the fold. If he went out they waylaid him; if he stayed indoors, he was besieged; not even his bed chamber was spared. He was none too strong at best and he took a deep cold on the day of his inauguration. Between driving out Democrats and appeasing Whigs, he fell mortally ill. Before the end of a month he lay dead at the capitol.

Harrison’s successor, John Tyler, the Vice President, whom the Whigs had nominated to catch votes in Virginia, was more of a Democrat than anything else, though he was not partisan enough to please anybody. The Whigs railed at him because he would not approve the founding of another United States Bank. The Democrats stormed at him for refusing, until near the end of his term, to sanction the annexation of Texas, which had declared its independence of Mexico in 1836. His entire administration, marked by unseemly wrangling, produced only two measures of importance. The Whigs, flushed by victory, with the aid of a few protectionist Democrats, enacted, in 1842, a new tariff law destroying the compromise which had brought about the truce between the North and the South, in the days of nullification. The distinguished leader of the Whigs, Daniel Webster, as Secretary of State, in negotiation with Lord Ashburton representing Great Britain, settled the long-standing dispute between the two countries over the Maine boundary. A year after closing this chapter in American diplomacy, Webster withdrew to private life, leaving the President to endure alone the buffets of political fortune.

To the end, the Whigs regarded Tyler as a traitor to their cause; but the judgment of history is that it was a case of the biter bitten. They had nominated him for the vice presidency as a man of views acceptable to Southern Democrats in order to catch their votes, little reckoning with the chances of his becoming President. Tyler had not deceived them and, thoroughly soured, he left the White House in 1845 not to appear in public life again until the days of secession, when he espoused the Southern confederacy. Jacksonian Democracy, with new leadership, serving a new cause—slavery—was returned to power under James K. Polk, a friend of the General from Tennessee. A few grains of sand were to run through the hour glass before the Whig party was to be broken and scattered as the Federalists had been more than a generation before.


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