Watch this lesson to learn about Martin Van Buren's administration (1837-1841), the elections of 1836 and 1840, and the short-lived presidency of William Henry Harrison.
Ascent to the Presidency
Martin Van Buren was no stranger to politics, but he was a unique character on the political scene in the 1830s. What made him unique was not the fact that he had served as Secretary of State under Andrew Jackson or that he had replaced John C. Calhoun as Vice President after the Nullification Crisis of 1832; instead, Van Buren was the first of our presidents to have been born after the American Revolution, and, as such, represented a new breed, a break from the past, from the war heroes, the soldier-scholars, the landed gentry, and the career diplomats.
He was, in every sense of the word, the son of immigrants, born to a family of Dutch migrants who came to this country looking for a better life. They settled in Kinderhook, New York, and it is here that Martin Van Buren was born. These strong immigrant roots never left Van Buren, and we are told that, even in the prime of his political life, he still spoke with a strong Dutch accent. Yet none of this stopped Van Buren from rising to the top of the political world through a combination of intelligence, political acumen, and the ability to choose allies that would benefit him personally.
Van Buren served as Secretary of State and Vice-President under Jackson
By 1836, Van Buren had been involved in politics for over 37 years. He knew how to win elections, he knew how to run campaigns, and he knew how to govern. He had seasoned himself politically in state and local politics early in his life, was elected to the senate, and served in Jackson's cabinet - and as his vice president. Things had fallen into place nicely for Van Buren, so much so that by 1836, he was well-positioned to ride Andrew Jackson's coattails all the way to the Oval Office.
Lead-up to The Election
By 1835, it had become obvious to political observers both inside Jackson's political party and to potential Whig opposition that Van Buren was to be the successor to the old war hero, not John C. Calhoun. Van Buren had served Jackson well, and the party handily nominated him as their candidate for president. It was the shared belief of the party that while Van Buren was his own man, he would continue Jacksonianism without Jackson.
Try as they might, the old anti-Jackson forces aligned against Van Buren in the Whig party had no viable candidate to stand in the election. Their strategy was to be one of divide and conquer, hoping to split the electoral vote with multiple candidates and force the election into the House of Representatives. But they were no match for the experience of Van Buren or the gravitas that Jackson lent to the ticket.
Van Buren was also a master at the grassroots campaign, sending out representatives and making use of the press to get his message out to all levels of society, not relying solely on Washington politicians.
As expected, the Whigs attempted to drag him down and their attacks on his stances and policies mirrored many of their attacks on Andrew Jackson, but it was to no avail. Van Buren and the Democratic Party had superior organization in 1836, and ultimately, their voters turned out in large numbers, more than the Whigs could match. By the time all votes were counted, Van Buren had secured electoral victory with 170 votes. He needed only 148 to win.
Van Buren's Administration
While an able president, Van Buren's administration was not marked by any great accomplishment or event that would set him apart from his predecessors. In many ways he kept Jacksonian policies alive, but he did seek to branch out on his own in directions differing from Jackson. It won him no great accolades from his contemporaries or in our history books.
On the issue of Indian removal, he had the unfortunate job of overseeing the Trail of Tears. As you may recall from another lesson, the Trail of Tears was the forced removal of the Cherokee Indians from their native lands east of the Mississippi, a job overseen by the U.S. military and carried out in order to seize their lands for white settlers. Thousands died, and it brought an end to the last independent tribes in the East.
As for the issue of Texas independence, which had erupted during the Jackson administration, Van Buren shocked many when he denied their petition to join the United States in 1837, seeking to ease tensions with Mexico and search for a diplomatic solution to the problem.
On the issue of slavery, he held it to be morally wrong but believed the Constitution justified its existence and that unless the Constitution could be changed, slavery would - and should - continue. He felt it his solemn duty to be uncompromising on this issue, adhering to the notion that the letter of the law came before personal feeling.
William Henry Harrison defeated Van Buren in the 1840 election
An opponent of the Bank of the United States, he tried to reform America's financial system by lowering tariffs and promoting free trade. He also wanted to establish an independent Treasury system that gave the U.S. Treasury control of all federal funds and legal tender.
He was also in favor of domestic improvements to infrastructure but believed the projects should be primarily the responsibility of the states. Those were bold steps to be sure, but the biggest issue facing his administration was the Panic of 1837 and the resulting five years of depression that followed.
Quite simply, Van Buren had few financial tools as president to stop the collapse of the financial markets. Congress was equally helpless. The course correction that was needed in the market would come only after the banks that deserved to fail did fail. The resulting unemployment was costly across the country and made Van Buren very unpopular, as people laid the blame for much of the trouble squarely on the President's shoulders.
Whig Opposition and the Election of 1840
By 1840, the Whigs were better organized and prepared to deal with Van Buren. The economic depression that began as soon as he took office hurt Van Buren substantially, and the Whigs laid the blame squarely at the feet of Van Buren and at that of his party.
It also helped the Whigs that they had finally learned a thing or two about winning elections from being trounced so many times by the Democrats. They knew enough to choose a candidate that would have mass appeal and around whom a political myth could be constructed very similar to that which had been constructed around Andrew Jackson.
What they needed was a decent man, a good man, a war hero at the top of their ticket - someone the masses would respect and accept as tough, uncompromising, and patriotic, embodying all of the American spirit. A man such as this at the top of the Whig ticket would, they hoped, secure them the White House. To that end, they nominated General William Henry Harrison for president.
Harrison was well-educated and from a good family, but he was also a war hero and an Indian fighter in the same vein as Andrew Jackson - at least in the minds of the Whigs. But as with politics today, Harrison's image would be molded and shaped to fit the Whig agenda; all that was missing was a Vice President who could secure the South.
They found such a man in a states' rights politician named John Tyler, and with that, the Whig ticket was set. In one fell swoop, the Whigs had outmaneuvered the Democrats at their own game, choosing symbolism over the substance of political stalwarts and influential statesmen in their own party, including Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, men who had at one time or another ran for president and hacked away at the popularity of Andrew Jackson and his administration's policies.
The strategy would continue into the campaign, as the 1840 presidential race would become characterized as the first political circus, meaning it had all the trappings and hoopla of a modern political campaign. His wealthy, slave-owning family past was largely ignored, and instead Harrison was portrayed as a humble man of the people, born and raised in hardship, even adopting a log cabin as a symbol of his campaign.
Hyperbole abounded on both sides as candidates were awash with color, flags, and slogans, such as 'Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,' meant to rally the base for the former Indian-fighter Harrison in much the same way the people rallied behind Jackson. It worked. Van Buren's party could not match this rhetoric, and what is more, they had a record that could be criticized at will. No amount of slogans could erase the four years of economic woes, and Harrison coasted to victory by winning 234 electoral votes to Van Buren's 60.
Tyler became president when Harrison died after serving just weeks in office
In the eyes of Washington and the American public they had just elected a great man, a true leader of men. But President Harrison had no desire to be the kind of leader that Andrew Jackson was nor involve himself in the political minutia as had Van Buren.
By the time of his inauguration he was the oldest man to serve in office - only Ronald Reagan would be older - and his age and experience brought wisdom, a wisdom to avoid the fights and mistakes of those who sought to extend executive power beyond what he believed the founding fathers had intended.
Simply put, Harrison believed in the strict separation of powers and had no intention of using the veto in a manner similar to Jackson, essentially giving a Whig-controlled Congress the green light to move forward on their agenda.
And so it was after his inauguration that Harrison settled down in the White House to craft an administration far different than that which came before, and across the way in Congress, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster eagerly vied for power, knowing that Congress under Harrison would become more powerful than it had been under either Jackson or Van Buren.
Whether Harrison could have been an effective president will never be known, for just a few weeks after his inauguration he contracted pneumonia and died on April 4, 1841. His election made him the oldest man at the time to serve as president, and his untimely death of pneumonia made Harrison's term in office the shortest of any American president, lasting only 30 days.
As he lay dying, he summoned the energy to speak one last time, and we are told he directed his last words to his vice president, 'Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more.' And with that, the ninth president of the United States, and another American hero, had passed.
Thus ended a busy five years, years that saw America finally move away from Jacksonian politics to a new era ushered in by a Whig-controlled White House. Van Buren had been an able politician, but the legacy of Jackson's expanding presidential power made the task of dealing with America's fiscal problems, Indian issues, and unruly states difficult for any man who lacked Andrew Jackson's political force of will and popularity. The task of dealing with these issues and keeping the Union together would now fall upon President Tyler, and only time would tell if he and his party were up to the challenge.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Paraphrase Martin Van Buren's personal and political background
- Summarize the election of 1836 and the events of Van Buren's administration, including his stance on certain issues and the Panic of 1837
- List some of the reasons the Whig party nominated William Henry Harrison for the 1840 election and explain their strategy for his campaign
- Describe Harrison's brief presidency