THE FIRST WHIG TRIUMPH
Partly Jackson's personal influence, partly his able aides, partly favoring circumstances had, during his administrations, brought the Democracy into excellent condition, patriotic, national in general spirit, with a creed that, however imperfect--close construction being its integrating idea--was, after all, definite, consistent, and thoughtful. Yet in 1840 the Democrats, who four years before had chosen Van Buren by an electoral vote of 170 to 73, had to surrender, with the same Van Buren for candidate, to the Whigs by a majority of 234 electoral votes to 60; only five States, and but two of them northern, going for the democratic candidate.
There were several causes for this defeat. Jackson had made many enemies as well as many friends, some of these within his own party, while the entire opposition to him was indescribably bitter on account of the personal element entering into the struggle. The commendably national spirit of the Whig Party told well in its favor. Upon this point its attitude proved far more in accord with the best sentiment of the nation than that of the Democracy, sound as the latter was at the core and nobly as its chief had behaved in the nullification crisis.
More influential still was the financial predicament into which on Jackson's retirement his successor and the country were plunged. The commercial distress which seemed to spring from Jackson's measures was now first fully realized. Anger and pain from the death of the bank had not abated. Ardent hatred prevailed toward the "pet" banks, extending to the party whose darlings they were, while the Specie Circular was held to have ruined most of the others.
Martin Van Buren.
From a photograph by Brady.
The subsequent legislation for distributing the treasury surplus among the States, by removing the deposits from the pet banks, destroyed many of these as well. They had been using this government money for the discount of loans to business men, and were not in condition instantly to pay it back. Hence the panic of 1837. First the New York City banks suspended, soon followed by the others throughout that State, all sustained in their course by an act of the Legislature. Suspension presently occurred everywhere else. The financial pressure continued through the entire summer of 1837, banks, corporations, and business men going to the wall, and all values greatly sinking. Boston suffered one hundred and sixty-eight business failures in six months.
One of Van Buren's earliest acts after assuming office was to call an extra session of Congress for September 4, 1837, to consider the financial condition of the country. When it convened, an increase of the whig vote was apparent, though the Democrats were still in the majority.
On the President's recommendation, agitation now began in favor of the sub-treasury or independent treasury plan, still in use to-day, of keeping the government moneys. This had been first broached in 1834-35 by Whigs. The Democrats then opposed it; but now they took it up as a means of counteracting the whig purpose to revive a national bank.
There was soon less need of any such special arrangement, as the treasury was swiftly running dry. In June of the preceding year, 1836, both parties concurring, an act had passed providing that after January 1, 1837, all surplus revenue should be distributed to the States in proportion to their electoral votes. It was meant to be a loan, to be recalled, however, only by vote of Congress, but it proved a donation. Twenty-eight millions were thus paid in all, never to return. Such a disposition of the revenue had now to be stopped and reverse action instituted. Importers called for time on their revenue bonds, which had to be allowed, and this checked income. This special session was needed to authorize an issue of ten millions in treasury notes to tide the Government over the crisis.
Another influence which now worked powerfully against the Democracy was hostility to slavery. This campaign--it was the first--saw a "Liberty Party" in the field, with its own candidates, Birney and Earle. The abolition sentiment, of which more will be said in a subsequent chapter, was growing day by day, and little as the Whigs could be called an antislavery party on the whole, their rank and file were very much more of that mind than those of the opposition. Jackson had ranted wildly against the despatch of abolition literature through the mails. The second Seminole War, 1835-42, was waged mainly in deference to slave-holders, to recover for them their Florida runaways, and, by removal of the Seminoles beyond the Mississippi, to break up a popular resort for escaped negroes.
The Indians, under Osceola, whose wife, as daughter to a slave-mother, had been treacherously carried back into bondage, fought like tigers. After their massacre of Major Dade and his detachment, Generals Gaines, Jesup, Taylor, Armistead, and Worth successively marched against them, none but the last-named successful in subduing them. Over 500 persons had been restored to slavery, each one costing the Government, as was estimated, at least $80,000 and the lives of three white soldiers.
General William J. Worth.
Van Buren was to the slavocrats even more obsequious than Jackson. His spirit was shown, among other things, by the Amistad case, in 1839. The schooner Amistad was sailing between Havana and Puerto Principe with a cargo of negroes kidnapped in Africa. Under the lead of a bright negro named Cinque the captives revolted and killed or confined all the crew but two, whom they commanded to steer the ship for Africa. Instead, these directed her to the United States coast, where she was seized off Long Island by a war vessel and brought into New London. The negroes were, even by Spanish law, not slaves but free men, as Spain had prohibited the slave trade. Yet when their case was tried before the district court, Mr. Van Buren spared no effort to procure their release to the Spanish claimants. He even had a government vessel all ready to convey the poor victims back to Cuba. The district court having decided for the blacks, the government attorney appealed to the circuit court, thence also to the supreme court.
Final judgment happily re-affirmed that the men were free. The supreme court trial was the occasion of one of John Quincy Adams's most splendid forensic victories, he being the counsel for the negroes.
The attitude of the administration in this affair greatly injured the party in the North, the more as it but illustrated a spirit and policy which had grown characteristic of the party's head. In several instances previous to this time, when ships conveying slaves from one of the United States to another, entered the ports of the Bahama Islands through stress of weather, England had, while freeing them, allowed some compensation. Now, having emancipated the slaves in her own West Indian possessions, she declined longer to continue that practice. Her first refusal touched the slaves on the ship Enterprise, which had put in at Port Hamilton in 1835. Jackson's administration in vain sought indemnity, Van Buren, then Secretary of State, designating this business as "the most immediately pressing" before the English embassy.
In the same pro-slavery interest an increasing proportion of the Democracy, though not Van Buren himself, had come to favor the annexation of Texas. The southwestern boundary of the United States had ever since the purchase in Florida in 1819 been recognized as the Sabine River, west of this lying the then foreign country of Texas. France had claimed the Rio Grande as Louisiana's western bound, but Mr. Monroe, to placate the North in the Florida annexation, had receded from this claim. Texas and Coahuila became a state in the new Mexican republic, which Spain recognized in 1821; but in 1836 Texas declared itself independent. It was ill-governed and weighed down with debt, and hence almost immediately, in 1837, asked membership in the American Union. Its annexation was bitterly opposed all over the North, so bitterly in fact that the northern Democrats would not have dared, even had they wished, to favor the scheme.
WHIGS AND DEMOCRATS
Yet so strong was the southern influence in the party by 1840 that the democratic platform that year urged the "re-annexation" of Texas, the term assuming that as a part of Louisiana it had always been ours since 1803. This was a fact, but it was now asseverated by the Democracy for a selfish sectional purpose, and the cry brought thousands of votes to the Whigs.
It proved good politics for the Whigs in 1840 to pass over Clay and adopt as their candidate William Henry Harrison. He had indeed been unsuccessful in 1836, owing to the great popularity of Jackson, all whose influence went for Van Buren; but now that "Little Van," or "Matty," as Jackson used to call him, stood alone, Harrison had a better chance. His political record had been inconspicuous but honorable. Nothing could be alleged against his character. He was a gentleman of some ability, while his brilliant military record in 1812, now revived to the minutest detail, gave him immense popularity. Every surviving Tippecanoe or Thames veteran stumped his vicinity for the old war-horse.
William Henry Harrison
From a Copy at the Corcoran Art Gallery of a painting by Beard in 1840.
Many wavering Democrats in the South, especially those of the nullification stripe, were toled to the whig ticket by the nomination of John Tyler for Vice-President. "Tippecanoe and Tyler too" rang through the land as the whig watchword for the campaign. During the electioneering every hamlet was regaled with portrayals of Harrison's simple farm life at North Bend, where, a log cabin his dwelling, and hard cider--so one would have supposed--his sole beverage, he had been a genuine Cincinnatus. "Tippecanoe and Tyler" were therefore elected; their popular vote numbering 1,275,017, against 1,128,702 polled for Van Buren.
However, this whig success, for a moment so imposing, proved superficial and brief. Harrison died at the end of his first month in office, and Tyler, coming in, showed that though training under the whig banner, he had not renounced a single one of his democratic principles. The Whigs scorned and soon officially repudiated him.
108 WHIGS AND DEMOCRATS
During the entire four years that he held office there was constant deadlock between him and the slight whig majority in Congress, which gave the Democrats main control in legislation. The panic of 1837 was forgotten, while the hold of the Democracy upon the country was so firm that its gains in Congress and its triumphs in the States once more went steadily on.