OVERVIEW / U.S. History I
Part 2: Van Buren & New Political Alignments
By 1834, a new political coalition had emerged in opposition to Jackson's policies. Led by Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Henry Clay of Virginia, the members called themselves the Whigs. Just as the Whigs during the American Revolution stood up to the tyranny of King George III, the new Whigs challenged what they considered to be the abuse of presidential power by “King Andrew I.” They drew their support from New England, the mid‐Atlantic states, and the upper Midwest and from southern planters who broke with the Democrats over nullification and those who favored internal improvements and high tariffs. The Whig economic program was attractive to the country's industrial and commercial elite and successful farmers. Reform advocates who called for an expansion of public education and those who wanted social change also found a political home among the Whigs. The Democrats' base was in the South and the West, particularly among the middle class and the small farmers. Those who felt their opportunity to advance was limited by the forces of monopoly and privilege—groups aligned with Jackson's attack on the Second Bank of the United States—also backed the Democrats, as did recent immigrants. Although Jackson clearly strengthened the office of the president, it was the Whigs who favored an activist national government, while the Democrats wanted greater state and local autonomy.
The Anti‐Masonic partyalso joined ranks with the Whigs. It was the first third party in American politics and was established around a single issue—the claim that the Freemasons, a secret fraternal society that had counted George Washington among its members, were behind an anti‐Christian, antidemocratic conspiracy to take over the government at all levels. The party's candidate in 1832 was chosen through the first nominating convention, and he won seven electoral votes.
THE ELECTION OF 1836
Despite what the Whigs may have thought of Jackson's “royal” ambitions, he honored the two‐term tradition and bestowed his blessing on Vice President Martin Van Buren as the Democratic candidate in 1836. The Whigs, unable to decide on a single candidate, ran four men under their banner: William Henry Harrison, Hugh L. White, Daniel Webster, and W. P. Magnum. The idea was to prevent Van Buren from capturing a majority of the electoral vote and to throw the election into the House of Representatives, as in 1824. While the popular vote was very close (51 percent to 49 percent in favor of the Democrats, which was a sign of the growing Whig strength), Van Buren received 170 electoral votes to the combined Whig total of 124. None of the vice‐presidential candidates, however, had a majority of the vote, and for the first and only time, that choice was left up to the Senate.
THE PANIC OF 1837
No sooner had Van Buren taken office than an economic crisis gripped the nation. Although known as the Panic of 1837, economic conditions in the country remained unsettled for his entire term as president. The pet banks had been too generous in issuing paper notes and making loans; when the economy contracted and prices fell (cotton prices dropped by half in March 1837), the banks found that they could not make payouts in the hard currency that was supposed to have backed their notes, while their borrowers were defaulting on their loans. The sale of public lands declined sharply, and unemployment and prices for food and fuel rose. Estimates are that a third of Americans were out of work by late 1837, and many more were able to find only part‐time jobs.
Van Buren tried to address the economic problems by using the Independent Treasury to hold government deposits and revenues. The Independent Treasury was not really a bank but simply a depository for federal gold and silver. Its creation and use meant that the money it stored was not available to banks to make loans; it also meant that hard currency that might have been used to stimulate the economy was kept out of circulation.
THE ELECTION OF 1840
Even though Van Buren was blamed for the depression (he was nicknamed “Van Ruin”), the Democrats nominated him for a second term. The Whigs united behind William Henry Harrison and balanced the ticket with John Tyler of Virginia, a Democrat who had broken with Jackson over nullification. While the Whigs did not present a formal platform, the Democrats put a plank in theirs opposing congressional interference with slavery. This was the first time a political party took a position on the “peculiar institution,” and it was done both in response to a growing abolitionist sentiment in the North and simply to reflect the position of the Democratic constituency in the South. But the campaign itself was not about issues.
The election of 1840 earned the name the “Campaign of Tomfoolery.” Voters cast their ballots more for personality than anything else. When Democrats made the mistake of saying that all Harrison wanted to do was sit in a log cabin and sip cider, the Whigs made the most of it. Their rallies featured portable log cabins with roofs that opened to reveal jugs of hard cider for thirsty voters. Indeed, the Whigs did everything they could to portray Harrison as a latter‐day Jackson. He was a frontiersman (even though he had attended a university and studied medicine) and military hero. The campaign slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too ! ” was intended to remind voters of Harrison's victory against the tribes in the Old Northwest. Conversely, Van Buren, who was the closest thing to a professional politician the country had yet produced, was effectively painted as an aristocrat who dined off fine china in the palatial White House.
The serious economic problems and the “log cabin and cider campaign” had their effect. More than 80 percent of the nation's eligible voters participated in the election of 1840. Harrison defeated Van Buren 234 electoral votes to 60 and took 53 percent of the popular vote. Van Buren was unable to carry even his home state of New York. With his defeat, the era of Jacksonian politics came to an end. For twenty years (1836–56), the Whigs and the Democrats, both of which were truly national parties, were fairly evenly matched in the political arena, although the growing split between North and South over slavery after 1840 weakened party loyalties and changed the party system.