Martin Van Buren had spent his entire political career working for the Presidential prize that he had finally won in 1836, easily defeating two Whig candidates (one from the North and one from the South hoping to deny Van Buren a majority of votes). He had little time to enjoy the prize, unfortunately, as the 1837 Panic had struck within the first month of his inauguration. As his term lengthened, the economic depression had only deepened. The Whigs, the recently-formed opposition party to Jackson and his application of Van Buren’s party politics, sensed their moment had finally come. So sure of victory were they that they scheduled their first ever Presidential convention in Harrisburg, PA, for Dec. 4, 1839, almost a full year ahead of the election, in order to maximize the time they would have to stump for their candidate. Sen. Henry Clay, who had vigorously opposed Jackson in Congress, and had even unsuccessfully run against him in the 1832 Presidential election, appeared as the early favorite. Clay had honed a political philosophy, that he had first named the “American System” in a speech he delivered in Congress in 1824, that was based on the Federal government’s active promotion of improving the quality of life in the U.S, through three main ideas: a high tariff to protect and encourage the country’s fledging industries; second, Federal funds to be used directly, not through grants to the individual states, to build and maintain the nation’s transportation systems in order to make it easier for private businesses to grow, as well as to better unify the country’s three geographical sections; and third, a strong national bank to foster the first two.
In a move calculated to shore up his support throughout the South, “Harry of the West” gave a speech in the Senate on Feb. 7, 1839, in which he attempted to clarify his long-held belief that slavery was an evil, but in contrast to the abolitionists’ demand for immediate emancipation, stated that the process needed to be gradual and that it could be made by each individual state, not by the Federal government. While the speech had its intended result with his Southern supporters, it spread confusion among Northern Whigs, that ultimately cost him the nomination. Gen. William Henry Harrison, the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe who had finished a respectable second to Van Buren in the 1836 election, was the winner on the fifth ballot, with Clay losing all of the northern states except Rhose Island. In what must be ranked among the greatest political mistakes in American history, Clay, in a fit of self-pity, refused to respond to the convention’s follow-up offer to name him its candidate for Vice-President, leaving it no alternative but to settle on John Tyler from Virginia to balance the ticket. “Tippecanoe (1811) and Tyler Too” went on to a landslide victory, making it a clean sweep by the Whigs who also took control of both Houses of Congress. It was a watershed moment in American history, that could have changed the course of the nation. Only three weeks after his inauguration, however, Harrison came down with a cold from which he never recovered, dying on April 4, 1841, from what contemporary research has determined to have been typhoid fever, thought to have been probably brought on by drinking the water from the nearby Potomac River. Tyler took the oath of office two days later.
Whereas, if Clay had only swallowed his pride and accepted the Vice-President nomination at the convention, it would have been him, and not Tyler, who succeeded Harrison as President. Clay, with a Whig Congress, would have been able to enact the enitire American System in its entirety. Assuming Clay’s results would have been more positive than what actually occurred under Tyler, Clay should have been re-elected in 1844, and as he had not been originally elected in 1840, could have, if the conditions were favorable, had run for re-election in 1848, giving him and the Whigs a potential twelve-year period to recast the country along their political ideals. One of the most important projects would have been the completion of the National Road at least to St, Louis (although Congress had approved its extension to Jefferson City, MO, in 1825, the 1837 Panic had ended its funding that had stopped its construction at Vidalia, IL), with a number of branch roads into the North as well as the South (such as Clay’s proposed Maysville Road, intended to link the National Road with Zanesville, OH in the north, and with the Natchez Trace, via Lexington, KY, in the south, that Pres. Jackson had spitefully vetoed on May 27, 1830) binding the three sections of the country. However, this is mere speculation, and the facts are that Tyler was more of an anti-Jackson than a true Whig, and not only did not believe in much of the Whig platform, but had his own Presidential aspirations that made him confront Clay wherever he could so as to weaken Clay’s chance for a run in 1844 (in which Clay did, nonetheless, get the nomination). With Tyler fighting Clay’s Congress, not much was accomplished in the next four years while the depression continued to hold back America’s growth. While the National Road to St. Louis still languished in central Illinois, Chicago’s farmers continued to build up their new farms.
Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago, 3 vols. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.
Heidler, David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler. Henry Clay- The Essential American. New York: Random House, 2011.
Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
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