Presidential review: William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James Knox Polk
|August 18, 2011||Posted by Oliver Nott under presidential reviews, reviews|
William Henry Harrison, 1841
VP: John Tyler, First Lady: Anna Symmes
After Martin Van Buren’s rather uninspiring administration, the United States turned to William Henry Harrison in hope of a more active president who would boost the recovery from the Panic of 1837. Depicted as a frontiersman in his 1840 presidential election campaign, United States voters gave this 68-year-old war hero the chance to improve the nation’s economy and keep the union together. Unfortunately, Harrison had the chance to do neither. In fact, Harrison didn’t even get the chance to make a state of the union address, as he died of pneumonia exactly one month after taking office.
Harrison was born on February 9th 1773 in Charles City County, Virginia. From a notable family, his father was one of the 55 founding fathers of the United States. Harrison initially wanted to study medicine, but after his father died he instead transferred into the army, which was a wise career move. In 1795, he married Anna Symmes and three years later was appointed Secretary of the North-Western Territory by then-president John Adams. He became popular in this region and was soon made Governor of the Indiana Territory, a post he held for 12 years and for good reason too. His politics were popular and so was his pragmatic stance on Native Americans.
Many historians believe Harrison was reluctant to leave his role as Governor, but after such a successful military victory at the Battle of Tippecanoe Creek, where he defeated the notorious Native American Chief Tecumseh, Harrison was made an American General in the War of 1812. On the back of his military success, Harrison was elected Senator of Ohio, where he became a fierce political opponent to basically anyone who sat in the Oval Office. In 1828, he was made Minister to Colombia, a diplomatic springboard for his presidential bid in 1836. He ticked the three desirable boxes now: military, political and diplomacy. However, he was facing Jackson’s handpicked successor and ended up losing to Van Buren.
In 1840, Harrison went for the presidency again, but this time decided to employ a shrewd political tactic that ultimately won him the presidency – lying. His campaign emphasised his military career, which ranged from hyperbolic slants on certain battles, to utter lies about wounds he’d never had. He didn’t really have any policies or platforms, just catchy soundbites and the false claim that he was born in a log cabin. However, the campaign was a success and on March 4th 1841, a hatless and unscarfed William Henry Harrison stood in the pouring rain for two hours and gave the longest inaugural address in history. Harrison would live (well, actually die) to regret giving such a long speech, because not only was it, according to reports, pretty dull, but it ended up killing him. Harrison caught pneumonia and died exactly one month after taking office; the shortest presidency ever.
John Tyler, 1841 – 1845
VP: N/A, First Lady: Letitia Christian
John Tyler was the first vice president to replace a president who had died in office. He was also the only president to be thrown out of his own party during a presidency, which was not much of a surprise considering Tyler was a Whig more by name than nature. He was stubborn and argued with everyone; Democrats, Whigs, the cat – everyone. Although Tyler managed to establish a new level of unpopularity during his time as president, he is now often commended by historians for sticking to his principles despite copious criticism.
John Tyler was born on March 29th 1790 in Charles City County, Virginia, just like his predecessor. Before Tyler was even born, he had a lot to live up to; his father boasted a career, which included roles like the Governor of Virginia, the Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates and an Appellate Court Justice. However, this didn’t dampen young Tyler’s spirits, as he graduated from William and Mary College and was elected to the House of Representatives at the age of 26. A keen follower of Jefferson, in 1832, Tyler resigned from Congress and the Democratic Party after Jackson’s handling of the Nullification Crisis, as he viewed it as a dangerous strike at states’ rights.
Tyler joined the Whigs and became a surprise candidate for vice president in William Henry Harrison’s 1840 bid. Then in 1841, when Harrison died, Tyler succeeded the presidency, which coincidentally was the same moment he started pissing everyone off. Arch-Whig Henry Clay – the man who should have been, but never was, president – was still rocking around as Speaker of the House and confidently passed a bill to recreate the Bank of the United States and a bill to raise tariffs to Tyler to sign. Instead, Tyler vetoed the two bills, which infuriated Clay and the rest of the Whig Party. Everyone in Tyler’s cabinet except Daniel Webster resigned, and Tyler was thrown out the party – all in all, not a good year for the president.
Tyler, without any political allies, led a fairly quiet presidency from then on, especially since the term ‘impeachment’ was being thrown around in Congress. Combine that with the death of his beloved wife, and it’s no surprise Tyler felt like the fight was over at the start of his second year in office. He admitted Texas and Florida to the Union and was lucky enough not to face too much strain on the Union. In 1844, Tyler ran as a Third-Party candidate with his Democratic-Republican Party, however once Jackson had a word with Tyler, he all but stepped aside and allowed the “Young Hickory”, James Knox Polk, to win in a surprise victory.
In his retirement Tyler spent time trying to keep the peace between the northern Free states and the southern Slave states. He died of natural causes while his country fought with itself. Tyler’s presidency exemplified the restraints on the president, both constitutional and otherwise. He was a man of principle and did not give in to political pressure easily, which was his greatest downfall. He alienated himself from professional politics, which meant he became a lame-duck for most of his time in office. Since he cannot be admired for any political wins, he should be admired for his honesty and the strength of his convictions.
James Knox Polk, 1845 – 1849
VP: George M. Dallas, First Lady: Sarah Childress
James Knox Polk was one of those rare breeds of president who were actually successful. He expanded US territory, faced down the British, lowered tariffs and created a new, independent treasury. Combine this political and diplomatic success with his clean personal life and amazing underdog election win in 1844, and it’s difficult to see why he does not go down as one of America’s great leaders. In my opinion, he is the most undervalued president the United States has ever had.
Polk was born on November 2nd 1795 in Pineville, North Carolina. He graduated from the University of North Carolina, renowned for having the most brilliant mind on campus. He then practiced law in Tennessee and in 1824 married his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Childress. In 1825, Polk was elected to the House of Representatives, where he served 7 consecutive terms and earned the respect of his political peers for his incredible work ethic – he was known for working 18-hour days and only ever missed one day in Congress. He then became Governor of Tennessee, where he strongly advocated states’ rights and slavery.
In 1844, Polk became the surprise Democratic Party nominee for president, beating front-runner Van Buren on the 9th ballot after a speech delivered by historian George Bancroft. Polk was fairly unknown at the start of his campaign and became the first ‘dark horse’ candidate in presidential election history. It was a close contest, but in the end Polk managed to defeat Whig nominee and former-Speaker of the House, Henry Clay.
During Polk’s presidency, he negotiated with the British over the Oregon Territory and reached an agreement of receiving land up to the 49th parallel, which was less than Polk wanted, but was better than he expected. Polk also established a new and successful treasury and kept the southern Slave states happy by lowering tariffs. Although this aggravated northern Free states, civil war fever was already flowing through the nation and all Polk could do was stall such a conflict.
Polk not only showed diplomatic strength during his time in office, but also demonstrated his military potency with the successful war he waged with Mexico. The United States wanted to annex Texas at the wish of many Texans, however Mexico still claimed sovereignty over the territory and when negotiations fell through in 1846 and Polk sent General (and future president) Zachary Taylor and 4,000 soldiers to Texas, Mexican troops skirmished the US soldiers. Polk received permission from Congress to invade Mexico and defeated them very quickly. The Mexican army was small and weak, and of the 13,000 US troops that died, 11,000 of them died from disease and not battle. There were public protests and a young Congressman from Illinois called Abraham Lincoln condemned the war. However, opposition was ignored and in 1848, the United States increased by some 500,000 square-miles, with new territory making up parts of present-day Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
Polk followed his belief in Manifest Destiny, which is the theory that the United States has the divine right to expand and fill the continents of North and South America, however created a new problem for his successors concerning the balance of the Union between Free states and Slave states. He had achieved many things in many areas and by 1848 was very tired. He decided not to seek re-election, which was a clever decision, as he died three months after he left office.
James Knox Polk was morally corrupt and a proud bigot. He waged what Ulysses S. Grant (future president) called “one of the most unjust wars” with Mexico and was heavy-handed with Native Americans. He was, however, extremely successful. He won political, diplomatic and military fights, and, although it killed him, worked unbelievably hard to hold the Union together. Nevertheless, civil war was now a dark cloud on the horizon and all that Polk’s successors could do was wait for it to start raining.