1836, Martin Van Buren Defeats William Henry Harrison, Daniel Webster, Hugh White: The Unusual Practice Of Running Three Candidates By One Party (The Whigs) In Different Parts Of The Country – Guest Essayist: Lisa Ice-Jones

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Martin Van Buren was victorious over the Whig Party and its slate of candidates in the election of 1836, but the preparation for this victory had been a long time coming.  Van Buren had been championing the causes of Jefferson’s Democratic Republican party since early in his career.  He was, through his affiliation with his own political machine the “Albany Regency”, described as one of them and having great ability, great industry, indomitable courage and strict personal integrity.”  He later illustrated that he was capable of shrewd political maneuvering.    He chose to “tred generally in the footsteps of President Jackson” (Moore, 2007) but he also knew when to distance himself.  Because Jackson was a popular President with the people, they liked Van Buren’s alignment with Jackson.  They also liked the fact that Jackson trusted Van Buren even though Henry Clay, with his political magnetism, tried to convince the people that Van Buren was Jackson’s puppet and that Jackson would be controlling him from behind the scenes.

Even Jackson’s popularity was not enough to insulate him from the backlash of his efforts to steer federal funds to favored state banks and dismantle the Bank of the United States.  Many believed that Andrew Jackson was too reckless and high handed in his removal of federal deposits from the Bank of the United States.  Some even felt it bordered on tyrannical behavior.  This among other issues seemed to be enough to organize Jackson’s bitter political enemies.

By the mid 1830’s the Whig party, as the opposition came to be known, was able to battle the Democratic party on almost equal terms throughout the country.  The Whig party was now a meshing of the National Republicans, anti-Masons and anti-Jacksonian Democrats.  In March, 1834, Whig leader, Henry Clay, sponsored unprecedented resolutions that censured Jackson for having “assumed upon himself, authority and power not conferred by the Constitution” (Unger, 2015).  Van Buren, now thought by many to be heir apparent to the Presidency, asserted that the principles that would govern his calling to the county’s highest duty would be “adherence to the letter and spirit of the Constitution and those that framed it.”

Clay and Van Buren both appear to uphold the Constitution.  Clay, one of America’s most loved politicians, seemed a likely candidate for the Presidency; however, when his daughter died he abruptly resigned from the Senate, retired from politics and returned home to Kentucky. The Whig party had been united in their opposition to “King Jackson” and his disregard for congressional and judicial authority, but they were now without a clear candidate (Meacham, 2009).

The issues were different in all parts of the country.  Fragmented and unable to agree, the Whigs ran three regional candidates against Van Buren: Daniel Webster, a strong abolitionist, great orator and popular senator from Massachusetts, had substantial appeal in New England; Hugh Lawson White, who had appeal in the South due to his moderate views on State’s rights issues was not well liked in the North and William Henry Harrison, born in Virginia with the legacy of being the son of a Signer of the Declaration of Independence and now a retired General who had fought in the Battle of Tippecanoe, appealed to the west and to the Anti-Masons in Pennsylvania and Vermont.  The Whig party strategy was to throw the election into the House of Representatives where the Whigs would then unite behind a single candidate.

The Whigs attacked Van Buren on all sides and their plan to prevent any candidate from having the majority vote failed.  Like Jackson, Harrison was a frontier hero and he was the most effective of the opponents, but Van Buren’s superior party organization carried the day, earning him a majority of the popular vote.  Although the Whig party did not win the Presidency in 1836, they now had the makings of fundamental political analysis and voter preferences that would serve them well in the next campaign when they would package their candidate to be “the” candidate that could and would be elected the next President of the United States (Cleaves, 2010).

Lisa Ice-Jones is Adminstrator of William Henry Harrison’s Grouseland. The Grouseland Foundation is the Home of the 9th President of the United States, Indiana Territorial Mansion, Presidential Home and National Historic Landmark.

Cleaves, F. (2010). Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time. Newtown: American Political Biography Press.

Meacham, J. (2009). Americn Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House . New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks.

Moore, K. (2007). The American President. New York: Fall River Press.

Unger, H. G. (2015). Henry Clay America’s Greatest Statesman. Boston: Da Capo Press.

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