The American Civil War was the culmination of sectional tensions brought about by a number of regional differences. The primary disputes were with positions on slavery and states’ rights. These issues spawned widespread economic, political, and social sectionalism which the statesmen of the time chose in large part to ignore. Rather than get into an all out political battle, the politicians of the day avoided the problems rather than addressing them outright, and possibly preventing the widespread blood letting that was the Civil War.
Their ad hoc compromises and poorly thought out legislation merely bought time for the nation by treating its symptoms and not the disease. These blundering statesmen led the young nation down a road of destruction, not taking into account the negative impact that their short sighted actions would have on the future of America. Martin Van Buren followed Andrew Jackson, one of the most popular presidents in American history, into office in 1837 (Anonymous “Martin… ” 1). Van Buren was a man of good character and a shrewd politician.
However, he became the fall guy for all of Jackson’s failures, including the debacle that was his economic plan. These circumstances that surrounded his presidency set off a chain reaction that resulted in the election of a succession of presidents who were neither strong or far sighted enough to hold the nation together. Historian Dr. Alan Axelrod observed, one of the great ironies of American history was that the man who changed all of this and would have perhaps been able to hold America together:
Abraham Lincoln, strong, opinionated, and idealistic, perhaps the one person who might have been able to reunite the torn nation, was actually the proverbial, ‘straw that broke the camel’s back,’ and provided the final justification to the South, driving it to secede from the Union. (Axelrod 123) Burdened by the scandal and economic troubles of the Jacksonian presidency, Martin Van Buren, nonetheless, entered his 1841 reelection campaign with high hopes (Anonymous “Martin… ” 2). As the only candidate of an established party, he felt he had the support of those who had previously backed Jackson.
However, the problems of Jackson’s tenure and his own controversial subtreasury policy continually came back to haunt him. The Whigs challenged him with a the black horse candidate of William Henry Harrison. Harrison was a produced politician. As Bailey says, He was nominated primarily because he was issueless and enemyless – and a most unfortunate precedent was thus set. John Tyler of Virginia, an afterthought, was selected as the vice-presidential running mate. (Bailey 294) The Whigs launched a campaign with only the most meager of political stances, but made up for it by playing to the emotions of the people.
They portrayed Harrison as a war hero and a poor Westerner, reared in a backwoods log cabin; and, “Matty Van Ruin,” as an aristocrat. In reality, Harrison was a wealthy Virginian from one of the First Families of Virginia and Van Buren was raised impoverished. (Bailey 294, Anonymous “Martin… ” 1-3) In 1841, Van Buren was ousted by popular politics and Harrison floated into office on a sea of hard cider (Garraty 381). The Whigs were ecstatic. Daniel Webster, a leader of the Whigs, was especially so.
Tasked with editing Harrison’s inaugural, Webster was free to change it as he wished. Therefore, he was able to act out his own agenda through Harrison. After less than a month in office, Harrison fell ill and on April 4, 1841 succumbed to pneumonia (Anonymous “William… ” 3). John Tyler was the first vice-president to ascend to the presidency after the death of the incumbent. He was also the first in a series of presidents who acted without regard to the effects their actions might have on the future. (Garraty 381, Anonymous “William… ” 3)
The issue of Tyler’s accedence to the presidency was a topic of much Constitutional debate, but he was confident of his position as the Chief Executive. Upon arriving in Washington, shortly after Harrison’s death, his power was immediately challenged by his inherited cabinet. Expecting him to be cowed by his new office and sudden elevation, the cabinet demanded that all administrative matters be approved by them prior to being affected. Shocking his cabinet, and setting the tone for his tenure, he sardonically replied, I am very glad to have in my cabinet such able statesmen as you.
But I can never consent to being dictated as to what I can and cannot do . . . I am the President . . . When you think otherwise, your resignations will be accepted. (Tyler) In the opinion of John A. Garraty, “Tyler dared to do as his beliefs dictated, even if they contradicted those which the party leadership supported. ” He would persistently anger the Whig leadership and the opposition party resulting in vicious fighting within the political establishment (830). In his own words, I became fully aware of the angry state of the factions against each other . . .
I was surrounded by Clay men, Webster men, Anti-Mormons, Anti-Masons, original Harrisonians, old Whigs, and new Whigs, each jealous of each other and all struggling for the offices. (Tyler) His repeated use of veto power enraged Clay and Webster, who both seriously called for an impeachment. The movement failed and the trial never began, but the message was clear. Tyler, however, was uncommon in that he would not be bullied, he felt that what he was doing was right and stood by his decisions. He repeatedly vetoed Whig plans for a new National Bank and a redesigned tariff.
The bank proposal did not pass and he only allowed the tariff after it had been revisited and the tax lowered to 1832 levels (Brogan 173). (Anonymous “John Tyler,” Brogan 173, Garraty 830, Kunhardt 210, Tyler) Despite Tyler’s good intentions, his short sighted views were prejudiced much in the same way as Jackson’s were (Brogan 174). His greatest error came toward the end of his presidency. He fervently petitioned for the annexation of Texas. In fact, it was he who drafted and submitted the treaty which would transfer the sovereignty of Texas to America (Kunhardt 210).
With a lack of foresight, typical of his contemporaries, he did not fully recognize how the spread of the nation would lead to a spread of slavery and potentially throw off the representative balance between the North and the South. In the end, it was his successor James K. Polk who would receive the glory and the blame of the annexation because a spiteful congress refused to address the issue until Tyler left office (Flexner 310). (Brogan 174, Flexner 310, Kunhardt 210) In early 1845 the incumbent was cast out of office by the next dark horse candidate James Knox Polk (Anonymous “The 1844 Election… 1).
Van Buren had seemed to be the natural candidate for the presidency in 1845 but he soon defected from the Democrats and formed the anti-slavery, Free-Soil Party (Brogan 270). The Whig Party, torn apart by internal strife, saw its nominee, the wise, able, and staunch states’ righter, John C. Calhoun, defeated (Anonymous “The 1844 Election… ” 1). Although the defeat of Calhoun was a godsend which kept the radical politician, known as the father of the nullification movement and the developing secessionist movement, out of power, it embittered Calhoun and many of his Southern supporters.
Only serving to further divide the nation (Brogan 279). The new president, James K. Polk, wrote that: [John C. Calhoun] is desperate in his aspirations to the Presidency . . . unpatriotic [and] wicked . . . I now entertain a worse opinion of Mr. Calhoun than I have ver done before. He is wholly selfish, and I am satisfied has no patriotism. A few years ago he was the author of nullification and threatened to dissolve the Union on account of the tariff . . . he selects slavery upon which to agitate the country . . . the Constitution settles these [issues]. Polk) (Anonymous “The 1844 Election… ” 1, Brogan 270, 279, Polk) Fortunately for America, James K. Polk, the protege of the ailing Andrew Jackson, was of sound mind and principle. He was educated an capable. Furthermore, he was fully aware of the precarious situation that the nation was in, and made a concerted effort not to inflame sectional tempers. As the renown presidential historian Philip B. Kunhardt Jr. wrote: Determined to exercise fairness to all sections of the country, Polk took care to balance his cabinet geographically.
And in his presidential program he worked hard to balance local interests. Along with Northern Democrats, he supported an independent treasury; along with Southerners he worked for a lower tariff; and with Westerners he advocated lower prices on government land. (410) (Kunhardt 410) Although he worked hard to preserve the integrity of the nation, he made a great error in pressing for American expansion. The theory of Manifest Destiny was dear to him and even here he struggled to be fair by pushing equally as hard to the north- and southwest (Axelrod 130).
However, he did not foresee the problems that would arise regarding the slavery issue. In 1846 the United States was in the midst of a border dispute over where the Canadian-American border would be in the Oregon Territory. After several denied attempts to attain all of the territory south of the 54? 40′ North Latitude line the British finally capitulated and offered a new treaty (Bailey 387). It was to extend the previous eastern border westward granting all land south of it, with the exception of Vancouver’s Island, to the United States.