May 15, 2024

A Short Presidential Primer

Greet the presidents who served during the period of the Republic of Texas.

Before we plunge into a war with Mexico over the Texas issue, we need to back up a bit and at least greet the presidents who served during the period of the Republic of Texas. Each chose to either deal carefully with the “hot spot” of the day, Texas, or decided to pretend the issue was not simmering on the stove, threatening to boil over any day. Difficult days…

When one considers U.S. presidents, few immediately shout “Martin Van Buren.” But did you know that Van Buren was the first president born in the United States and not the British colonies? Because he followed the volatile Andrew Jackson, we often forget that he had been quite a political force in his own right. Elected to the U.S. Senate during James Monroe’s presidency, Van Buren had helped consolidate the Democratic Party, bringing northern citizens into the fold. In 1828, he left the Senate to become governor of New York. However, when Jackson tapped him to join the presidential cabinet, he joined Jackson’s administration. After the disastrous Jackson-Calhoun debacle that ended with Calhoun leaving the vice presidency, returning to South Carolina, being elected to the U.S. Senate, and standing as Jackson’s adversary, Van Buren joined the 1832 ticket as VP.

Yes, national politics had gotten very messy and interesting!

Martin Van Buren stood alongside Jackson in the fight against the U.S. Bank and in support of national authority. It was no surprise to astute political minds when he was handpicked as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 1836. When he defeated William Henry Harrison, “Tippecanoe” war hero, Van Buren stepped into the limelight, confident that the nation agreed with the policies he supported.

And they did until the Panic of 1837 occurred…

When scores of banks failed and economic depression spread across the country, Van Buren’s legacy had been written. Three years later, William Henry Harrison defeated the one-term Van Buren.

Harrison, contrary to his frontiersman image, had been born into a wealthy Virginia family and was a classics scholar who attended Hampden-Sydney College. First choosing medicine as his career, Harrison abandoned his studies after becoming intrigued by military service and the new Northwest Territory. The next decades witnessed his military service; being an aide to the “Mad Anthony” Wayne at Fallen Timbers; being secretary of the Northwest Territory and the territory’s first delegate to Congress; and, after the territory was divided, being the governor of the Indiana Territory.

In his role as governor, Harrison’s duty to the territorial settlers was constantly challenged by the Indian Confederation, led by Tecumseh and his brother and spiritual leader, The Prophet. Even a victory in 1811 at Tippecanoe River against the confederation did not end the threat. During the War of 1812, now Brigadier General Harrison’s fame increased when he and his forces defeated the British and Indian troops at the Battle of the Thames; Tecumseh was killed and the confederation shattered.

His narrow presidential victory in 1840 reinvigorated the public. The contrast between Van Buren and the war hero was obvious, and citizens wondered how the Harrison administration would change the challenging political and economic conditions.

And they would continue to wonder because Harrison caught a cold at his inauguration that morphed into pneumonia and he died one month later, the first president to die in office.

The other half of the “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too” ticket was then propelled into the presidency. Right? Maybe. The U.S. Constitution made no reference to what would happen if a president died in office. Did the VP become president after taking the oath of office, or did he remain “VP acting as president” until the next election?

Ultimately, Virginia’s John Tyler became president, but because he was not a Whig, Harrison’s Whig platform died. Even though the Whigs attempted an impeachment — unsuccessfully — Tyler was not without some success, although he will never make a list of “Most Effective Presidents.” He encouraged western settlements by endorsing a program that would today be considered “homestead legislation,” signed the Webster-Ashburton Treaty establishing a northern boundary between Maine and Canada, and ended the Seminole War in Florida that had been raging since the period of “Indian Removal.” His two final acts were to sign legislation admitting Florida to the Union as the 27th state and to annex Texas before returning to Virginia and life as a James River planter.

Into this chaotic line of presidents would emerge Speaker of the House James Knox Polk with his election in 1844. Like his mentor Andrew Jackson’s presidency, Polk was about to embark on an exciting four years.

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