The Constitution had been composed in order to establish a more nearly perfect Union. It had attempted to resolve the competing authority of federal and state government through compromise, by assigning to each an ill-defined sphere of power. The result had been to leave both teetering on the edge of indecision or threatening dispute. The Union, created by compromise, sought to resolve continuing difficulties by further compromises. Every American politician had to operate within a system that placed a premium on moderation. As the nineteenth century progressed, and circumstances changed, it became increasingly apparent that the political party, the vehicle of compromise, was unable to perform its function. By midcentury the nation found itself divided by sectional rivalries. Between 1850 and 1860 the politicians would make desperate efforts to achieve a successful compromise with which to hold together a disintegrating Union.
The Tyler Administration Andmanifest Destiny
Manifest Destiny. John L. O'Sullivan, a New York editor, in 1844 had described America's progress to the Pacific Ocean as her "Manifest Destiny." He gave voice to the American conviction that the nation's natural boundary is the Pacific Ocean. As everyone knew, he claimed, "the swelling tide of our population must and will roll on until that mighty ocean interposes its waters, and limits our territorial empire."
And O'Sullivan was not a visionary radical in thinking this way. Even so eminent a conservative as John Quincy Adams anticipated that "the world shall be familiarized with the idea of considering our proper dominion to be the continent of North America." De Tocqueville warned of the approaching day when "the Anglo-Americans alone will cover the immense space contained between the polar regions and the tropics, extending from the coasts of the Atlantic to those of the Pacific Ocean." America's expansion westward was deemed inevitable; and each new accession of territory, in addition to "proving" the validity of Manifest Destiny, seemed also to lend conviction to a second widely held concept, namely that the Anglo-Saxon-American breed should naturally meet with success where the French and the Spanish had met only with failure. Implicit in Manifest Destiny was the added conviction that America was the recipient of divine aid in her westward quest. When, in 1846, the United States made her final westward leap at the expense of Mexico, the American expansionist had a ready explanation: "Providence called upon us to regenerate her [Mexico's] decadent population." What few Americans understood was that the way west would also lead to the final crisis of the Union.
John Tyler. William Henry Harrison had barely succeeded to the presidency when his health began to fail. Beset with office-seekers, harassed by the claims of the Whigs, he found escape in death only thirty days after claiming the presidency. His successor, John Tyler, found it immediately necessary to establish the principle that the Vice-President succeeds to the full authority of the presidency rather than to serve as an acting President until a new election. Tyler, a state-rights Democrat and the archetype of the Virginia gentleman, also claimed leadership of a Whiggery that expressed considerable antipathy for a strong executive. Moreover, this brought him into conflict with the ambitions of Henry Clay who did not propose to relinquish his dominance within the Whiggery, or his hopes for 1844, to "His Accidency" John Tyler.
Battle within the Whig Party. When the new President, in his brief inaugural address, gave no indication that he intended to step down after his inherited tenure had expired, Clay set to work to exploit his congressional powers to insure his own nomination in 1844. He easily secured the repeal of the Independent Treasury by the Senate as part of a plan to establish a Third Bank of the United States. When Tyler realized that the clever Kentuckian had isolated him from Whig leadership in Congress, he responded by vetoing the bill establishing the new bank. Subsequent efforts to modify the bank bill so as to meet the objections of both Clay and Tyler met with a second presidential veto. It became obvious that the incumbent and his rival were both intent upon securing party dominance.
Tyler and Reorganization of the Cabinet. Tyler, now fully aware of Clay's power among Whigs, decided to establish a new party with himself at its head. To implement his decision, he determined to remove everyone but Daniel Webster from the cabinet, and replace them with either anti-Clay Whigs or conservative Democrats. Clay, also eager to complete the Whiggery's break with Tyler, pressured the cabinet to resign. On September 11, 1841, the cabinet members resigned and Tyler reconstructed his cabinet without a single Clay supporter, appointing to the position of Postmaster General a long-time Clay antagonist, Charles A. Wickliffe of Kentucky.
The Tariff of 1842. In the resulting political stalemate, only a modified protective tariff, passed in 1842, conformed with the Whig pledges of 1840. Several factors determined the passage of a new tariff, most important among them being the rapid rise of the government debt, and the sharp drop in tariff rates scheduled for July 1, 1842, by the Compromise Tariff of 1833. Indeed, the awkward wording of the 1833 Tariff left genuine doubt whether any tariffs at all could be collected after that date. Tyler conceded the need for a tariff whose rates would be higher than twenty per cent of the products' actual valuation, and one whose primary objective would be to provide federal revenue and only incidentally protection for home products; but if such a tariff were passed, he made it clear that he would adamantly refuse to accept distribution of land receipts among the states. In the resulting struggle between Clay and Tyler, the President wielded the veto so effectively that though the 1842 Tariff restored rates to the level of 1832, distribution was a dead issue. It was hardly surprising that, among Clay Whigs, Tyler was contemptuously referred to as "Judas Iscariot."
The Webster-Ashburton Treaty, 1842. Daniel Webster, an Anglophile, had remained in Tyler's cabinet, hoping to secure peace with Great Britain. Of particular urgency was settlement of the boundary line between Canada and the United States. A compromise line was drawn from Lake Superior to the Lake of the Woods (Minnesota), and a realignment favorable to the United States was made of the New York and Vermont borders. The more difficult problem of the Maine-New Brunswick border was also settled by compromise. The existence of a map (showing a red line supposedly drawn by Benjamin Franklin) that gave the disputed territory to Britain persuaded supporters of Maine's claim to accept compromise - a compromise that was made considerably more palatable by federal payment of $150,000 each to Maine and Massachusetts in lieu of their claims on the lost territory. All told, the United States received 7,000 of the 12,000 square miles in dispute. The treaty also pledged both countries to suppress the slave trade, and established a useful extradition agreement. Perhaps of greatest significance, it inaugurated a precedent whereby the United States and Great Britain negotiated future disputes.
Tyler and Texas. While Webster negotiated a peaceful settlement of disputes with Britain, Tyler adopted an aggressive policy on the future of Texas. It was this policy that he hoped would provide him with a rallying point for a third party in 1844. When Webster, unwilling to sever his relations with the Whiggery, finally withdrew from the cabinet on May 8, 1843, Tyler appointed Abel P. Upshur to the State Department. This enthusiastic proponent of slavery saw in the annexation of Texas a renewed opportunity for the South to retain political parity within the nation. In addition to his desire for sectional advancement, Upshur was guided in his efforts by his fear of British expansion into the region if the United States were to refrain from taking action on the matter. Andrew Jackson threw his immense prestige behind annexation, though his traditional antagonist, John Quincy Adams, warned that annexation would preface dissolution of the Union. When the explosion of a cannon aboard the warship Princeton on February 28, 1844 killed Upshur, Tyler appointed Calhoun, another ardent proponent of annexation, to replace him.
The Democrats and Texas. As Tyler battled with the Whigs, many Democrats chaffed under the leadership of Martin Van Buren. Men like Lewis Cass, Robert J. Walker, James Buchanan, and James K. Polk supported a vigorous policy of expansionism, with particular emphasis upon the annexation of Texas. When Van Buren publicly announced his opposition to annexation, the expansionist wing of the party decided to deny him a third Democratic nomination. The support of annexation by state-rights Democrats, led by Tyler and Calhoun, suggested that Texas would be the issue upon which the Democrats could ignore their differences and present a united front in 1844.
The Election of 1844. When in the spring of 1844 Clay also expressed a qualified opposition to the annexation of Texas, the issue seemed dead. Though the Whigs dutifully endorsed Clay for the nomination, the Democrats repudiated Van Buren rather than renounce agitation for the annexation of Texas. When it became clear at the Baltimore convention of May 1844 that Van Buren would never obtain the two-thirds vote needed for nomination, the Democrats settled for the nomination of the dark-horse James K. Polk. The expansionist wing of the Democratic Party won a total victory in which they committed the nation to "the reoccupation of Oregon and the reannexation of Texas at the earliest practicable period." In order to prolong the issue, the Democrats in Congress permitted the defeat, on June 8, 1844, of a treaty annexing Texas. As Jackson suspected, Texas and President-making had become hopelessly entwined. The controversy led Silas Wright, the New York spokesman for Van Buren, to the conclusion that "our Union was never so much in danger as at this moment."
The Campaign of 1844. In a hard-fought, often nasty contest, Polk edged through to a narrow electoral victory. Exploiting Clay's opposition to expansion, the Democrats pledged their party to the annexation of both Texas and Oregon. Clay attempted unsuccessfully to undo the damage by announcing himself to be in favor of the acquisition of Texas - provided it could be obtained without a Mexican war. On Election Day, Polk's narrow victory by 5,106 votes in New York defeated Clay. (That the decisive number of votes should have been so small was caused largely by the appeal in New York of the anti-slavery Liberty ticket, which had polled 15,814 of the state's votes.) The new President seemed to have restored the old Jacksonian coalition.