Sunday, July 24, 2016

Tippecanoe and Harrisburg Too

If the delegates to the Democratic National Convention have free time this coming week or after, they might want to travel the one hundred miles to Harrisburg to see the site of another important political convention, this one coming two decades before the Civil War.

It was in this state capital with a population of about 6,000 people in a politically important state that the fledging Whig party met on December 4-10, 1839 to select its candidate for the following year’s presidential election.  Harrisburg has the distinction of the smallest city to hold a major national political convention.

Convening as the Democratic Whig party, two hundred and fifty delegates representing twenty-two states–the largest delegation was from New York—met at Zion Lutheran Church on South Fourth Street, not far from the Susquehanna River.  The church’s first building, constructed in 1815, burned down in 1838.  The new church was completed only one month before the convention was held.

The convention, which lasted for five ballots, was a race between Henry Clay and William Henry Harrison.  Henry Clay was one of the most esteemed public figures in America.  The sixty-two-year-old Kentuckian, had been speaker of the house, secretary of state and was currently serving for the third time as a United States senator. He had been a candidate in the wild 1824 presidential election and was the National Republicans’ nominee against Andrew Jackson in 1832.

Harrison, four years older than Clay, had been a congressman, senator and Indiana Territory governor.  Because of his success at the Battle of Tippecanoe during Tecumseh’s War in 1811, he was widely known as “Old Tippecanoe.”  He achieved his greatest fame on the frontier in that skirmish and during the War of 1812, which then-Speaker Henry Clay had done so much to bring about as a War Hawk.  Subsequently, Harrison had been one of four sectional candidates for the Whigs in 1836 and came in second to Martin Van Buren in the general election.

Clay and Harrison were also competing against Winfield Scott at the Harrisburg convention.  Scott was a military man, also achieving fame in the War of 1812 and then participating in various Indian wars.  He would achieve his greatest fame later in the 1840s during the Mexican-American War.

Although Clay led on the first four ballots, Harrison picked up fifty-seven votes, mostly from Scott, and won on the fifth and final ballot.  Apparently giving little thought to the consequences, the Whigs chose John Tyler as his running mate.  Tyler, who served Virginia in the state legislature and then Congress, was a Democrat and opposed Whig policies.  Newspaper editor Horace Greeley, a Harrison enthusiast, called the Harrison-Tyler alliance “the strongest possible ticket.”

The convention concluded with a lengthy speech by Judge Jacob Burnet of Cincinnati, who have in effect was a keynote speech which outlined the life of Harrison and the challenge that was being met by the Whig party.

In summarizing the proceedings, Burnet said, “The great object which brought us here, from every part of the Union, is accomplished.  That object was to produce unity and harmony of action, in the great struggle we are on the eve of commencing; a struggle to save the liberty, the morals, and happiness of the people and to rescue the constitution from the hands of profligate men, under whose management it is sinking to decay.”

The election of 1840 was memorable.  Accelerating the political battles of the previous decade, this election saw a full-scale effort to influence voters.  The new, consolidated Whig Party launched the original “log cabin” myth, torchlight parades and other mass efforts.  One peculiar practice was rolling large balls of leather and metal from one town to the next to dramatize the campaign.  Despite the hoopla, the party had no platform.

Interestingly, while Harrison was portrayed as a simple backwoodsman, his pedigree belied that.  He was the scion of an important Virginia family—his father was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a Virginia governor in the 1780s—and he was learned man, who attended Hampden-Sydney College and the University of Pennsylvania.  His grandson, Benjamin Harrison, would be elected president in 1888.

The “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” ticket easily defeated the incumbent Martin Van Buren, beleaguered with the country’s economic woes.   The Whig elected their first president.  And while Tyler’s presence might have been a nuisance over a four-year term, it became something much different when Harrison died after only one month in office.

Tyler quickly took the oath of office and then delivered a speech—a sort of inaugural address—in which he cited the Constitution for his unquestionable accession to power.  But, of course, there was no precedent—no previous president had died in office—and when political differences soon arose, there were challenges to his authority.

In assuming the office, Tyler noted, “The spirit of faction, which is directly opposed to the spirit of a lofty patriotism, may find in this occasion for assaults upon my Administration.”  When he then veered away from Whig policy, he was proved to be a prophet.

Called by foes “Acting President” or more viciously, “His Accidency,” Tyler’s policies forced a political crisis.  Five months after assuming office, Tyler’s inherited cabinet, with the exception of the ever-ambitious Daniel Webster, resigned.  This, after they tried to get him to resign.

But Tyler plunged ahead.  In his first major report to Congress in December 1841, he made no mention of the legitimacy of his presidency, providing a broad tour d’horizon of current affairs and only briefly mentioning the departed political opponents from his administration.

Tyler served out his term and before he died in 1862 was chosen for the Confederate Congress.  His mark on public policy for minimal, but his impact on the role of the vice president was significant.

This chain reaction of events began with Whig delegates meeting in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  Congregants of Zion Lutheran church are proud of its history, and commemorated the 175th anniversary of the convention in December 2014. 

The modest brick church still stands at 115 South Fourth Street in downtown Harrisburg, a short distance from the state capitol building. Visitors can tour the interior of the church which has some artifacts and furnishings which go back to the nineteenth-century.  Pastor Karin Pejack and her husband are very knowledgeable about the church’s history, and they were very gracious in explaining it during my recent visit there.

 (A modified version of the post appeared in the June 2016 issue of The Political Bandwagon).

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