Trump and McConnell Have a Brutal Act to Follow

The damage done by Tyler and Clay in the 1840s is a cautionary tale for Republicans.

Washington intrigue in the 1840s.

Image: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Despite unified control of the House, the Senate and the White House, few legislative accomplishments come to mind. A bitter conflict between a president with little interest in party loyalty and a career politician running the Senate.

No, this particular story isn’t about Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell. But Republicans wondering just how bad things can get should take a close look at another episode of Washington history that suggests the worst is yet to come.

In 1841, President John Tyler was engaged in a bitter feud with Henry Clay, the de facto leader of the Senate, that was brutal for both sides -- and for the party to which they both belonged. Then, as now, the president was a defector from the Democratic party whom almost no one expected to rise to the highest office in the land. Then, as now, the Senate leader was career politician from Kentucky known for his legislative brilliance.

Politics in the 1830s had been defined by the clash between Andrew Jackson, a Democrat, and his opponents, who eventually coalesced as the so-called “Whig Party.” The Whigs, who counted Kentucky’s Henry Clay among their leaders, found themselves outplayed at almost every turn by Jackson. Their failure to roll back Jackson’s agenda continued under the presidency of Democrat Martin Van Buren.

Whigs hit the trifecta in 1840, capturing the House, the Senate, and the presidency, which went to William Henry Harrison and his running mate, Tyler. Harrison, a devoted Whig who had fought in the Battle of Tippecanoe, was a party favorite. Tyler was an afterthought, or at least that was the strong suggestion of a Whig saying at the time: “We will vote for Tyler therefore, without a why or a wherefore.”

Fast forward to the spring of 1841, when Harrison gave the longest inaugural speech in history, standing out in the cold March snow and rain without the benefit of a coat or hat. He fell ill and died a month later. Though the rules of presidential succession had yet to be hammered out, Tyler took the initiative and declared himself the new president.

Clay, now presiding over the Senate, was disappointed in Harrison’s death, but figured he could get Tyler to support the Whig legislative program. Stymied by years of Democratic rule, the Whigs practically salivated at the prospect of finally turning their many plans into action, from massive public works projects (called “internal improvements” at this time) and, most important of all, a new national bank (Andrew Jackson abolished the the last one).

But when Clay pestered Tyler about the bank, Tyler demurred, finally losing his patience and sending Clay on his way. He later wrote Clay: “To be perfectly frank with you, I would not have [the Bank] urged too prematurely.”

But Tyler’s rejection carried only so much weight with Clay, who commanded strong majorities in both houses of Congress. Instead of seizing the legislative initiative from the White House, Tyler, like Trump on health care, chose to play a relatively small role in the process. This proved disastrous. Clay commandeered the legislative program, writing up a bank bill that ignored Tyler’s concerns, daring him to veto a bill passed by his own party.

Tyler did just that, sending one of his most trusted advisers -- his son, John, Jr. -- to hand deliver the veto message to Congress. Grateful Democrats, surprised at their good fortune, exploited the growing divide between Tyler and the Whig Party, and joined the president at the White House to pay their respects at a gathering that featured plenty of hard liquor. 

Two days after the veto, enraged Whigs gathered outside the White House at night, threw rocks at the mansion, beat drums, blew horns, and then burned John Tyler in effigy. The men were arrested and charged, but Tyler interceded on the prisoners’ behalf, arguing that they had merely been expressing a political opinion. (The historical record does not indicate what Tyler might have thought of professional athletes kneeling during the national anthem.) 

Congress tried yet again to resurrect the national bank, hoping to find a compromise that made everyone -- even Tyler -- happy. Then Henry Clay stood up in Congress, blasted Tyler, and accused of him of being of a tool of the Democratic Party. The nastiness of the attacks turned off some Whigs, and when Clay rammed through another version of the bank bill, it passed by only five votes. Tyler promptly vetoed it.

Whigs excoriated Tyler, labeling him “His Accidency” and a “vast nightmare over the republic"; they then formally expelled him from the party. Clay and other Whig leaders began plotting to force Tyler from power, formulating what he believed to be a foolproof plan. Though none of Tyler’s cabinet was married to Senate power brokers (see Chao, Elaine) all but one, Daniel Webster, hailed from Clay’s faction. And on Sept. 11, 1841, everyone but Webster resigned, believing that the dramatic exodus would drive Tyler from power.

Nothing of the sort happened; nor did a push for impeachment succeed. Tyler swiftly drove a wedge through the Whig Party, selecting a new cabinet that consisted of Whigs outside of Clay’s circle. Clay still believed he could intimidate Tyler into getting the Whig program passed, but Tyler continued to veto anything that Clay touched, though he did sign off on some pieces of Whig legislation. dividing the Whigs even more and emboldening the Democrats. In midterm elections, the Whigs lost 70 seats in the House -- not that Tyler cared. He was now a man without a party. 

The perils of a president no longer bound by party loyalty soon grew larger. Toward the end of his term, Tyler sought to create a new party that drew equally from both Whigs and Democrats. He called it the new “Democratic-Republican” party, and prepared to seek its nomination for president in 1844. The Whigs countered by nominating Henry Clay, while the Democrats bet on a dark-horse candidate, James Polk of Tennessee.

Tyler had no chance of winning, and as the election approached, he realized that he would draw away critical votes from Polk, denying the Democrats victory. In August, 1844, Tyler ostentatiously withdrew from the race, signaling that he supported Polk. His followers shifted their allegiances. Polk won the election by a mere 8,000 votes. The Democrats also won the House and Senate.

The Whigs did not recover from Tyler’s presidency. They never recaptured the Senate, and only briefly held a razor-thin majority in the House. The Whig Zachary Taylor won the presidency in 1848, but died a little over a year into his term, replaced by another accidental president, Millard Fillmore. By the end of Fillmore’s term, the Whigs went extinct.

It’s a story that today’s Republican party should study. They may believe that they can contain the damage wrought by the unpredictable, former Democrat who now leads their party and the nation. But history suggests that we may be at the very beginning of a long, painful unraveling. Buckle up.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Stephen Mihm at smihm1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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