Welcome to the MAKING OF A NATION – American history
in VOA Special English.
In November of eighteen forty, the American people
elected their ninth president, William Henry Harrison. The election of the
retired general was expected. Still, it was a great victory for the Whig Party
and a sharply felt loss for the opposing party, the Democrats. They failed to
put their man, President Martin Van Buren, in the White House for a second
Whig leaders made
most of Harrison's campaign decisions. Some of those leaders, especially senators
Henry Clay of Kentucky and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, believed they could
control the newly elected president. But Harrison saw what was happening. When
he made a trip to Kentucky, he made it clear that he did not want to meet with
Clay. He felt that such a meeting might seem to show that Clay was the real
power in the new administration.
But Clay made sure
that Harrison was publicly invited to visit him. The newly elected president
could not say no to such an invitation. He spent several days at Clay's home in
This week in our
series, Maurice Joyce and Jack Moyles discuss the presidency of William Henry
without even being asked, wrote an inaugural speech for the new president.
Harrison thanked him, but said he already had written his speech. Harrison
spoke for more than one and a half hours. He gave the speech outside, on the
front steps of the Capitol building.
It was the coldest
inaugural day in the nation's history. But Harrison did not wear a coat or hat.
Harrison caught a cold, probably from standing so long outside in the bitter
weather of inaugural day. Rest was his best treatment. But Harrison was so
busy, he had little time to rest.
Hundreds of people
demanded to see the new president. They wanted jobs with the government.
Everywhere he turned, Harrison was met by crowds of job-hungry people. And
there was a problem that worried him. Henry Clay and Daniel Webster were
fighting each other for power in the new administration.
offered Clay any job he wanted in the cabinet. But Clay chose to stay in the
Senate. Harrison then gave the job of Secretary of State to Webster. He also
gave Webster's supporters the best government jobs in New York City.
Clay did not like
this. And he told the president so. Harrison accused Clay of trying to tell him
-- the president -- how to do his job. Later, he told Clay that he wanted no
further words with him. He said any future communications between them would
have to be written.
grew worse. Late in March eighteen forty-one, his cold turned into pneumonia.
Doctors did everything they could to cure him. But nothing seemed to help. On
April fourth, after exactly one month as president, William Henry Harrison
Vice President John
Tyler was then at his home in Williamsburg, Virginia. Secretary of State
Webster sent his son Fletcher on horseback to tell Tyler of the president's
death. The vice President was shocked. He had not even known that Harrison was
sick. Two hours after he received the news, Tyler was on his way to Washington.
He reached the capital just before sunrise on April sixth, eighteen forty-one.
There was some
question about Tyler's position. This was the first time that a president had
died in office. No one was really sure if the Constitution meant that the vice
president was to become president or only acting president. Webster and the
other members of the cabinet decided that Tyler should be president and serve
until the next election. Tyler also had decided this.
Tyler was sworn-in
as the tenth president on April sixth. He was fifty-one years old. No other man
had become president at such an early age. Tyler was born and grew up in the
same part of Virginia as William Henry Harrison. His father was a wealthy
planter and judge who had been a friend of Thomas Jefferson. John completed
studies at the college of William and Mary, and became a lawyer. He entered
politics and served in the Virginia legislature. Then he was elected a member
of Congress and, later, governor of Virginia. He also served as a United States
strongly in the rights of the states. As a congressman and a senator, he had
voted against every attempt to give more power to the federal government.
Tyler's political beliefs were strongly opposed to those of the northern and
western Whigs. Henry Clay firmly supported the ideas of a national bank, a
protective tax on imports, and federal spending to improve transportation in
the states. Tyler was just as firmly against these ideas.
There was something
else. Clay expected to be the Whig Party's presidential candidate in eighteen forty-four.
If he supported Tyler, then the new president might become too strong
politically and win a second term in the White House.
established his independence after becoming president. Webster told him that
President Harrison had let the cabinet make the decisions of his administration.
He said Harrison had only one vote...the same as any member of the cabinet.
Webster asked if Tyler wanted this to continue.
not," said Tyler. "I would like to keep President Harrison's cabinet.
But I, alone, will make the decisions. If the cabinet members do not approve of
this, let them resign."
Tyler wanted to
change the cabinet, but could not do so immediately. All but two members of the
cabinet were supporters of Senator Clay. Tyler wanted to put these men out and
appoint men who would support him. But if he did this immediately, it would
split the party. He would have to wait.
The Whig Party
controlled both houses of Congress after the eighteen forty elections. Clay
wanted a special session of the new Congress. He was able to get Harrison to
call such a session before the president's death. At the session, Clay offered
six resolutions as a plan of work for Congress. These proposed putting an end
to the independent treasury, the establishment of a new national bank, and a tax
increase on imports. They also included a new plan to give the states the money
received by the federal government from the sale of public lands.
It was no problem
to put an end to the independent treasury. Tyler had opposed it during the
campaign and in his message to Congress. Congress soon passed a bill repealing
the independent treasury act. And Tyler quickly signed it.
But a dispute arose
on the issue of a new national bank. Tyler had his Secretary of the Treasury
send Congress the administration's plan for a national bank. It would permit
such a bank to be established in Washington. And it would permit the bank to
open offices in a state, but only if the state approved.
This was not the
kind of bank Clay wanted. He wanted no limits of any kind on the power of a
national bank to open offices anywhere in the country. Clay then offered a bill
that would create just this kind of bank. There was much debate. And Clay
finally agreed to a compromise. Bank offices would be permitted in any state
where the state legislature did not immediately refuse permission.
accepted the compromise. But President Tyler did not. He vetoed the bank bill
and sent it back to Congress. This had been a difficult decision for Tyler to make.
He wanted peace and unity in the party. But he also wanted to show that he --
and not Henry Clay -- was president. The people knew he opposed Clay's bill. If
he accepted it, the people would feel that Clay was the more powerful.
Clay did not have
enough votes to pass the bill over the president's veto. Another effort was
made to get a bank bill that the president would approve. This time, members of
Congress met with Tyler to get his ideas. He explained, again, the kind of bank
he would accept. He said the states must have the right to approve or reject
wrote another bill. They said it was exactly what the president wanted. But the
president did not agree. He said this second bill would also be vetoed unless
changes were made in it. The changes were not made. And Tyler did as he said he
would do. He vetoed it. This second veto caused a crisis in Tyler's cabinet.
Our program was written by Frank Beardsley. The narrators were Maurice
Joyce and Jack Moyles. Transcripts, MP3s
and podcasts of our programs are on the Web, along with historical images, at
voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION - an
American history series in VOA Special English.
This is program #69 of THE
MAKING OF A NATION