President John Tyler Shows His Independence
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Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English.
The election of 1840 put a new president in the White House: William Henry Harrison. The defeat of President Martin Van Buren had been expected. Still, it was a sharp loss for his Democratic Party.
Harrison was a retired general and a member of the Whig Party. He became the ninth president of the United States. But he got sick and he died after just a month in office. His vice president, John Tyler, became president.
Whig leaders, especially Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, tried to control the new president. Clay proposed detailed legislative programs for the new administration. Among them: the establishment of a national bank. This was high on Senator Clay's list of proposals.
But Tyler soon showed his independence. He did not approve the plans as proposed by Clay. Tyler vetoed two bills calling for the creation of a national bank. Tyler wanted peace and party unity. But he also wanted to show that he -- not Clay -- was president.
This week in our series, Bud Steele and Lew Roland continue the story of John Tyler.
Clay's supporters in the cabinet did their best to get Tyler to sign the bank bills. When the president refused to do so, Whig Party leaders urged the cabinet to resign. This would show that the president, alone, was responsible for the veto of the bills.
All cabinet members, but one -- Daniel Webster -- resigned. Secretary of State Webster was with the president when one of the letters of resignation arrived.
"What am I to do, Mr. President?" asked Webster.
"You must decide that for yourself," Tyler said.
"If you leave it to me, Mr. President, I will stay where I am." President Tyler stood up.
"Give me your hand on that," he said, "and I will say to you that Henry Clay is a doomed man from this hour."
Tyler named a new cabinet. And there was not one Clay supporter in it.
The president's veto of the second bank bill brought strong public protests from those who wanted a national bank. A large group of Whig congressmen met and voted to expel Tyler from the party.
During the struggle over the bank bills, the Whigs did not forget the other parts of Senator Clay's legislative program. Clay especially wanted approval of a bill to give the different states money from the sale of public land. Tyler liked this idea himself. Many of the states owed large amounts of money. The distribution bill, as it was called, would help them get out of debt.
The president was willing to support the bill. But he saw one danger in it. If all the money from land sales was given to the states, the federal government might not have enough money.
Tyler feared that Congress then would raise import taxes to get more money for the federal government. As a southerner, the president opposed taxes on imports. He finally agreed to accept the distribution bill, but on one condition. The distribution of money to the states would be suspended if import taxes rose higher than twenty percent.
Tyler signed the bill, and it became law.
The next year, the government found itself short of money. It was spending more than it had. Congress decided that import taxes should be raised, some even higher than twenty percent. The bill was passed by close votes in the House and Senate.
When it got to the White House, President Tyler vetoed it. He said it was wrong to raise the tax so high and, at the same time, continue to give the states the money from land sales. He said the federal government itself needed the land-sale money. The Whigs were angry.
Still, they did not have enough votes to pass the bill over the president's veto. Then they approved a new bill. This one raised import taxes, but said nothing about distribution of federal money to the states. And President Tyler signed it.
While the Whigs made bitter speeches about the failure of the party's legislative program, Tyler worked to improve relations with Britain. The United States and Britain disputed the border that separated Canada from the northeastern United States. Both Canada and the state of Maine claimed the disputed area. Britain was also angry because Americans had helped Canadian rebels.
Canadian soldiers had crossed the Niagara River and burned a boat that was used to carry supplies to the rebels. Secretary of State Daniel Webster wanted peace with Britain. And there was a new government in Britain. Its foreign minister, Lord Aberdeen, also wanted peace.
Lord Aberdeen sent a special representative, Lord Ashburton, to the United States. Lord Ashburton had an American wife. And he was a friend of Daniel Webster. He arrived in Washington in the spring of 1842 with the power to settle all disputes with the United States.
Lord Ashburton said Britain regretted that it had not made some explanation or apology for the sinking of an American boat in the Niagara River. The two men discussed the border dispute between Canada and Maine.
Webster proposed a compromise border line. Lord Ashburton accepted the compromise. The agreement gave almost 18,000 square kilometers of the disputed area to Maine. Canada received more than twelve thousand square kilometers.
The Senate approved the Webster-Ashburton agreement. And American-British relations showed improvement. President Tyler then turned to another problem: Texas. Texas asked to become a state during President Van Buren's administration. But nothing was done about the request.
Tyler was interested in Texas and wanted to make it part of the Union. Secretary Webster was cool to the idea of Texas statehood.
As a northerner, he did not want another slave state in the Union. Webster and his supporters were Tyler's only real strength in the Whig Party outside of Virginia. The president, therefore, did not push the issue of Texas.
After Senate approval of his treaty with Lord Ashburton, Webster decided that he could be of no more real use to the administration. He resigned as secretary of state. Tyler named one of his Virginia supporters, Abel Upshur, to the job in the summer of 1843.
Upshur was a firm believer in slavery. He felt slaves were necessary in the agricultural economy of the South. Upshur was worried about reports that Britain was interested in ending slavery in Texas. These reports said Britain had promised to defend Texas independence and to give economic aid, if the slaves were freed.
Upshur and other southerners feared what might happen if this were done. Slaves from nearby southern states would try to escape to freedom in Texas. And the abolitionists might use Texas as a base for propaganda against the South.
There was another reason for President Tyler's interest in Texas. He believed it possible to make political use of the question of Texas statehood. It could help him build a new political party, a party that might elect him president for another four years. Four months after becoming secretary of state, Upshur offered a statehood treaty to Texas.
At first, Texas President Sam Houston refused the offer. He finally agreed to negotiate, but said the United States must accept two conditions. It must agree to protect Texas if Mexico attacked it. And it must promise that the United States Senate would approve the treaty.
Upshur told the Texas representative in Washington that Texas would be given military protection just as soon as the treaty was signed. And he said the necessary two-thirds of the senators would approve the statehood treaty. Houston was satisfied. And his representative began secret negotiations with Upshur.
A few weeks later, before the talks could be completed, Upshur joined the president and congressional leaders for a trip down the Potomac River. They sailed on a new American warship that carried two large cannons. The new guns were to be fired for the president.
Upshur was standing near one of the cannons during the firing. He and two other men were killed when the gun exploded. The president was not injured. But 19 others were hurt.
President Tyler named John C. Calhoun -- a Democrat -- as his new secretary of state. He did so for two reasons: Calhoun believed that Texas should be part of the United States. And Tyler -- a Whig -- hoped that Calhoun might be able to get him nominated as the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party.
Our program was written by Frank Beardsley. The narrators were Bud Steele and Lew Roland. Transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs, along with historical images, are at voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- an American history series in VOA Special English.