ANDREW JACKSON (1829-1837)
Andrew Jackson was the seventh President of the United
State. He was military governor of Florida (1821),
commander of the American forces at the Battle of New
Orleans (1815), and eponym of the era of Jacksonian
democracy. A polarizing figure who dominated American
politics in the 1820s and 1830s, his political ambition
combined with widening political participation, shaping the
modern Democratic Party. His legacy is now seen as mixed,
as a protector of popular democracy and individual liberty,
checkered by his support for Indian removal and slavery.
Renowned for his toughness, he was nicknamed "Old Hickory".
Born in a backwoods settlement in the Carolinas in 1767, he received sporadic education. But
in his late teens he read law for about two years, and he became an outstanding young lawyer.
Fiercely jealous of his honor, he engaged in brawls, and in a duel killed a man who cast an
unjustified slur on his wife Rachel.
Jackson prospered sufficiently to buy slaves and to build a mansion, the Hermitage, near
Nashville. He was the first man elected from Tennessee to the House of Representatives, and
he served briefly in the Senate. A major general in the War of 1812, Jackson became a
national hero when he defeated the Britisher at New Orleans.
In 1824 some state political factions rallied around Jackson; by 1828 enough had joined "Old
Hickory" to win numerous state elections and control of the Federal administration in
In his first Annual Message to Congress, Jackson recommended eliminating the Electoral
College. He also tried to democratize Federal office holding. Already state machines were
being built on patronage, and a New York Senator openly proclaimed "that to the victors
belong the spoils."
Jackson took a milder view. Decrying officeholders who seemed to enjoy life tenure, he
believed Government duties could be "so plain and simple" that offices should rotate among
As national politics polarized around Jackson and his opposition, two parties grew out of the
old Republican Party--the Democratic Republicans, or Democrats, adhering to Jackson; and
the National Republicans, or Whigs, opposing him.
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Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and other Whig leaders proclaimed themselves defenders of
popular liberties against the usurpation of Jackson. Hostile cartoonists portrayed him as King
Behind their accusations lay the fact that Jackson, unlike previous Presidents, did not defer to
Congress in policy-making but used his power of the veto and his party leadership to assume
The greatest party battle centered on the Second Bank of the United States, a private
corporation but virtually a Government-sponsored monopoly. When Jackson appeared hostile
toward it, the Bank threw its power against him.
Clay and Webster, who had acted as attorneys for the Bank, led the fight for its recharter in
Congress. "The bank," Jackson told Martin Van Buren, "is trying to kill me, but I will kill it!"
Jackson, in vetoing the recharter bill, charged the Bank with undue economic privilege.
His views won approval from the American electorate; in 1832 he polled more than 56
percent of the popular vote and almost five times as many electoral votes as Clay. Jackson
met head-on the challenge of John C. Calhoun, leader of forces trying to rid themselves of a
high protective tariff.
When South Carolina undertook to nullify the tariff, Jackson ordered armed forces to
Charleston and privately threatened to hang Calhoun. Violence seemed imminent until Clay
negotiated a compromise: tariffs were lowered and South Carolina dropped nullification.
In January of 1832, while the President was dining with friends at the White House, someone
whispered to him that the Senate had rejected the nomination of Martin Van Buren as
Minister to England. Jackson jumped to his feet and exclaimed, "By the Eternal! I'll smash
them!" So he did. His favorite, Van Buren, became Vice President, and succeeded to the
Presidency when "Old Hickory" retired to the Hermitage, where he died in June 1845.
MARTIN VAN BUREN (1837-1841)
Martin Van Buren was the eighth President of the United States from 1837 to 1841. Before
his presidency, he served as the eighth Vice President (1833-1837) and the 10th Secretary of
State under Andrew Jackson. He was a key organizer of the Democratic Party, a dominant
figure in the Second Party System, and the first president who was not of British (i.e. English,
Welsh, Scottish) or Irish descent - his ancestry was Dutch. He was the first president to be
born as an American citizen (his predecessors were born British subjects prior to the
American Revolution); he is also the only president not to have spoken English as a first
language, having grown up speaking Dutch. He was also the first President from New York.
Van Buren was the third president to serve only one term, after John Adams and his son, John
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Quincy Adams. He also was one of the central figures in
developing modern political organizations. As Andrew
Jackson's Secretary of State and then Vice President, he was a
key figure in building the organizational structure for
Jacksonian democracy, particularly in New York State.
However, as a President, his administration was largely
characterized by the economic hardship of his time, the Panic
of 1837. Between the bloodless Aroostook War and the
Caroline Affair, relations with Britain and its colonies in
Canada also proved to be strained. Whether or not these were
directly his fault, Van Buren was voted out of office after
four years, with a close popular vote but a rout in the
electoral vote. In 1848 he ran for president on a third party ticket, the Free Soil Party.
Martin Van Buren intentions were clear that "to follow the footsteps of his illustrious
predecessor," and retained all but one of Jackson's cabinet. Van Buren had few economic
tools to deal with the Panic of 1837. Van Buren advocated lower tariffs and free trade, and by
doing so maintained support of the south for the Democratic Party. He succeeded in setting
up a system of bonds for the national debt. His party was so split that his 1837 proposal for an
"Independent Treasury" system did not pass until 1840. It gave the Treasury control of all
federal funds and had a legal tender clause that required (by 1843) all payments to be made in
legal tender rather than in state bank notes. But the act was repealed in 1841 and never had
much impact. Foreign affairs were complicated when several states defaulted on their state
bonds, London complained, and Washington explained it had no responsibility for those
bonds. British authors such as Charles Dickens then denounced the American failure to pay
royalties, leading to a negative press in Britain regarding the financial honesty of America.
The Caroline Affair involved Canadian rebels using New York bases to attack the
government in Canada. On December 29, 1837, Canadian government forces crossed the
frontier into the US and burned the Caroline, which the rebels had been using. One American
was killed, and an outburst of anti-British sentiment swept through the US. Van Buren sent
the army to the frontier and closed the rebel bases. Van Buren tried to vigorously enforce the
neutrality laws, but American public opinion favored the rebels. Boundary disputes in May
brought Canadian and American lumberjacks into conflict. There was no bloodshed in this
Aroostook War, but it further inflamed public opinion on both sides.
WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON (1841)
William Henry Harrison (February 9, 1773 – April 4, 1841) was an American military officer
and politician, the ninth President of the United States, and the first president to die in office.
The oldest president elected until Ronald Reagan in 1980, and last President to be born prior
to the United States Declaration of Independence, Harrison died on his 32nd day in office—
the shortest tenure in United States presidential history. His death sparked a brief
constitutional crisis, but that crisis ultimately resolved many questions about presidential
succession left unanswered by the Constitution until passage of the 25th Amendment.
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Before election as president, Harrison served as the first
territorial congressional delegate from the Northwest
Territory, governor of the Indiana Territory and later as a
U.S. representative and senator from Ohio. He originally
gained national fame for leading U.S. forces against
American Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811,
where he earned the nickname "Tippecanoe" (or "Old
Tippecanoe"). As a general in the subsequent War of 1812,
his most notable contribution was a victory at the Battle of
the Thames in 1813, which brought an end to hostilities in
After the war, Harrison moved to Ohio, where he was elected to United States Congress, and
in 1824 he became a member of the Senate. There he served a truncated term before being
appointed as Minister Plenipotentiary to Colombia in May 1828. In Colombia, he lectured
Simon Bolívar on the finer points of democracy before returning to his farm in Ohio, where
he lived in relative retirement until he was nominated for the presidency in 1836. Defeated,
he retired again to his farm before being elected president in 1840.
JOHN TYLER (1841-1845)
John Tyler, Jr. (March 29, 1790 – January 18, 1862) was the
tenth President of the United States (1841–1845) and the first
ever to obtain that office via succession.
A long-time Democratic-Republican, Tyler was nonetheless
elected Vice President on the Whig ticket. Upon the death of
President William Henry Harrison on April 4, 1841, only a
month after his inauguration, the nation was briefly in a state of
confusion regarding the process of succession. Ultimately the
situation was settled with Tyler becoming President both in name and in fact, and Tyler took
the oath of office on April 6, 1841, setting a precedent that would govern future successions
and eventually be codified in the Twenty-fifth Amendment. At 51 years old, he was the
youngest U.S. president to take office to that point (where as Harrison was the oldest man to
take office as president).
Arguably the most famous and significant achievement of Tyler's administration was the
annexation of the Republic of Texas in 1845. Tyler was the first president born after the
adoption of the U.S. Constitution, and the only president to have held the office of President
pro tempore of the Senate.
Harrison was the first sitting president to have his photograph taken. The original
daguerreotype, made in Washington on his Inauguration Day, has been lost—although at
least one copy exists in the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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JAMES K. POLK (1845-1849)
Often referred to as the first "dark horse" President, James K. Polk
was the last of the Jacksonians to sit in the White House, and the
last strong President until the Civil War.
He was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, in 1795.
Studious and industrious, Polk was graduated with honors in 1818
from the University of North Carolina. As a young lawyer he
entered politics, served in the Tennessee legislature, and became a
friend of Andrew Jackson.
In the House of Representatives, Polk was a chief lieutenant of
Jackson in his Bank war. He served as Speaker between 1835 and
1839, leaving to become Governor of Tennessee.
Until circumstances raised Polk's ambitions, he was a leading contender for the Democratic
nomination for Vice President in 1844. Both Martin Van Buren, who had been expected to
win the Democratic nomination for President, and Henry Clay, who was to be the Whig
nominee, tried to take the expansionist issue out of the campaign by declaring themselves
opposed to the annexation of Texas. Polk, however, publicly asserted that Texas should be
"re-annexed" and all of Oregon "re-occupied."
The aged Jackson, correctly sensing that the people favored expansion, urged the choice of a
candidate committed to the Nation's "Manifest Destiny." This view prevailed at the
Democratic Convention, where Polk was nominated on the ninth ballot.
"Who is James K. Polk?" Whigs jeered. Democrats replied Polk was the candidate who stood
for expansion. He linked the Texas issue, popular in the South, with the Oregon question,
attractive to the North. Polk also favored acquiring California.
Even before he could take office, Congress passed a joint resolution offering annexation to
Texas. In so doing they bequeathed Polk the possibility of war with Mexico, which soon
severed diplomatic relations.
In his stand on Oregon, the President seemed to be risking war with Great Britain also. The
1844 Democratic platform claimed the entire Oregon area, from the California boundary
northward to latitude of 54'40', the southern boundary of Russian Alaska. Extremists
proclaimed "Fifty-four forty or fight," but Polk, aware of diplomatic realities, knew that no
course short of war was likely to get all of Oregon. Happily, neither he nor the British wanted
He offered to settle by extending the Canadian boundary, along the 49th parallel, from the
Rockies to the Pacific. When the British minister declined, Polk reasserted the American
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claim to the entire area. Finally, the British settled for the 49th parallel, except for the
southern tip of Vancouver Island. The treaty was signed in 1846.
Acquisition of California proved far more difficult. Polk sent an envoy to offer Mexico up to
$20,000,000, plus settlement of damage claims owed to Americans, in return for California
and the New Mexico country. Since no Mexican leader could cede half his country and still
stay in power, Polk's envoy was not received. To bring pressure, Polk sent Gen. Zachary
Taylor to the disputed area on the Rio Grande.
To Mexican troops this was aggression, and they attacked Taylor's forces.
Congress declared war and, despite much Northern opposition, supported the military
operations. American forces won repeated victories and occupied Mexico City. Finally, in
1848, Mexico ceded New Mexico and California in return for $15,000,000 and American
assumption of the damage claims.
President Polk added a vast area to the United States, but its acquisition precipitated a bitter
quarrel between the North and the South over expansion of slavery.
Polk, leaving office with his health undermined from hard work, died in June 1849.
ZACHARY TAYLOR (1849-1850)
Northerners and Southerners disputed sharply whether the
territories wrested from Mexico should be opened to
slavery, and some Southerners even threatened secession.
Standing firm, Zachary Taylor was prepared to hold the
Union together by armed force rather than by compromise.
Born in Virginia in 1784, he was taken as an infant to
Kentucky and raised on a plantation. He was a career
officer in the Army, but his talk was most often of cotton
raising. His home was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and he
owned a plantation in Mississippi.
But Taylor did not defend slavery or southern sectionalism; 40 years in the Army made him a
strong nationalist. He spent a quarter of a century policing the frontiers against Indians. In the
Mexican War he won major victories at Monterrey and Buena Vista.
President Polk, disturbed by General Taylor's informal habits of command and perhaps his
Whiggery as well, kept him in northern Mexico and sent an expedition under Gen. Winfield
Scott to capture Mexico City. Taylor, incensed, thought that "the battle of Buena Vista
opened the road to the city of Mexico and the halls of Montezuma, that others might revel in
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"Old Rough and Ready's" homespun ways were political assets. His long military record
would appeal to northerners; his ownership of 100 slaves would lure southern votes. He had
not committed himself on troublesome issues. The Whigs nominated him to run against the
Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass, who favored letting the residents of territories decide for
themselves whether they wanted slavery.
In protest against Taylor the slaveholder and Cass the advocate of "squatter sovereignty,"
northerners who opposed extension of slavery into territories formed a Free Soil Party and
nominated Martin Van Buren. In a close election, the Free Soilers pulled enough votes away
from Cass to elect Taylor.
Although Taylor had subscribed to Whig principles of legislative leadership, he was not
inclined to be a puppet of Whig leaders in Congress. He acted at times as though he were
above parties and politics. As disheveled as always, Taylor tried to run his administration in
the same rule-of-thumb fashion with which he had fought Indians.
Traditionally, people could decide whether they wanted slavery when they drew up new state
constitutions. Therefore, to end the dispute over slavery in new areas, Taylor urged settlers in
New Mexico and California to draft constitutions and apply for statehood, bypassing the
Southerners were furious, since neither state constitution was likely to permit slavery;
Members of Congress were dismayed, since they felt the President was usurping their policymaking
prerogatives. In addition, Taylor's solution ignored several acute side issues: the
northern dislike of the slave market operating in the District of Columbia; and the southern
demands for a more stringent fugitive slave law.
In February 1850 President Taylor had held a stormy conference with southern leaders who
threatened secession. He told them that if necessary to enforce the laws, he personally would
lead the Army. Persons "taken in rebellion against the Union, he would hang with less
reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico." He never wavered.
Then events took an unexpected turn. After participating in ceremonies at the Washington
Monument on a blistering July 4, Taylor fell ill; within five days he was dead. After his
death, the forces of compromise triumphed, but the war Taylor had been willing to face came
11 years later. In it, his only son Richard served as a general in the Confederate Army.
MILLARD FILLMORE (1850-1853)
In his rise from a log cabin to wealth and the White House, Millard Fillmore demonstrated
that through methodical industry and some competence an uninspiring man could make the
American dream come true.
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Born in the Finger Lakes country of New York in 1800,
Fillmore as a youth endured the privations of frontier life.
He worked on his father's farm, and at 15 was apprenticed
to a cloth dresser. He attended one-room schools, and fell
in love with the redheaded teacher, Abigail Powers, who
later became his wife.
In 1823 he was admitted to the bar; seven years later he
moved his law practice to Buffalo. As an associate of the
Whig politician Thurlow Weed, Fillmore held state office
and for eight years was a member of the House of
Representatives. In 1848, while Comptroller of New York, he was elected Vice President.
Fillmore presided over the Senate during the months of nerve-wracking debates over the
Compromise of 1850. He made no public comment on the merits of the compromise
proposals, but a few days before President Taylor's death, he intimated to him that if there
should be a tie vote on Henry Clay's bill, he would vote in favor of it.
Thus the sudden accession of Fillmore to the Presidency in July 1850 brought an abrupt
political shift in the administration. Taylor's Cabinet resigned and President Fillmore at once
appointed Daniel Webster to be Secretary of State, thus proclaiming his alliance with the
moderate Whigs who favored the Compromise.
A bill to admit California still aroused all the violent arguments for and against the extension
of slavery, without any progress toward settling the major issues.
Clay, exhausted, left Washington to recuperate, throwing leadership upon Senator Stephen A.
Douglas of Illinois. At this critical juncture, President Fillmore announced in favor of the
Compromise. On August 6, 1850, he sent a message to Congress recommending that Texas
be paid to abandon her claims to be part of New Mexico.
This helped influence a critical number of northern Whigs in Congress away from their
insistence upon the Wilmot Proviso--the stipulation that all land gained by the Mexican War
must be closed to slavery.
Douglas's effective strategy in Congress combined with Fillmore's pressure from the White
House to give impetus to the Compromise movement. Breaking up Clay's single legislative
package, Douglas presented five separate bills to the Senate:
1. Admit California as a free state.
2. Settle the Texas boundary and compensate her.
3. Grant territorial status to New Mexico.
4. Place Federal officers at the disposal of slaveholders seeking fugitives.
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5. Abolish the slave trade in the District of Columbia.
Each measure obtained a majority, and by September 20, President Fillmore had signed them
into law. Webster wrote, "I can now sleep of nights."
Some of the more militant northern Whigs remained irreconcilable, refusing to forgive
Fillmore for having signed the Fugitive Slave Act. They helped deprive him of the
Presidential nomination in 1852.
Within a few years it was apparent that although the Compromise had been intended to settle
the slavery controversy, it served rather as an uneasy sectional truce.
As the Whig Party disintegrated in the 1850's, Fillmore refused to join the Republican Party;
but, instead, in 1856 accepted the nomination for President of the Know Nothing, or
American, Party. Throughout the Civil War he opposed President Lincoln and during
Reconstruction supported President Johnson. He died in 1874.