What Strange Bedfellows

by Editors


What Strange Bedfellows…

By Sarah Katherine Mergel

So I have to admit I was a little surprised to find out Pat Robertson had endorsed Rudy Giuliani’s bid for the Republican nomination, as I am sure were many of you regardless of what side of the political spectrum you fall on. I could not think of two more different people coming together even in the name of politics. Pat Robertson (the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network and perhaps one of the most widely recognized social conservatives) and Rudy Giuliani (who I suspect some watchers of the CBN liken to the devil for his pro-choice stance) at first glance seem to have nothing in common. As I told my students shortly after I found out, like oil and water they should not mix. Robertson and Giuliani have insisted that they have more in common than voters might think. Both are committed to continuing the War on Terror and cutting government spending, especially on domestic programs.

Once I got over the initial shock of the news, I began to think about how in reality there is nothing strange about the Robertson-Giuliani pairing. American politics has been filled with strange political bedfellows. In the spirit of thinking historically, I thought I would share with you perhaps my favorite political pairing of the nineteenth century, that of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler in the election of 1840. By choosing this president/vice president combination, I am in no way suggesting that if Giuliani takes the GOP nomination Robertson will be his choice for vice president. Rather, I just want to remind everyone that in American politics anything goes.

Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828 touched off the beginnings of the Second Party System in the U.S. pitting the Democrats against the Whigs. The seeds of the Second Party System dated to the early 1820s and by the end of the 1830s local and personal factions had coalesced into new political parties. The Democrats united in support of Jackson—both because of his personality and his policies. The Whigs emerged to challenge Jackson’s tariff and bank policies. They wanted to use the power of the federal government to expand the nation’s wealth while the Democrats tended to shy away from government intervention in industrial development. The Whigs hoped to paper over class conflict, but the Democrats played up the issue. Finally, the Democrats wanted expansion as quickly as possible, whereas the Whigs remained more reticent about acquiring new territory.

In 1836, the Whigs fielded three candidates (one with appeal in the South, one with appeal in the North, and one with appeal in the West) in hopes of preventing Jackson’s heir apparent, Martin Van Buren, from becoming president. They failed primarily because Van Buren was so closely tied to Jackson’s presidency. The Whigs selected only one candidate in 1840, William Henry Harrison, to challenge Van Buren. Of the Whig candidates that ran in 1836, Harrison polled the best nationally. He took about 36 percent of the popular vote. In 1840, Harrison managed to top Van Buren and take the presidency. He won a little over 53 percent of the popular vote, but had a more commanding lead in the Electoral College.

Harrison benefited from the Panic of 1837 and its aftereffects that had marred Van Buren’s presidency and frustrated voters in 1840. He also used the same campaign techniques that Andrew Jackson had used to win the White House in 1828. “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” became the Whigs’ campaign slogan. The Whigs played up Harrison’s military record. They focused on his defeat of Tecumseh after the Shawnee leader ordered an attack on Harrison’s troops stationed at Prophetstown along Tippecanoe Creek in the Indiana Territory in 1811. Whigs also portrayed Harrison as a common man, like Jackson, who had made good. Harrison had limited political experience, but that actually worked in his favor. He never had a chance to alienate any voters while in office. He campaigned ardently between 1836 and 1839, building up quite a following among other Whigs. Once selected as the nominee in 1839, Harrison remained relatively quiet on what he would do if he became president, primarily because the Whigs never adopted a platform.

The Whigs chose John Tyler, a Virginia slaveholder, as the vice presidential nominee to balance the ticket. Tyler, a former Democrat, only moved into the Whig column because he disagreed with Jackson’s bank policy, i.e., the elimination of a national bank. If the Whigs were aware of Tyler’s strict construtionism, his opposition to internal improvements, or his desire to see slavery expanded, they ignored it. They wanted him on the ticket because he would draw southern planters into their party. Perhaps the Whigs thought it would not matter what Tyler thought; vice presidents had had little say about policy in previous administrations.

What none of the Whigs expected was what happened after William Henry Harrison’s inauguration. Harrison unwisely chose to give a two hour inaugural address in the freezing rain without topcoat or hat. He contracted pneumonia and died in April, a month after taking office. Upon becoming the president, Tyler rejected the Whigs’ program for internal improvements that had been formulated by Harrison’s cabinet in conjunction with fellow party members in Congress. He also rejected the idea that because he had inherited the presidency he should take a backseat to the Cabinet in determining policy. The Whigs tried to force Tyler to resign, but he would not. Essentially, he became a president without a party.

In the next few years Tyler vetoed almost every bill Congress sent him. Moreover, he embarked on an expansionist foreign policy which included trying to bring the Republic of Texas into the United States. The annexation of Texas led to war with Mexico and raised a host of questions relating to the expansion of slavery that national politicians had been trying to avoid for years. While Tyler accomplished little in office, he did set a precedent for future vice presidents who suddenly found themselves as president. People may have questioned Andrew Johnson’s or Harry Truman’s leadership skills, but they did not question that those men had the right to be president.

It would be hard to suggest that if Tyler had not been president the Mexican-American War ( 1846 to 1848 ) might have been avoided, or the politics of slavery might not have lead to a civil war. However, Tyler’s presidency raises the proverbial “what if” question. What if Harrison had not died? What if the Whigs had chosen more prudently when they selected a vice president? Of course, we will never have an answer to those questions, which does not stop us from wondering. But those “what if” questions do highlight how in politics strange bedfellows can cause some strange outcomes. It should be interesting as we draw closer to the election of 2008 to see what other interesting political pairings develop.

Sarah Katherine Mergel, Ph.D., specializes in American political and intellectual history since the Civil War. Her primary area of research is the rise of modern conservatism and its effects on political developments, cultural trends, social issues, and international relations.