American Whig Party Convention of 1839 for the 1840 Election

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General William Henry Harrison

At the Whig Party Convention in 1839, there was a three-way race for the presidential nomination: Henry Clay, William Henry Harrison and Winfield Scott.

The Democrats had ruled the presidency for nearly eleven years by December 4th, 1839, the opening day of the “Democratic Whig National Convention” in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. That included eight years of executive tyranny under Andrew Jackson, the Whigs believed, and the ruined economy under Jackson’s hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren. But Van Buren was unpopular and the Whigs were hungry. The election of 1840 was the Whigs best chance to come to power.

Henry Clay

The chief spokesman of the Whig Party, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, was a leading candidate for the party’s presidential nomination. He had battle scars from his loss against Jackson in the 1832 election and the fight over the Bank of the United States. He was also the party’s chief philosopher, promoting his American System-national economic development through a national bank, protective tariffs, and internal improvements.

Heading into the convention, Clay had a plurality of the delegates. Connecticut, Rhode Island, Illinois, Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri solidly backed Clay. He had minority support in the delegations of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. In addition, he had support from the south, but the delegations from Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee did not show up. Getting the necessary majority of 128 out of 254 delegates would be difficult for Clay.

Thurlow Weed and Thaddeus Stevens

Another problem for Clay would be the machinations of upstate New York editor Thurlow Weed. He favored General Winfield Scott, believing Clay could not win a national election because of his ambivalent position on slavery and the popular Scott would attract votes from Democrats. After the first ballot, with Clay leading with 103 delegates over Generals William Henry Harrison (91) and Scott (57), Weed persuaded Connecticut to switch from Clay to Scott and picked up Michigan.

With Clay down to 96 delegates, there was still another manager working against Clay. Pennsylvanian Thaddeus Stevens favored Harrison. He and his aide, Charles Penrose, managed to get the convention to pass a “unit rule.” In secret, each state would poll its delegates for a majority, discounting minorities. This hurt Clay significantly with his northern minority blocs. Clay’s managers were out-manuevered. “My friends are not worth the powder and shot it would take to kill them,” complained Clay.

Then Stevens courted southern delegates. He stealthfully dropped among the Virginians a letter from Scott to New Yorker Francis Granger. In it, Scott was trying to win Anti-Slavery support in New York. The Virginians read the letter in horror and decided to abandon any thought of switching from Clay to Scott and threw their support to Harrison. Weed saw the floodgates open and directed his delegates to vote Harrison. On the third and final ballot, Harrison won with 148 votes to Clay’s 90 and Scott’s 16.

John Tyler

In the wee hours of the morning after Harrison was nominated, the convention took up the vice-presidential nomination. The convention wanted to placate angry Clay supporters and balance the ticket with a southerner. Southern Clay supporters John M. Clayton of Delaware and Benjamin Watkins Leigh of Virginia were not interested. The blurry-eyed delegates finally turned to Virginian John Tyler, a states’ rights advocate and former Democrat, who the Whigs believed supported the nationalist Clay’s candidacy.

In their haste and desire to forge unity and win at the polls, not only did the convention overlook Tyler’s suspicious Whig credentials, but they also overlooked to pass a platform or set of principles for the campaign. According to David and Jeanne Heidler, with Harrison being an issue-less candidate, the Whigs seemed to be an issue-less party.

The resulting campaign for the Whigs was filled with parades, songs, slogans, and the image of Harrison as a hard cider guzzling log cabin rustic. The Whigs used the Democrats own popular tactics to gain the presidency and the legislature. But Harrison’s poor health would make the convention’s decision on Tyler a portent for doom.

Sources:

  1. Heidler, David S. and Jeanne T., Henry Clay: The Essential American, Random House: New York, 2010.
  2. Holt, Michael F., The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party, Oxford: Oxford, 1999.