Modern history

Democrats Face Political and Economic Crises

Southern planters depended on federal power to expand and sustain the system of slavery. Although President Andrew Jackson disappointed slave owners on issues such as the tariff and states’ rights, he stood with them on the policies of Indian removal and independence for Texas. Jackson’s successor in the White House, Martin Van Buren, continued his predecessor’s Indian policies and his support for the Republic of Texas. But Van Buren faced a more well-organized opposition in the Whig Party, which formed in the 1830s, while Texas rebels faced powerful resistance from Mexican and Comanche forces. Then in 1837 a prolonged and severe economic panic gripped the nation, creating an opportunity for the Whigs to end Democratic control of the federal government.

Continued Conflicts over indian Lands

In 1830 Congress had passed the Indian Removal Act in hopes of settling the powerful Cherokee and Seminole tribes on land west of the Mississippi River. Not all Indian peoples went peacefully. As federal authorities forcibly removed the majority of Seminoles to Indian Territory between 1832 and 1835, a minority fought back. Jackson and his military commanders expected that this Second Seminole War would be short-lived. However, they misjudged the Seminoles’ strength; the power of their charismatic leader, Osceola; and the resistance of African American fugitives living among the Seminoles. Hundreds of southern slaves had fled to Florida in the early nineteenth century seeking freedom. Some married Seminole women, while others were reenslaved by Seminole Indians. But the Seminoles treated slaves with more leniency than did southern whites, allowing them to live on small farms with their own families and enjoy many of the rights of full members of the tribe. Thus free and enslaved blacks fought fiercely against Seminole removal.

The war continued long after Jackson left the presidency. During the seven-year guerrilla war, 1,600 U.S. troops died and the government spent more than $30 million. U.S. military forces defeated the Seminoles in 1842 only by luring Osceola into an army camp with false promises of a peace settlement. Instead, officers took him captive, finally breaking the back of the resistance. Still, to end the conflict, the U.S. government had to allow fugitive slaves living among the Seminoles to accompany the tribe to Indian Territory.

Members of the Cherokee nation also resisted removal, but they fought their battles in the arena of public opinion and in the courts. Throughout the early nineteenth century, growing numbers of Cherokees had embraced “Americanization” programs offered by white missionaries, educators, and government agents. John Ross and other Indian leaders urged Cherokee people to accommodate to white ways, believing it was the best means to ensure the continued control of their own communities. When Georgia officials sought to impose new regulations on the Cherokees living within the state’s borders, tribal leaders took them to court and sought to use evidence of their Christianity, domesticity, and republican government to maintain their rights.

In 1831 Cherokee Nation v. Georgia reached the Supreme Court, where Indian leaders demanded recognition as a separate nation as stipulated in the U.S. Constitution. Chief Justice John Marshall spoke for the majority when he ruled that all Indians in the United States were “domestic dependent nations” rather than fully sovereign governments. The Court thus denied a central part of the Cherokees’ claim. Yet the following year, in Worcester v. Georgia, Marshall and the Court declared that the state of Georgia could not impose state laws on the Cherokees, for they had “territorial boundaries, within which their authority is exclusive,” and that both their land and their rights were protected by the federal government.

President Jackson held a distinctly different view. He argued that only the removal of the Cherokees west of the Mississippi River could ensure their “physical comfort,” “political advancement,” and “moral improvement.” Most southern whites agreed because they sought to expand cotton production into fertile Cherokee fields. But Protestant women and men in the North launched a massive petition campaign in 1830 supporting the Cherokees’ right to their land. The Cherokees themselves forestalled action through Jackson’s second term, but many federal and state officials continued to press for the tribe’s removal.

In December 1835, U.S. officials convinced a small group of Cherokee men— without tribal sanction—to sign the Treaty of New Echota. It proposed the exchange of 100 million acres of Cherokee land in the Southeast for $68 million and 32 million acres in Indian Territory. Cherokee leaders, including John Ross, lobbied Congress to reject the treaty, but to no avail. In May 1836, Congress approved the treaty by a single vote and set the date for final removal two years later. Although most ofthe 17,000 Cherokees resisted this plan, they had few means left to defy the U.S. government (Map 10.2).

In May 1838, the U.S. army began to forcibly remove any Cherokee who had not yet resettled in Indian Territory. General Winfield Scott, assisted by 7,000 U.S. soldiers, forced some 15,000 Cherokees into forts and military camps that June. The Cherokees spent the next several months without sufficient food, water, sanitation, or medicine. The situation went from bad to worse. In October, when the Cherokees began the march west, torrential rains were followed by snow. Although the U.S. army planned for a trip of less than three months, the journey actually took five months. As supplies ran short, many Indians, weakened by disease and hunger, died, including Ross’s wife. The remaining Cherokees completed this Trail of Tears, as it became known, in March 1839. But thousands remained near starvation a year later.

MAP 10.2

Indian Removals and Relocations, 1820s-1850s In the 1820s and 1830s, the federal government used a variety of tactics, including military force, to expel Indian nations residing east of the Mississippi River. As these tribes resettled in the West, white migration along the Oregon and other trails began to increase. The result, by 1850, was the forced relocation of many western Indian nations as well.

The Battle for Texas

While whites in Georgia sought Cherokee land, those on the frontier looked toward Texas. Some Southerners had moved into Texas in the early nineteenth century, but the Adams-Onfs Treaty of 1819 guaranteed Spanish control of the territory. Then in 1821 Mexicans overthrew Spanish rule and claimed Texas as part of the new Republic of Mexico. But Mexicans, like the Spaniards before them, faced serious competition from Comanche Indians, who controlled vast areas to the north and west and launched raids into Texas for horses and other livestock.

Eager to increase settlement in the area and to create a buffer against the Comanches, the Mexican government granted U.S. migrants some of the best land in eastern Texas. It hoped these settlers—many of whom brought slaves to cultivate cotton—would eventually spread into the interior, where Comanche raids had devastated Mexican communities. To entice more Southerners, the Mexican government negotiated a special exemption for U.S. planters when it outlawed slavery in 1829. But rather than spreading into the interior, U.S. farmers and planters stayed east of the Colorado River, out of reach of Comanche raiders and close to U.S. markets in Louisiana.

While the Mexican residents of Texas developed a vibrant Tejano culture that combined Catholicism, Spanish language and culture, and indigenous customs, U.S. settlers resisted acculturation. Instead, they continued to worship as Protestants, speak English, send their children to separate schools, and trade mainly with the United States. By 1835 the 27,000 white Southerners and their 3,000 slaves far outnumbered the 3,000 Mexicans living in eastern Texas.

Forming a majority of the east Texas population and eager to expand their plantations and trade networks, growing numbers of U.S. settlers demanded independence.

Then in 1836 Mexicans elected a strong nationalist leader, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, as president. He sought to rein in Tejanos angered over their vulnerability to Comanche attacks and to curb American settlers seeking further concessions. When Santa Anna appointed a military commander to rule Texas, independence-minded U.S. migrants organized a rebellion. On March 2, they declared eastern Texas an independent republic and adopted a constitution that legalized slavery. Some elite Tejanos, long neglected by authorities in Mexico City, sided with the rebels. The rebellion appeared to be short-lived, however. On March 6, 1836, General Santa Anna crushed settlers defending the Alamo in San Antonio. His troops killed all 250 men at the fort but freed the women and children. Soon thereafter, Santa Anna captured the U.S. settlement at Goliad.

Although Santa Anna’s troops suffered more than 1,500 casualties, several times those of the rebel forces, the general was convinced that the uprising was over. But the U.S. government, despite its claims of neutrality, aided the rebels with funds and army officers. Newspapers in New Orleans and New York picked up the story of the Alamo and published dramatic accounts of the battle, describing the Mexican fighters as brutal butchers bent on saving Texas for the pope. These stories, though more fable than fact, increased popular support for the war at a time when many Americans were growing increasingly hostile to Catholic immigrants in the United States.

As hundreds of armed volunteers headed to Texas, General Sam Houston led rebel forces in a critical victory at San Jacinto in April 1836. While the Mexican government refused to recognize rebel claims, it did not try to regain the lost ground in east Texas. Few of the U.S. volunteers arrived in time to participate in the fighting, but some settled in the newly liberated region. Still, the failure ofSanta Anna to recognize Texan independence kept the U.S. government from granting the territory statehood for fear it would lead to war with Mexico. Fortunately for the rebels, the Comanche nation did recognize the Republic of Texas and developed trade relations with residents to gain access to the vast U.S. market.

Meanwhile President Jackson worried that admitting a new slave state might split the national Democratic Party just before the fall elections. To limit debate on the issue, Congress passed a gag rule in March 1836 that tabled all antislavery petitions without being read. Nevertheless, thousands of women and men from Ohio to Massachusetts still flooded the House of Representatives with petitions opposing the annexation of Texas.

Van Buren and the Panic of 1837

With Jackson suffering from tuberculosis, the Democratic convention chose Vice President Martin Van Buren to run for president in 1836. The Whigs hoped to defeat Van Buren by bringing together diverse supporters: financiers and commercial farmers who advocated internal improvements and protective tariffs; merchants and manufacturers who favored a national bank; evangelical Protestants who objected to Jackson’s Indian policy; and Southerners who were antagonized by the president’s heavy-handed use of federal authority. But these disparate interests led the Whigs to nominate three different men for president, and this lack of unity allowed Democrats to fend off an increasingly powerful opposition. Although Van Buren won the popular vote by only a small margin (50.9 percent), he secured an easy majority in the electoral college.

Inaugurated on March 4, 1837, President Van Buren soon faced another crisis that threatened the Democrats’ hold on power. The panic of 1837 started in the South and was rooted in the changing fortunes of American cotton in Great Britain. During the 1830s, the British invested heavily in cotton plantations and brokerage firms, and southern planters used the funds to expand cotton production and improve shipping facilities. British banks also lent large sums to states such as New York to fund internal improvements. This infusion of British money into the U.S. economy fueled inflation, and in February 1837 rising prices prompted protests by farmers and workers. But worse problems lay ahead.

In late 1836, the Bank of England, faced with bad harvests and declining demand for textiles, had tightened credit to limit the flow of money out of the country. This forced British investors to call in their loans and drove up interest rates in the United States just as cotton prices started to fall. Some of the largest American cotton merchants were forced to declare bankruptcy. The banks where they held accounts then failed— ninety-eight of them in March and April 1837 alone.

The economic crisis hit the South hard. Cotton prices fell by nearly half in less than a year. Land values declined dramatically, many southern whites lost farms and homes, port cities came to a standstill, and cotton communities on the southern frontier collapsed. The damage soon radiated throughout the United States. Northern brokers, shippers, and merchants were devastated by losses in the cotton trade, and northern banks were hit by unpaid debts incurred for canals and other internal improvements. Entrepreneurs who borrowed money to expand their businesses defaulted in large numbers. Shopkeepers, artisans, and farmers in the North and Midwest suffered unemployment and foreclosures.

Many Americans, especially in the North and West, blamed Jackson’s war against the Bank of the United States for precipitating the panic. They were also outraged at Van Buren’s refusal to intervene in the crisis. Probably no federal policy could have resolved the problems created by the “credit bubble,” which had been brought on by the ready availability of British money. Still, the president’s apparent disinterest in the plight of the people inspired harsh criticisms from ordinary citizens as well as political opponents. Worse, despite brief signs of recovery in 1838, the depression deepened in 1839 and continued for four more years.

The Whigs Win the White House

Van Buren was clearly vulnerable as he faced reelection in 1840. Eager to exploit the Democrats’ weakness, the Whig Party organized its first national convention that fall and united behind military hero William Henry Harrison (see chapter 9). Harrison was born to a wealthy planter family in Virginia, but the sixty-eight-year-old soldier was portrayed as a self-made man who lived in a simple log cabin in Indiana.

His running mate, John Tyler, another Virginia gentleman and a onetime Democrat, joined the Whigs because of his opposition to Jackson’s stand on nullification. Whig leaders hoped he would attract southern voters. Taking their cue from the Democrats, the Whigs organized rallies, barbecues, parades, and mass meetings. They turned the tables on their foe by portraying Van Buren as an aristocrat who enjoyed fine wines and expensive clothes and Harrison as the hero of the common man. Reminding voters that Harrison had defeated Tenskwatawa at the Battle of Tippecanoe, the Whigs adopted the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.”

William Henry Harrison Campaign Poster, 1840 The 1840 presidential campaign pitted the incumbent Martin Van Buren against William Henry Harrison. Harrison, the Whig Party candidate, was portrayed as a man from humble origins even though he was the son of a wealthy Virginia planter. His campaign slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" highlighted his military background and leadership in the defeat of Tenskwatawa at the Battle of Tippecanoe. The campaign was a rousing success, and Harrison and his running mate, John Tyler, handily defeated Van Buren with 53 percent of the popular vote. Library of Congress

The Whigs also welcomed women into the campaign. By 1840 thousands of women had circulated petitions against Cherokee removal, organized temperance societies, promoted religious revivals, and joined charitable associations. They embodied the kind of moral force that the Whig Party claimed to represent. In October 1840, Whig senator Daniel Webster spoke to a gathering of 1,200 women. He praised women’s moral virtues and asked audience members to encourage their brothers and husbands to vote for Harrison.

The Whig strategy paid off handsomely on election day when some 80 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Harrison won easily, and the Whigs gained a majority in Congress. Yet the election’s promise was shattered when “old Tippecanoe” died of pneumonia a month after his inauguration. Whigs in Congress now had to deal with John Tyler, whose sentiments were largely southern and Democratic. Frustrating Whig plans for reform with vetoes, Tyler allowed the Democratic Party to regroup and set the stage for close elections in 1844 and 1848.


• How and why did Indian nations in the Southeast resist removal to the West while some Indians in the West forged ties with U.S. markets?

• What events and developments led to a Whig victory in the election of 1840?

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