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John Tyler, Henry Clay, and Political Gridlock in 1841-1842

The economy is sputtering and the politicians in the nation's capital are squabbling amongst
themselves. Sound familiar? Much like today, this was the situation in 1841 and 1842. The financial
Panic of 1837 unleashed a severe depression. The people determined that the ruling Democrats

were at fault and voted in the Whigs in 1840. William Henry Harrison was elected President and
Senate Whig leader Henry Clay was prepared to enact legislation for economic recovery.
National Bank
But Harrison died after only one month in office and former Democrat, Vice President John Tyler
assumed the office of President. Before he died, Harrison called for a special session of Congress to
address the dire economic situation. Banks had suspended specie payments (gold and silver),
western state government treasuries were empty and close to debt repudiation. Secretary of the
Treasury Thomas Ewing reported that the already substantial federal deficit would grow to an
additional $11 million.
"The eyes of the nation are bent upon us with an intensity which has never before been
experienced," declared a New York Whig as the special session began. Clay believed the Whigs had
the mandate and that Tyler would "dare not resist" the centerpiece of his economic plan- a national
bank to bring order to a chaotic financial system. But Tyler had constitutional qualms and vetoed
Clay's bank bill on August 16, 1841. Then a second, and more moderate, bank bill was passed and
Tyler still vetoed it.

Although the special session produced the Bankruptcy Act that aided debtors, and the Preemptory
Act, which distributed proceeds from federal land sales to states for infrastructural purposes, it did
not get a bank bill into law. According to historian Daniel Walker Howe, Tyler was not interested in a
bank bill. He wanted to wrest leadership of the Whig Party from Clay. In 1842, Tyler submitted his
own bank bill, the Exchequer plan, which Clay-backed congressional Whigs, still seething from
Tyler's vetoes, rejected. The Whig schism, which Democrats happily used to block Whig legislation,
produced a dysfunctional government.
Another issue compounded the futility in Washington. A small group of anti-slavery congressmen and
allies were determined to make slavery the top priority in Congress. Despite the Gag Rule on slavery
in the legislature, these congressmen planned to introduce petitions and resolutions from their
constituents that did not openly favor abolition of slavery, but would give them an opportunity to
make speeches and spark debate on slavery. The speeches would then be printed for a national

In January 1842, Congressman John Quincy Adams introduced a petition from the citizens of
Haverhill, MA requesting Congress to dissolve the Union because they could not tolerate the
existence of slavery. Angry southern congressmen shouted treason and demanded the censure of
Adams. The censure debate lasted two weeks, preventing the U.S. House to act on measures to
relieve the skint treasury and the nation suffering from the depression.
National frustration was apparent. The Washington Madisonian complained that important bills
were "slumbering on the Speaker's table." A New York correspondent worried that the name-calling,
quarreling, fist-fights, duels, and the general neglect of public business was undermining public
confidence in republican institutions. In the 1842-43 midterm elections, the Whigs lost their majority
in the House and their Senate majority was trimmed. First-time Whig voters in 1840, now
disillusioned, stayed away from the polls, according to historian Michael Holt.
South Carolina Democrat Francis Pickins summed up 1841 and 1842 best when he said he never
knew such a greater state of confusion in public affairs: a federalist (Whig) congress, a Democratic
minority strongly supported by the people, and an isolated President with no party backing. So we
can be rest assured that today's dysfunctional or ineffectual government is nothing new.
Sources: Heidler, David S., and Jeanne T. Heidler, Henry Clay: The Essential American, New York:
Random House, 2010. Howe, Daniel Walker, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of
America, 1815-1848, Oxford U. Press, 2007. Monroe, Dan, The Republican Vision of John Tyler,
Texas A&M Press, 2003.