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1841 One Hundred And Fifty Years Ago

March 2023
1min read

Clay vs. Tyler

All but one of President Tyler’s cabinet members resigned on September 11. The ostensible cause was his veto of national banking legislation; what was really at issue, however, was the future direction of Tyler’s Whig party. Its leader, Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky, urged the walkout as a test of loyalty to the anti-Tyler party mainstream.

Clay considered John Tyler’s administration a “regency.” Tyler, the first President to ascend to the office through the death of his predecessor, did not share most Whigs’ pro-business sympathies, and Clay wanted an issue to force the President’s hand. Tyler had less sympathy than his fellow Whigs for the idea of a revived national bank. He wanted to limit the bank’s powers by protecting the right of states to accept or refuse local “franchises” of the national system. Clay, a staunch supporter of the bank, said of his President, “I’ll drive him before me,” and created the legislation least palatable to Tyler to force a crisis.

While still Vice President, under William Henry Harrison, Tyler had made it known that he opposed any federal bank scheme imposed on the states and would prefer a national bank limited to the District of Columbia. As President he now proposed an “exchequer system” to guarantee states’ rights under the bank plan, but Clay pushed through a strictly nationalist version instead, knowing Tyler would veto it while the majority of his cabinet supported the legislation. Tyler vetoed, as expected. A second bill was passed, which the President never saw until it arrived for his signature. Feeling that this supposed compromise bill offered little change from the original, he vetoed it as well. Clay was delighted. He urged Tyler’s cabinet to resign over the issue, which they did, all but Secretary of State Daniel Webster, whose contempt for Clay was well known.

“Where am I to go, Mr. President?” Webster reportedly asked John Tyler in his White House office. Tyler replied that the decision must be Webster’s alone. When the Massachusetts Whig pledged to stay on, Tyler declared, “I will say to you that Henry Clay is a doomed man from this hour.” Indeed, Clay resigned his Senate post the next year and was Whig candidate for President in 1844, bui he was never elected, and the bank was not revived.

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