Jackson’s destruction of the Bank sparked a heated debate within the leadership of the Democratic Party. Some, such as Clay and Webster, believed that Jackson had violated the Constitution in killing the Bank and introduced a motion to censure the president. Other politicians followed suit, and Clay and Webster quickly became the leaders of a new political faction. Calling themselves the Whigs (in reference to an British political party opposed to royal prerogatives), they stood against Jackson and in favor of progressive social reforms, better education, internal improvements, and limits on westward expansion. The Whigs embraced the transition to a market economy and thus won support from the wealthy manufacturers in the North as well as the cotton-growing plantation owners in the South.
By 1836, the Whigs had gained enough support to nominate several presidential candidates, hoping that one of them would be able to oust the Democrats. Because Jackson was too old to run for reelection in 1836, he threw his support behind his secretary of state, Martin Van Buren. Van Buren wasn’t the most popular choice, but Democrats chose him anyway because of his ties to Jackson. Van Buren easily defeated the scattered and divided Whig candidates.
Jackson increased the power of the executive office more than any previous president. He repeatedly ignored the Supreme Court, challenged the Constitution when he dismantled the Bank of the United States, and changed the nature of the presidential veto. Jackson wielded executive power so forcefully that his National Republican and Whig enemies dubbed him “King Andrew I.”
Jackson’s veto of the Bank charter was especially revolutionary. Whereas previous presidents had vetoed bills that they believed to be unconstitutional, Jackson’s veto marked the first time that a president vetoed a bill because he personally disliked it. Jackson’s action reminded Americans that even though the Supreme Court had the power of judicial review, it had to rely on the compliance of the president to carry out its decisions.
Unfortunately, Jackson’s action imperiled the nation’s economy by causing the devastating Panic of 1837 and subsequent depression. His removal of federal funds from the Bank of the United States undermined the country’s credit and financial stability and prompted the wildcat banks to print their own paper money, which flooded the economy and spurred inflation. Because few poor farmers had any hard currency, they had no way to purchase land.
Van Buren’s presidency was blighted by the Panic of 1837 and the depression that followed. Prices fell, hundreds of banks shut down, and millions found themselves out of work or too poor to farm. Van Buren, believing that government dollars had collapsed many of the wildcat banks, had Congressional Democrats pass the Independent Treasury Bill to redeposit these dollars in a new, independent U.S. Treasury.
The Whigs rebounded with General William Henry Harrison in 1840. A former governor of Indiana Territory, Harrison had become a national star after his success against Native Americans at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 and against the British in the War of 1812. Although he came from a prominent Eastern family, Whigs played him as a log cabin–born, hard cider–drinking frontiersman.
Democrats rallied behind Van Buren half-heartedly, but his name had become so associated with the economic depression that he had little chance to win. Though Harrison won the popular vote by a slim margin, he received almost four times as many electoral votes as Van Buren.
The election of 1840 marked the beginning of the era when political loyalties in the United States were divided between the Democrats and the Whigs. The Whigs, however, were short-lived, and the country soon moved into a period in which the major opposing political forces were the Democrats and Republicans.
Whig leaders rejoiced when William Henry Harrison became president in 1840 because they expected to push forward the domestic programs that Henry Clay had begun under his American System years earlier. The celebration ended abruptly, however, when Harrison died of pneumonia after only a month in office. Relatively unknown Vice President John Tyler became the next president.
A former Democrat from Virginia, Tyler had become a Whig several years earlier only because he couldn’t stand Andrew Jackson’s autocratic leadership. However, Tyler was a political misfit and a Whig in name only; party leaders had selected him as Harrison’s running mate only because he could attract Southern votes.
No longer really a Democrat, but certainly not a true Whig, Tyler found himself between a rock and a hard place during his presidency. Like a Whig, he approved of an 1841 congressional bill that would dismantle Martin Van Buren’s independent treasury. After much negotiation, Tyler also approved of the higher Tariff of 1842. Like a Democrat, though, he repeatedly and stubbornly refused to revive the Bank of the United States or to fund internal improvements. Whig leaders grew so irate with Tyler that they eventually expelled him from the party.