Archive for category History
In 1960. At least that’s what Khrushchev thought.
Khrushchev took a particularly keen interest in the 1960 US presidential election. Having engaged Nixon in the famous 1959 “Kitchen Debate” while on tour in the US, he became convinced that the firm anti-Communist would be impossible to do business with. He determined to help elect whoever the Democratic nominee was.
First, he tried to convince Adlai Stevenson to run again. Stevenson declined to openly seek a third straight nomination, mostly out of pride and a desire to be asked rather than have to ask. But he was certainly not about to be goaded into it by the Soviets.
Then, when John F. Kennedy became the nominee, Khrushchev tried to intervene in the election on his side. Quoting from Dan Carlin’s podcast on the Cuban Missile Crisis:
In the book Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War by Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov, it’s interesting to read exactly how much Khrushchev was hoping Kennedy would become the president. But not because he thought he was weak, but because he thought he might be another Franklin Roosevelt, someone who could reach out and have another relationship the way Stalin’s and Roosevelt’s relationship was seen to be.
Khrushchev apparently did everything he could to help Kennedy get elected. He told KGB officers in Washington to analyze the situation, and if there was anything they could do diplomatically or with propaganda to help, to do it. He called Kennedy, ‘his president’ after he was elected, and told Kennedy at the first eye-to-eye meeting they every had, ‘I got you elected.’
Zubok and Pleshakov go on (p. 238) to detail that they were rebuffed when they rather clumsily tried to approach Robert F. Kennedy directly. However,
In the end, Khrushchev did influence the U.S. presidential elections by his belligerent rhetoric, as well as by demonstrating that a constructive U.S. – Soviet dialogue would be impossible so long as Eisenhower or Nixon remained in the White House. Twenty years before the revolutionary leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran used American hostages to influence a U.S. presidential campaign, Khrushchev did the same by holding captive two pilots of the U.S. reconnaissance plane RB-47, shot down in July 1960 over the Soviet North. Along with fears of the “missile gap,” Kennedy successfully exploited the issue of the captive pilots in his barbs against the Eisenhower-Nixon administration.
Correctly or incorrectly, Khrushchev believed this was a decisive factor in the elections. From his memoirs, Khrushchev Remembers, page 458, he details how he mentioned this to Kennedy at the Vienna summit:
By this time President Kennedy was in the White House. Not long before the events in Berlin came to a head, I met Kennedy in Vienna. He impressed me as a better statesman than Eisenhower. Kennedy had a precisely formulated opinion on every subject. I joked with him that we had cast the deciding ballot in his election to the Presidency over that son-of-a-bitch Richard Nixon. When he asked me what I meant, I explained that by waiting to release the U-2 pilot Gary Powers until after the American election, we kept Nixon from being able to claim that he could deal with the Russians; out ploy made a difference of at least half a million votes, which gave Kennedy the edge he needed.
Of course, at the time, nobody accused RFK or JFK of actually colluding with the Soviets to ensure JFK’s election. (That would have to wait for another election, and another Kennedy.)
One hundred fifty years ago today, Gen. William T. Sherman quit Atlanta, and began his March to the Sea. The March was decisive in breaking the spirit of the slave-holding South, but Sherman always saw it as a repositioning of his army to prepare it for action in the Carolinas. The army conducted itself with remarkable discipline. It did not, contrary to the assertions of my Georgian 8th grade history teacher Miss Davis, salt the earth as they went.
Victor Davis Hanson describes the March better than anyone:
How in a moral sense could the March to the Sea be too barbaric in destroying Southern property yet at the same time not effective enough in killing Confederate soldiers? How could Sherman’s men be too lax in freeing slaves? How could his march be considered too easy when Grant and Lincoln–men known for neither timidity nor hysteria–feared for the very destruction of Sherman’s army when he requested permission to attempt it? And how else could Sherman move his colossal army to the east and be in position to march northward other than by living off the land and destroying property? Was he to pay for the food of slaveowners in prized Federal dollars with promises that such capital would not be forwarded to purchase more bullets for Lee and Johnston? Were his men to eat hardtack while secessionists fared better? Keep clear of railroads, as locomotives sped by with food, ammunition, and guns to kill Northerners in Virginia? Bypass slaveowning plantationists in a war to end slavery?
As for the charge that Sherman’s brand of war was amoral, if we forget for a moment what constitutes “morality” in war and examine acts of violence per se against Southern civilians, we learn that there were few, if any, gratuitous murders on the march. There seem also to have been less than half a dozen rapes, a fact acknowledged by both sides. Any killing outside of battle was strictly military execution in response to the shooting of Northern prisoners. The real anomaly seems to be that Sherman brought more than sixty thousand young men through one of the richest areas of the enemy South without unchecked killing or mayhem. After the war a Confederate officer remarked of the march through Georgia: “The Federal army generally behaved very well in this State. I don’t think there was ever an army in the world that would have behaved better, on a similar expedition, in an enemy country. Our army certainly wouldn’t.”
If you haven’t read Hanson’s description in The Soul of Battle, you’re missing out.
So we made a thoroughfare for Freedom and her train,
Sixty miles in latitude, three hundred to the main;
Treason fled before us, for resistance was in vain,
While we were marching through Georgia.Hurrah! Hurrah! We bring the jubilee!
Hurrah! Hurrah! The flag that makes you free!
So we sang the chorus from Atlanta to the sea,
While we were marching through Georgia.
Twenty-five years ago tonight, I stood in my apartment in Arlington, Virginia, and watched Berlin free itself.
It was a moment I really never thought I would see.
The Wall had been built in 1961, five years before I was born, so to me, it was eternal. It was built to prevent the East German dictatorship from turning into a land without a people. Berliners, and Germans in general, were using the Allied Sectors as an escape hatch in growing numbers, and the East Germans were putting pressure on the Soviets to do something about it. Having found Kennedy weak, Khrushchev acted. The wall went up, and the city divided.
Escapes – successful and failed – became the stuff of legend. People tunneled under, jumped over, drove through, and just sneaked across. Checkpoint Charlie – the official crossing between East and West – assumed a mythic status in the Cold War imagination, for exchanges, infiltrations, and releases both real and fictional.
Over time, the embarrassment of the Wall exceeded the embarrassment of the East German exodus:
The Wall, built in 1961, just like the tyranny that put it there, was a fixture. And then, it wasn’t.
Now, there are pieces of the wall all over the world, although, perhaps surprisingly, not in every former Soviet bloc country. Pictures of these segments invariably show the spray-painted western side, because it’s more visually arresting and more colorful. That’s almost always the side that’s displayed, where the little plaques explaining the history are placed, as well.
That’s a mistake, and it’s one that reprises a mistake we made during the Cold War itself. American tourists were often disappointed. “It’s just a wall,” they’d complain, after having seen it. They should showcase the drab, dull grey side instead. For the West, the Wall was just a wall; for the East, it was a prison. Let the spectators see the other side first, and have to circle around to see the colors.
In a very real sense, the wall isn’t gone. Forty years of separation, 28 years of the Wall, effected a lasting societal change:
Not everyone is happy about this change. During the Day at the Capitol for the JCRC, in the House gallery, I sat next to an older gentleman, representing one of the JCRC’s organizations. It turned out he was a retired American diplomat, back from a long-term posting in Leipzig, in the former East Germany. To break the ice, I mentioned something about the Leipzig Trade Fair, and then offered what I assumed was a fairly innocuous observation about how the people there are better off since the fall of Communism. At first, I wasn’t sure he had heard me, so I tried again.
In fact, I had stumbled across not an American patriot, but a Communist fellow-traveler. What followed was an hour-long discussion that could have happened during my college days, complete with assertions that East Germany was free for certain values of “free.” With representatives like that, it at once became clear to me why it took 70 years to win the Cold War.
Remember when Michelle Obama promised that Barack would heal our broken souls? In my lifetime, that’s pretty much been the refrain of liberalism – a concern for the well-being of your souls, if not of yourselves, despite the stereotype that this is a feature of the religious right. It goes to the heart of the liberal trope that intentions matter more than results, and that government action is inherently more virtuous than private initiative.
It turns out this was a characteristic of liberalism even when it was relatively new and driven by Evangelical concerns. From Paul Johnson’s The Birth of the Modern, and his chapter on Britain’s rise in the role of World Policeman, comes this description of the conflicting British attitudes about the Barbary pirates and their slavery:
The West’s supine attitude toward the horrors of Barbary piracy had long aroused fury in some quarters. Officers of the British navy were particularly incensed since seamen were frequently victims of the trade. They could not understand why the huge resources of the world’s most powerful fleet were not deployed to root out this evil affront to the international law of the sea, once and for all. They could not understand why liberal parliamentarians, who campaigned ceaselessly to outlaw the slave trade by parliamentary statute, took no interest in Christian slavery….But William Wilberforce, MP, and the other Evangelical liberals, who finally got the slave trade made unlawful in 1807, flatly refused to help. They were concerned with the enslavement of blacks by whites and did not give the predicament of white slaves a high priority on their agenda, an early example of double standards.
I’m sure this account of Wilberforce is going to make some people unhappy, but it shouldn’t be taken as ad hominem. He’s merely the most prominent representative of the cause, and therefore of the cause’s flaws. Liberalism suffered from double standards when it was new, and now that it’s old, when it was religious, and now that it’s secular.
Last week, I posted a comment on Facebook to the effect that I was waiting for the Pat Buchanan column defending Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a defense of traditional conservative values. I meant it as a joke, but he seems to have taken it as a challenge.
In a remarkable Townhall.com column, Buchanan takes Hillary Clinton to task for comparing Putin’s motives to Hitler’s in 1935-39. Then he does the same thing, in order to exonerate Putin. In doing so, he has to exonerate Hitler. It’s the Double-Reverse Godwin, and he gets 6.0 from the German judge! And the Russian judge! The only thing missing was a description of how it’s all Israel’s fault, or the Jewish lobby’s fault, although I guess this is only a few hundred-word column, and he has to leave something for the long program.
Here’s Buchanan’s take on the events of 1935-1939:
He imposed conscription in 1935, sent his soldiers back into the Rhineland in 1936, annexed Austria in 1938, demanded and got the return of the Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938.
He then sought to negotiate with the Polish colonels, who had joined in carving up Czechoslovakia, a return of Danzig, when the British issued a war guarantee to Warsaw stiffening Polish spines.
Enraged by Polish intransigence, Hitler attacked. Britain and France declared war. The rest is history.
It’s not often you get to read histories from a parallel universe in a political journal. Hitler didn’t just get the return of the Sudeten Germans, he got the Sudetenland, which included the only serious geographic obstacle to the rest of Czechoslovakia. In-between Munich and Hitler’s, ah, “negotiations” with the Poles, Hitler walked into Bohemia, Moravia, and Prague, effectively annexing the rest of Czecholovakia and along with it, the Skoda Works. Although not very many more Germans.
It’s true that Poland fought a series of short, unpleasant border wars with most of its neighbors, and that it took advantage of Munich to settle some leftover business with Prague. (Paul Johnson in Modern Times suggests that that’s at least part of the reason why Poland didn’t have any local friends when its own day of reckoning came.) It’s also true that Zaolzie bore none of the strategic or military significance that the Sudetenland did, and that the Poles didn’t exactly have the same strategic ambitions as did Germany.
Hitler wasn’t going to get Gdansk/Danzig without a fight, and he knew it. But he didn’t just walk in an take the Polish Corridor. He shelled Warsaw for weeks, and partitioned the entire country between himself and Stalin. So according to Buchanan, Hitler needed Prague to secure the Sudetenland, and he needed Warsaw to secure Danzig.
If I were living in Kiev right now, I’m not sure I’d find that encouraging.
I mean a long fight.
I’ve been reading Norman Cantor’s Medieval Lives, a short book advertising itself as character sketches of a few important Middle Age figures. In reality, it’s a densely-packed but highly-readable study of the interplay among religious, social, cultural, and political factors in the development of medieval civilization. By spacing the biographies a generation or a century apart, Cantor makes it possible to trace the evolution and influence of ideas over time.
One sketch is of the first Chancellor of Oxford and inventor of the modern scientific method, Robert Grosseteste. Grosseteste was also a fierce defender of Church privileges and the rights of ecclesiastical courts.
Before that, though, he tangled with Henry III over the exclusive right of ecclesiastical courts to try clerics. Few students at Oxford were there to enter the priesthood, but because the University was under Church control, they were required to nominally be members of a monastic order. As a result, when they got out of hand, as students often would, Grosseteste would routinely write the requisite letter to the common law courts testifying that they were members of the clergy, exempting them from civil jurisprudence and permitting them to be tried by the much more lenient church courts. The traditional conflict between town and gown thus took on overtones of a larger dispute – the extent of domain of civil society over the Church.
Eventually, Grosseteste would set the tone for his collaborators in the Franciscan Order to support Simon de Montfort in his rebellion against the crown. And we’re all familiar with the English crown’s resistance to papal duties, and Henry VIII’s financial duress leading him to separate from Rome and confiscate monastic property. But even in 1253 or so, this tension was manifesting itself in a very specific, very legal, jurisdictional dispute.
To that extent, it looks a lot like the current disputes over the Obamacare contraception mandate – how much room for private or institutional religious conscience is there in a secular civil society? It also demonstrates how much ground has been lost in that fight, and why Orthodox Jews are rushing to make common cause with a historic adversary and recent friend.
I’m not the first one to make the connection.
That’s not surprising. What is perhaps surprising is that we’re not the first generation to have the debate over what free speech means. In fact, the very first generation of free Americans had this debate. This same exact debate.
I read Pauline Maier’s remarkable Ratification in 2011, but this stayed with me. On p.71 – 75, she has a section on “Freedom of the Press.” Surprisingly, the context is very much the same now as it was 226 years ago.
Threats…encouraged writers to continue the standard practice of publishing essays under pseudonyms. In Boston, however, Benjamin Russell, published of the Massachusetts Centinel, announced in early October that he would print no essays that raised objections to the Constitution unless their authors left their names “to be made public if desired.” That would clearly discourage critics of the Constitution from speaking out. The local tradesmen and artisans (known as “mechanics”) who strongly supported ratification, “had been worked up to such a degree of rage,” one Massachusetts official noted, “that it was unsafe to be known to oppose [the Constitution] in Boston.” … Other commenters, however, charged Russell with violating freedom of the press since his policy would curtail the range of arguments available to the public. In Philadelphia, a writer who took the pen name “Fair Play” answered the threats leveled against those who criticized the Constitution by insisting “that the LIBERTY OF THE PRESS — the great bulwark of all the liberties of the people — ought never to be restrained” (although, he added, “the Honorable Convention did not think fit to make the least declaration in its favor”).
The freedom such writers defended went back to an earlier time, when colonial printers had to appeal to a broad range of readers to stay in business; they took a neutral stand and justified necessity by defining a “free press” as one that was “open to all parties.” That way of operating came under pressure as the market for newspapers grew and the Revolution raised doubts about giving “all parties,” including Loyalists, ready access to the reading public. State partisan divisions during the 1780s also made it difficult, and sometimes unprofitable, for printers to remain impartial. On the other hand, the establishment of a republic, in which all power came from the people, gave the argument for a press open to all parties a new ideological foundation: To exercise their responsibilities intelligently, the citizens of a republic had to be fully informed of different views on public issues.
That concept of a free press was, in any case, different from the standard Anglo-American understanding of “freedom of the press,” which referred to the freedom of printers to publish whatever they wanted without “prior restraint” by the government….The emphasis was on the freedom of the press to monitor and criticize persons in power and the policies they adopted.
In the end, proponents of the Constitution found an effective alternative to threats of tar and feathers and other forms of physical punishment: They could influence editorial policy by cancelling or threatening to cancel their subscriptions to “offending” newspapers. Advocates for freedom of the press could insist that the American people needed access to the full range of opinions on the Constitution. But were individual subscribers…obliged to pay for newspapers that published essays they considered profoundly subversive of their own and the country’s best interests?
Men like Oswald were rare. Only twelve of over ninety American newspapers and magazines published substantial numbers of essays critical of the Constitution during the ratification controversy…. If printers were “easily terrified into a rejection of free and decent discussions upon public topics,” [New-York Journal Thomas Greenleaf] wrote in early October 1787, the “inevitable consequence” would be “servile fetters for FREE PRESSES of this country.” Greenleaf promised to give “every performance, that may be written with decency, free access to his Journal.” For their persistence, Oswald and Greenleaf suffered verbal attacks, cancelled subscriptions, and threats of mob violence. Their insistence on maintaining what they understood as a “free press,” that is, one that presented the people with criticism as well as hallelujahs for the Constitution, helped start a widespread public debate on the Constitution, which they they kept going. (Emphasis added – ed.)
Just because the government’s not involved doesn’t mean it’s not a free speech issue.
Arguing over whether this is a legal or a strictly First Amendment issue is the reddest of red herrings. I suppose there’s some possibility that some judge will decide that if a baker and a photographer can be forced to provide services for gay weddings, then A&E can be forced to employ religious Christians, but absent that, it’s unlikely this will be decided through the courts. And certainly nobody on the right is calling for a return to the bad old days of the “fairness doctrine,” which wouldn’t apply here in any event.
For most libertarians and conservatives, that’s ok. But we can’t let it end with that. We can’t short-circuit them by dismissing them because there are no legal implications. As Mark Steyn points out, if we want civil society to be where these discussions take place, then we have to ensure that civil society is a place where we can actually have these discussions.
Right now, it’s difficult to tell A&E, and only A&E, that you’re unhappy with their editorial decisions, because if you want to buy A&E, you’re also forced to buy a whole package of other cable channels, not all of which are even owned by the same companies. The most effective way to enable us to hold A&E accountable is to unbundle these offerings, and allow me to choose, a la carte, what channels I want to receive. There’s a bill pending in Congress to do just that, and Canada has already taken that step.
In the end, even though there’s an excellent chance that unbundling will mean higher, rather than lower cable bills, it may be the best means of sending the market signals that prevent an enforced conformity. Right now, more channels just look like a dizzying array of sameness, with those channels of communication that “appeal to a broad range” of viewers, readers, or listeners, being dictated to by bullies who cannot stand to hear that someone disagrees.
Today is the 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. There will be a great deal written about the speech itself, so I’m going to take a slightly different tack.
In 1982, Jacques Barzun was invited to give the Annual Fortenbaugh Memorial Lecture, on the anniversary of the Address, to Gettysburg College. His topic was “Lincoln’s Philosophical Vision,” and he broke it down into three parts: everyday life, ethics and morals, and man’s place in the universe. I can’t find the whole speech online, but there is much in it that is relevant to today’s politics.
The fanatical temper on either side springs from the philosophy opposite to perspectivism – the philosophy of absolutism: according to it, once an important purpose has been adopted, nothing must stop its immediate carrying out – and damn the consequences. Such thinkers are proud of their “principle” and they forge ahead thinking it is the only principle in the case.
Lincoln was a man of principle, too, but he understood how to handle principles – in the plural – in a world of actuality. Just one year before the war broke out, he plainly told his first great audience in the east that he thought slavery wrong and that there was “no middle ground between the right and the wrong.” But he went on to say: “Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States?” Lincoln wanted to stiffen resistance against the compromisers such as Senator Douglas, who was “groping” for “sophistical contrivances” that would in the end perpetuate slavery.
The lesson here is to beware of what absolutists call principles. Principles necessarily take the form of abstract words… Such words…lack contents you can name, concrete reference to the world of fact and behavior. That is the reason why the great English writer Dorothy Sayers said, “The first thing a principle does is to kill somebody.” Her conclusion follows from the absolutist temper…Of such stuff are made the idealist, the crusader, the revolutionist. He not only wants instant gratification, but he is also ever-ready to believe that his opponents are wrong on purpose, knowingly and wickedly; he is incapable of saying with Lincoln, “the southerners are just what we would be in their situation.”
And, as importantly:
One more word must be said about pragmatism by way of introducing the second part of Lincoln’s philosophy. The word pragma, a Greek root, means “the thing done,” the upshot. Pragmatism therefore means the doctrine that all human thought is fundamentally directed at doing, at some desired action, now or in future. The pragmatic test asks: What concrete difference would it make if this idea or that idea, this policy or that policy, were taken as the true one? It is the test that mankind has used for thousands of years in accumulating what we call the truths of experience.
Lincoln was above all a practical politician, who wanted to work within the existing political system to effect change, but wasn’t willing to let its limitations be its demise. He was also one who sought to understand where the other guy was coming from, even as he understood the profoundly moral nature of politics.
The deep irony of the current age is that President Obama, who pretends to Lincoln’s mantle, has based his entire political outlook on believing that his opponents are wrong on purpose, knowingly and wickedly, and being willing to say so, loudly and longly.
At the same time, there’s a small but loud group of Republicans who reject Lincoln’s pragmatism in the name of principle, without realizing that life often consists of sorting out conflicting principles.
The anniversary of that short, profound, complex speech couldn’t come at a better time.
May 8, 1825
But with respect to our rights, and the acts of the British government contravening those rights, there was but one opinion on this side of the water. All American whigs thought alike on these subjects.
When forced, therefore, to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our justification. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment,nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.
All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c. …
Indeed, the national Declaration of Independence followed dozens of state, county, local, and group declarations throughout the country, terminating the legal authority of the British regime in their own jurisdictions. It fell to Jefferson and the Committee to provide a philosophical basis suitable to a national declaration.
The form these declarations took was traditional: a letter to the King explaining grievances, declaring rights, and establishing new rules to preserve those rights. Thus they were acts of rebellion and disunion in forms that emphasized and embodied the continuity of Anglo-American political tradition.
Anyone who hasn’t read Pauline Maier’s American Scripture should do so between now and next July 4.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been working my way through Henry Clay: The Essential American. Such political biographies are inevitably histories of the times, and Clay’s times basically bridged the America of the early Constitution and the America just before the Civil War.
I may or may not have time for a longer, more thorough post on Clay, but I wanted to throw out a few observations, as Clay spends a few years at Ashland, recovering physically and financially in preparation for one last stint in Washington, after his defeat as the Whig nominee in 1844.
Clay was, by any account, a remarkable and remarkably intense politician. He was quickly elected Speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives, and then, on his first day in the US House, elected Speaker of the House there. Clay would revolutionize that role, taking the Speakership from a mostly administrative role to a center of political power. When he moved to the Senate, he would wield similar power there as a floor leader, even without the formal role of Majority Leader that we have today.
Because of his long Congressional career, we know Clay today as the Great Compromiser, remembering his roles in the Missouri Compromise of 1820, and the Compromise of 1850, both of which helped stave off disunion over slavery. Those are merely the largest, best-known of his compromises. He led successful compromises over the tariff (despite being a westerner, he favored a high protective tariff), and over a renewed Bank of the United States and internal improvements, the last two thwarted by presidents rather than Congress. These three aspects of his program comprised what he referred to as the American System.
For being almost 200 years old, the politics of the 1830s and 1840s is strikingly modern. Much of this is the result of Andrew Jackson’s populist revolution in American politics, but Clay’s and the Whigs’ response to it also resonates with today’s reader. For instance, in vetoing the recharter of the Bank of the United States, Jackson’s message essentially dodged constitutional questions, and boiled down to the fact that he didn’t much like banks. Clay thought that Jackson’s lack of intellectual coherence in his veto message would cost him politically in the Mid-Atlantic states, where the Bank was popular. He underestimated the populist appeal of Jackson’s message. It wouldn’t be the last time Clay misread the politics vs. the policy of an issue.
Clay also had to deal with the changing nature of presidential campaigning. While personally outgoing and optimistic, and a fine public speaker, he never really enjoyed or thought seemly the public appearances and speeches that marked presidential elections in the 1840s. And in the 1844 campaign, he never could get his fellow Whigs to understand the importance of a centralized party organization. Counting on the popularity of their program and ideas to carry the day, they narrowly lost to James K. Polk, whose Democrats better understood the politics of faction.
The Whigs also might well have won, had they been able to keep the focus on the economy. They had won handily in 1840 on that basis, although Harrison’s death and Tyler’s allegiance to Democrat, rather than Whig, ideas, cost them mightily as the public perceived them as unready to govern. But the party in power often controls the public agenda, and it was to Tyler’s benefit – until he dropped out – to bring Texas, and the inevitable conflict over slavery – to the forefront. It was the 1844 equivalent of running on a supposed “War on Women,” in order to avoid talking about a wretched economic record.
It was also in the 1830s that we start to see the philosophical differences that would define American politics from then on. The Democrats favored a strong executive – first pioneered by Andrew Jackson – while the Whigs really coalesced initially around resistance to what they saw as the usurpation of legislative priority. But it was the Whigs who favored a more nationalist policy, Clay’s American System – a central bank, protective tariffs, and federally-funded internal improvements. So it was possible for Tyler to resist Jackson’s executive power grab by joining the Whigs, and still oppose the Whig federal program.
Clay never would be president, despite being a perennial nominee or mentionee for decades. It’s entirely possible that this was for the best. His time at the State Department under John Quincy Adams was miserable. Clay always supported legislative supremacy, believing that the Constitution put Congress in Article I for a reason, and there’s no reason to doubt his sincerity on this point, or to believe that it was one of convenience. Had he been elected President, he would likely have found crafting legislative compromise more difficult from the other end of Pennsylvania Ave., since he wouldn’t have been in a position to control the process as thoroughly as he did from the floor or the Speaker’s chair. The Presidency has not been kind to those with a legislative, rather than an executive temperament.