Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Matinee Idol in Woody Guthrie’s Shadow—Cisco Houston

Cisco Houston in a professional head shot glossy from the 1950's/

He should have been way more famous.  Instead Cisco Houston is known only among the hardest core of older folk music devotees and as an historical footnoteWoody Guthrie’s closest friend and running buddy.  But Houston not only had a phenomenally wide and varied repertoire of folk songs that documented the American experience and working life and a rich baritone that some folks thought was too good for folk music, but he was movie star handsome.  Maybe his early death at age 42 in 1961 just as the second folk revival was gathering steam deprived him of the opportunity to shine for the legions of younger fans.
Gilbert Vandine Houston was born on August 18, 1918 in Wilmington, Delaware where his father was a tin knocker—a sheet metal worker.  He was the second of four children.  He was still in school when the family moved across country and took up residence in Eagle Rock, a Los Angeles suburb.
Young Gil was recognized as a very bright student despite a serious disabilitynystagmus or dancing eyes, a condition of rapid involuntary movement of the eyes which reduced his vision and made him rely mostly on his peripheral vision which greatly affected his ability to read.  He still got top grades by keenly paying attention to class room discussion and absorbing it.  It made him an audial learner, a perfect skill set for a man who became noted for being able to absorb songs like a sponge.
His supportive family may have read to him, because he gained a school reputation for being exceptionally well read.  Eventually he trained himself to use his limited vision to the best of his ability and did become a devoted reader.
Gil also picked up the guitar and a love of singing from his family from whom he also learned many folk songs.
The Great Depression hit the family hard.  After extended unemployment, his father left the family in pursuit of a job and virtually disappeared.  Young Gil was forced to quit school and find what work he could to support the family.  From 1932 at the age of 14 he took whatever he could find. 
A couple of years later he and his brother Slim hit the road themselves becoming part of a generation of young men forced into the Hobo jungles and the constant chase after the mere rumor of work.  They roamed the Western states hopping freights or hitch hiking until they got separated.  He worked in migrant farm camps, on construction projects, as a pearl diver—dishwasher, day laborer, and even despite his vision problems as a cowboy.
Gil traveled with a battered guitar strapped to his back and entertained his fellow wanderers around camp fires and picked up spare change busking or by plopping down in a corner of a saloon or café and starting to sing.  He also picked up scores, maybe hundreds, of songs on his travels, especially cowboy and hobo tunes. 
It was during these years that he picked up the nickname Cisco.  It came not, as would later be reported, from San Francisco or because of his supposed resemblance to the Cisco Kid with his dark brown hair and the pencil moustache that he grew.  He acquired it from some adventure or misadventure in the small town of Cisco, California near the Nevada border in the old Placer County mining district.
By the late 30’s Houston’s music began to become a more reliable source of income that casual labor.  He began to pick up bookings for pay at saloons and clubs riding the popularity of cowboy music.  In 1938 at age 20 with years of hard traveling already behind him, Houston returned to Los Angeles to seriously pursue a career as a performer.
Not only did Houston pick up fairly steady work in area clubs, but he was encouraged to use his good looks to explore acting.  He picked up extra work and uncredited walk-ons and non-speaking parts, mostly at the poverty row studios that specialized in two-reel oaters.  He was befriended by an older actor and folk singer named Will Geer.  Geer was also a committed radical and drew Houston into his circle of union organizers, rabble rousers, and Communists.  Given Houston’s working class background and life experiences, he became an eager recruit.
One day Geer brought Houston with him to visit another friend, Woody Guthrie, at the KFVD studio of his cowboy music radio show Woody and Lefty Lou.  The connection was almost immediate.  Guthrie took to the younger man.  Their personalities were different, but complimentary.  Guthrie was often effusive and animated nearly to the point mania, always eager to sing for anyone, anywhere at the drop of a hat, but also sometimes moody and subject to black depressions.  Cisco was quiet and reserved, more than a little shy.  Always more of a listener than a talker.  But he had a natural cheerfulness and open good nature that no amount of the many curve balls life had thrown at him could discourage.
Soon the three of them, Geer, Guthrie, and Houston were playing shows at migrant camps, rallies, and at union hall benefits.  They performed a mix of cowboy and hillbilly music, Guthrie’s Dust Bowl songs, and pointed, topical ballads including rousing union songs.  When Guthrie lost his radio show, he and Houston went even farther afield.  They parted ways for a while when Guthrie briefly returned to Texas to be re-united with his wife and children.
Then Geer famously invited both of them to join him in New York.  Both men dropped what they were doing—which wasn’t much—and made a bee line east.  Guthrie held up in Geer’s apartment and Houston found accommodations, eventually with Huddie Leadbetter—Leadbelly—and his wife.  From there things would start percolating.

Singing with the Almanacs--Bess Lomax Hawes, Cisco, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Sis Cunningham. 

Once again Geer introduced his friends to his wide circle of activist and performing friends.  After informal living-room gatherings some of them began to perform together as the Almanac Singers mostly at union halls and at events and benefits for various left organizations.  The Almanac were less a well defined group than a loose collective of singers which presented themselves in various combinations depending on who was available.  Core members included Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Bess Lomax, and Sis Cunningham.  In addition to Houston others who occasionally performed with the Almanacs included Burl Ives, Sonny Terry, and Josh White among others.
The Almanac repertoire included a number of union songs and pacifist songs by Guthrie and Seeger which reflected the Communist line after the Hitler-Stalin Pact.  They were just getting established when Houston signed on with the Merchant Marine in 1940, disguising his visions problems that should have disqualified him.  That meant he missed the recording sessions for the Almanac’s 78 rpm album Meet John Doe which featured anti-war and anti-draft songs. 
But just as the album came out in June of 1941 Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and there was a mad scramble to recall the records and destroy the undistributed copies.  Seeger and Guthrie went into overtime writing new songs urging entry into the fight against fascism including Guthrie’s The Good Ruben James, a ballad about the sinking of an American merchant ship by a German U-boat which also spurred enlistment in the Merchant Marine.

Shipmates Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie, and Jim Longhi sing for their fellow seamen at the National Maritime Union Hall in New York.

Meanwhile Houston was already at sea daring the horrific losses of the Battle of the Atlantic.  He had already survived the sinking of one ship when he came ashore in New York and resumed singing with the Almanacs between voyages.  When the Almanacs broke up in 1943, Houston and his friend Jim Longhi convinced Guthrie to join the Merchant marine with them while Seeger was drafted and entered the Army.  The three shipped out together three times in convoys on the SS William B. Travis, SS William Floyd, and SS Sea Porpoise.  The Travis struck a mine in the Mediterranean Sea and managed to limp to port at Bizerte, Tunisia. 
On all three of their voyages together Houston and Guthrie regularly entertained their shipmates and played for other crews in port.  On their final voyage in 1944 the Sea Porpoise was carrying 3,000 Troops for the invasion of Normandy.  The pair frequently played more formal deck concerts for the men on the long and dangerous voyage.  The ship was torpedoed by a U-Boat off of Normandy on June 5.  She managed to make it back to England to be repaired at Newcastle-upon-Tyne before sailing back to the States.
It turned out to be Guthrie’s last voyage—his seaman’s papers were suddenly yanked for his Communist connections.  Houston stayed in the Merchant Marine but used this time ashore with Guthrie to do his first recordings.  At the same famous 1944 recording sessions by Moses “Moe” Asch with Guthrie and Sonny Terry where Woody laid down many of his most famous songs, including many of the Dust Bowl ballads, Houston sat in as an accompanist and was also recorded on his own. 
Cisco and Woody recording for Moe Asch in 1944--classic sessions that would be repackaged many times by Folkways and other labels.
In the post-war period Houston worked steadily as a musician, studied acting, and began to get stage parts.  Most notably he appeared in the 1948 revival of Mark Blitzstein’s ground breaking radical musical The Cradle Will Rock in a cast that included Will Geer, Alfred Drake, Vivian Vance, and Jack Albertson directed by Howard Da Silva.  Despite the stellar company the revival only ran 34 performances amid revived charges that it was Communist propaganda.
Asch went on to found Folkways records and in 1948 material from the sessions began to be released, helping to spur the post-war or first folk revival.  Houston was featured on two of the first releases, including one as Guthrie’s side man and a collection of children’s song on Folkway’s Cub Records label, Nursery Rhymes Sung and Played by Cisco Houston.  Folkways would go on to release several more records over the next decade or so often re-using the same recordings in different packages.  In addition to frequently appearing on Guthrie recordings and with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee and others some of his solo recordings included. Cowboy Ballads (1952), 500 Miles and other Railroad Songs (1953), Traditional Songs of the Old West (Stintson, 1954), Hard Travelin’ (1954), and Cisco Sings (1958.)

Houston's 1954 Folkways album.
These recording introduced or popularized many songs that became staples of folk music including the children’s ditty The Cat Came Back and the bluesy, haunting ballad Five Hundred MilesThese recordings were for a specialized, limited market of hard core folk music fans and never made Houston much money.  But they did raise his visibility as a performer and helped him get work. 
Through most of the late ‘40’s and ‘50’s Houston toured as a journeyman musician, making a living but not much more.  He never rose to the fame of old pals Guthrie, Seeger, Hayes, Josh White, Burl Ives, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee although he often shared the stage with all of them at clubs or concert bookings.  He crisscrossed the country dozens of times on improvised, self-organized tours.  He also made occasional radio appearances.
In some ways the lack of recognition insulated Houston from the Red Scare era black balling that nearly destroyed the careers of Seeger, Hayes and the members of The Weavers.  Also, he had never taken a CP party card.  That is, he thought he had escaped the worst until just when it looked like his career might take off.
In 1954 Houston was hired to host a radio folk music program based in Denver, Colorado which was syndicated to more than 50 stations by the Mutual Broadcasting System.  It was billed as the Gil Houston Show under his original name.  This was likely a ploy by the station to obscure his identity as Cisco and his known associations.  If so, the ruse might not have worked.  Despite good ratings the show was abruptly cancelled after less than a year on the air.  Houston and his friends suspected the Black List might have caught up to him.
Houston was briefly married twice.  Virtually nothing is known about either spouse and he had no known children.  But his good looks and quiet charm appealed to many women and he was known to have had many, usually brief, affairs.
After the failure of the radio show, Houston shifted his base of operations back to California, from which he had been mostly absent for almost 20 years.  He continued to record for Folkways and for other small labels and appeared where he could in clubs, on college campuses, and even church basement coffee houses. 
Then, starting in 1958 his long years of struggle seemed to be turning around with the rise of the second Folk Revival.  He was signed to a new, commercial label Vanguard which released his successful LP The Cisco Special and a follow-up, Songs of Woody Guthrie.  He rapidly gained the reputation as the leading interpreter of his old friend’s songs just as the ailing Guthrie, no longer able to perform, was becoming an icon of the new folk scene. 
Although he was getting better bookings at larger venues, Houston was beginning to rub up against the reverse snobbery of the folk music community.  Some critics charged that his rich baritone voice was too polished to be authentic—a holy term often used to denote raw and off-key screeching.  Houston complained to an interviewer:
There’s always a form of theater that things take; even back in the Ozarks, as far as you want to go. People gravitate to the best singer...We have people today who go just the other way, and I don't agree with them. Some of our folksong exponents seem to think you have to go way back in the hills and drag out the worst singer in the world before it’s authentic. Now, this is nonsense...Just because he’s old and got three arthritic fingers and two strings left on the banjo doesn’t prove anything.
A new crop of younger performers, however, were taking note of Houston and he became, at barely 40 years old himself, a mentor and inspiration to several of them. 
The Black List was fading rapidly.  So fast that in 1959 the State Department asked Houston along with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee to do a tour of India.  On the way back Houston stopped to play, and even to record some sides, in Paris, and sing in England.

Cisco Houston with Molly Scott on the CBS TV special Folk Song, USA  before his terminal cancer had been diagnosed. 
On his return in 1960 CBS TV made him the host of a special, Folk Song, USA which featured Joan Baez, John Lee Hooker, Flatt and Scruggs, and others.  He got great reviews as a warm and authoritative host.  The early summer special was a pilot of sorts for a folk music series.  That same summer Houston headlined, at the invitation of co-founder Pete Seeger, at the Newport Jazz Festival.
Folk music, and it seemed Houston himself, were poised to take off and become the next big thing in American culture.  But shortly after the Newport appearance Houston was diagnosed with stomach cancer.  It had already metastasized and he was told that it was fatal.
Knowing that he had only a few months to live, Houston chose to keep doing what he loved and what gave meaning to his life—performing despite, toward the end, being in constant pain.  The illness took a toll on the once strapping and robust body of a man who had spent much of his life doing hard physical labor.
Houston also returned to the studio to record one last album for Vanguard.  He completed the final sessions of Ain’t Got No Home weeks before he died. 
In a letter quoted in a memorial article in the folk music magazine Come For to Sing by Lee Hays, Houston wrote:
If you know my situation, which is a matter of weeks, of months at the outside, before the wheel runs off... well, nobody likes to run out of time. But it’s not nearly the tragedy of Hiroshima or the millions of people blown to hell in the war, that could have been avoided. These are real tragedies.....
Houston died in San Bernardino, California on April 28, 1961 at the age of only 42.
He was widely mourned in the tight knit community of fold performers even if still not widely known to the public.  Tributes poured in.  Tom Paxton, Peter LaFarge, and Tom McGrath all wrote songs in tribute.  Bob Dylan could not fail to mention him in his Song to Woody just as Peter Yarrow did in his salute to Josh White, Goodbye Josh. 
Smithsonian/Folkways has re-packaged much of Houston’s work on Folkways and also issued a complete multi-CD edition of the Ache Sessions with Woody Guthrie.  There is also a compilation of his Vanguard recordings but Cisco Houston Sings the Songs of Woody Guthrie is the only one of his several LP’s now available on CD.  He also crops up on recordings with Leadbelly and with Sonny Terry as well as several folk anthologies. 
No known film footage has ever been found of Houston performing and even still photos are somewhat scarce.  But mostly he lives on as a semi-legendary character in a semi-mythical version of Woody Guthrie’s life.  Woody himself made Cisco Houston one of the few characters identified by his real name in his highly fictionalized autobiography Bound for Glory.  Their Merchant Marine pal Jim Longhi wrote about their experiences in his memoirs Woody, Cisco and Me: Seamen Three in the Merchant Marine.  And Houston shows up in several plays and musical reviews about Woody.  In the mind’s eye, they are always singing together in some seedy saloon, killing time before catching a fast freight together for some distant job.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Fantasmagorie—The Birth of Film Animation

Animated films are big business today.  They dominate Family audience releases on the big screen which now sees dozens of films released each year from major American production companies and others from around the world.  These days most are either computer generated or stop action clay modeling.  Many are in 3-D.   Only a relative handful are animated by hand in the laborious process of shooting individual cells.  That process still dominates television cartoons from prime time network and cable shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy and kiddie fare on popular basic cable networks and dwindling network Saturday morning blocks.

Émile Cohl about the time he made Fantasmagorie
It all started modestly enough in Paris, France in the spring of 1908.  That year Émile Cohl was a 51 year old characterist and cartoonist with a minor reputation for contributing to French avant-guard periodicals.
He had been inspired in his work by a form of popular street puppetry, Guignol which employed marionettes and Fantoche in which a puppeteer stuck his head through a Curtin a manipulated small puppet bodies underneath.  Both forms often were used to make political statements, which became tolerated again after the repressions of the Communards.  Cohl was a close associate and follower of André Gill, the leading characterist in Paris in the last decades of the 19th Century.
Cohl had become deeply involved with a now nearly forgotten artistic movement, Les Arts Incohérents—the Incoherents.  Founded by Jules Lévy in 1881, the movement featured work that was “irrational” and absurd.  Although it petered out by the mid 1890’s, Cohl was a major figure in it and contributed staged photographs the presaged much later work by the Surrealists.
A magazine cartoon by Cohl.
Sometime after the turn of the Century, Cohl became intersected in the new art form of film.  He struck on the idea of making his cartoons move.  There had been crude animation before—flip books were recorded on film and the very first movie with a plot, A Trip to the Moon, made in 1902 by Georges Méliès contained some stop-action animation.
Cohl hit on a new way of making his drawings move.  He began in late February or early March of 1908.  He made scores of simple line drawings.  Laying them on a glass plate over a light source he traced those making incremental changes.  He shot photos of all of the resulting drawing twice.  There were over 700 individual images put together they made a film almost 2 minutes long.
Although the drawings were charcoal on white paper, Cohl used the negatives, giving the effect of chalk drawings on black paper.  This mirrored popular Magic Lantern shows of earlier decades—the fantasmograph, which projected ghostly images that floated across the walls.
The resulting film Fantasmagorie was released on August 17, 1908.  It took French audiences by storm.  It began with shots of an artist’s hand creating the simple characters, a clown and a gentleman.  These figures morphed and changed in all sorts of fantastic ways.
Cohl continued to make short animated films for the Gaumont studios and later Pathé and other studios before coming to the United States in 1912.  His films became more elaborate, but his surreal themes and style remained constant.

Cohl adapted this popular newspaper comic strip to animation for his American studio ushering in a wave of other adaptations that would include such staples as Krazy Kat and Popeye from Thimble Theater.
In America Cohl quickly found work in the early film industry center at Ft. Lee, Virginia.  He contributed to travelogues and developed a series of animated shorts The Newlyweds based on a popular newspaper strip.  This series was so successful that it set off the stampede to animate popular print comics.  In this way Cohl can be said to be the founder of American, as well as European animation.
Cohl returned to France with the outbreak of World War I.  Most of his American films were lost when his main American studio, a branch of the French studio Éclair burned down shortly after he left for Paris.  Other films were destroyed when most of the Ft. Lee studios moved to Arizona to take advantage of regular bright sunlight.  Only a couple of his American films survive.
The war in Europe disrupted Cohl’s production.  The few films he did make were put on the shelf and not released until it was over.  

Cohl drawing in his later years.
After the war Cohl made only one more significant film, La Maison du fantoche in 1920.  After that animation became too expensive to produce compared to live action films.  And the public taste was running to comedies like those by American stars Charles Chaplain and Ben Turpin. Cohl was forced into retirement.  He died largely forgotten and in obscurity in 1938.  Just as an American named Walt Disney was elevating hand drawn animation to new heights.

Friday, August 17, 2018

The Northwest Herald—AWOL in the Fight for Freedom of the Press

The Boston Globe led a mass wave of Freedom of the Press editorial around the country and reaped Trump Twitter scorn and bomb threat.

Note—Yesterday showed an unprecedented display of journalistic solidarity when more than 350 American newspapers followed the lead of the Boston Globe in denouncing Donald Trump’s bellicose and dangerous attacks on the press and individual journalists.  It has become alarmingly clear that Trump’s recklessness will sooner or later encourage deadly acts of violence against reporters, editors, and other press personnel.  As naked intimidation, it is an immediate threat to freedom of the press.  Yet McHenry’s County’s daily paper, the Northwest Herald sat out the protest and then did not even report it happened in today’s edition.  Thus, this letter to the editor.  In the past the Herald has printed most letters, but has been allergic to any that point the finger at ownership for over-riding editorial judgement.  So if it doesn’t make newsprint, you can read it here.
Masthead of the local paper notable for its invisibility in the campaign for Freedom of the Press

It’s Your Write
Northwest Herald
To the Editor:
On Thursday, August 16 more than 350 American daily newspapers from Maine to Hawaii published editorial denouncing President Donald Trumps repeated attacks on the press, characterizing responsible journalists as enemies of the people, and defending freedom of the press. It was an extraordinary and unprecedented rebuke from papers with vastly different editorial outlooks and political preferences.
The Northwest Herald was notable for its absence from their ranks.
Not only that but the edition the next day failed to even file a news report despite the fact the lead journal in the campaign, the Boston Globe was immediately singled out for a presidential Twitter assault and received a bomb threat at its offices soon after.  Or the fact that on the same day the Republican controlled United States Senate felt compelled to unanimously pass a resolution stating that journalists were not, in fact, enemies of the people.
The Herald has always loudly proclaimed its dedication to public interest journalism and demanded all rights and privileges to report the news.  I imagine that the professional editorial staff ached to be part of the movement.  Silence could not be explained by the devotion of the owners of Shaw Media to Donald Trump, could it?

Patrick Murfin,
Crystal Lake

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Pop Quiz—Who Rioted at the White House?

What may be the earliest photograph of the White House--an 1846 daguerreotype taken five years after the riot on the grounds of the mansion. 

The White House a/k/a The President’s Palace and Executive Mansion has seen its share of turmoil.

There was the time the British arrived uninvited and Dolly Madison had to abandon dinner and make a getaway with Washington’s Portrait rolled up in a rug.  The Redcoats burned the place requiring a fresh coat of white wash and earning the place a new name.

The Red Coats burning the Executive Mansion was a no-good-terrible-very-bad-day but it wasn't a riot.

It got pretty boisterous when Andrew Jackson was inaugurated and he invited the “plain people” over to the house.  Things got out of hand when thousands showed up, apparently very hungry.  They climbed through windows and broke furniture to get to the Enormous Cheese sent down from Vermont for the occasion.  But despite shocking the sensibilities of respectable folks, it was a friendly, if inebriated, crowd.

Then there was the day when Abraham Lincoln looked out the window and saw his Army running in a panic for their lives after being whipped at the First Battle of Bull Run.

Harry Truman was living across the street at Blair House while the old place was getting fixed up when Puerto Rican Nationalists tried to break in and shoot him.  They failed, but a White House Police Officer was killed.

This blog has covered all of those exciting events.

But today is the anniversary of the first, and as far as I can tell, only full scale riot on the White House grounds.  Can you guess who rioted and why?  Betcha can’t.

First let’s eliminate some possible candidates.

  • Coxey’s Army—The first greatmarch on Washington” by the unemployed in 1894 during one of the nation’s recurring financial Panics.  It dispersed peacefully at the Capital and never targeted the White House.
  • Suffrage ProtestsPicketing of Woodrow Wilson’s White House during World War I was a first for public demonstrations there, but was entirely orderly.  Irked, Wilson ordered the arrest of the women, many of whom were sent to jail where they went on a hunger strike and were force fed by hoses shoved down their throats.  But no riot.
  • The Bonus MarchWorld War I Veterans demanding early payment of a promised bonus in 1932 marching up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capital was dispersed by General Douglas MacArthur’s tanks and cavalry and chased across the river where he burned their shanty town.  Herbert Hoover, however, and the White House were never in any danger.
Since these events there have been many huge demonstrations in Washington for civil rights, for and against abortion rights, against several wars, and for numerous other causes.  The current Resident has drawn regular protests large, small, and creative.  But no riots at the White House.

Picketing now occurs almost daily for one cause or another and symbolic but peaceful civil disobedience there is so routine that it hardly merits any press attention.  The occasional loon tries to scale the fence or somehow gets on the grounds, but is always nabbed.

Give up?

On August 16, 1841 a mob of Whig Party members, likely fueled by generous supplies of alcohol by their backers, rioted on the grounds of the White House, pelting the building with stones and bricks breaking windows, fired guns into the air, and burned the President in effigy.  They never breached the doors, but John Tyler undoubtedly had some very anxious moments.

What were they so mad about?  Tyler had just, for the second time , vetoed a bill re-chartering the Second Bank of the United States.  This was a riot by business interests who had solidly backed the Whig’s against the firm Anti-bank policy of both Thomas Jefferson’s old Democratic Republicans and Andrew Jackson’s rebuilt Democratic Party.

Tyler was sitting in the White House, albeit accidently, as a Whig, so his opposition to the Bank was even more infuriating.

Tyler was a Virginia aristocrat and self-described “Old Republican”—a conservative opposed to creeping nationalism and an advocate of strict construction of the Constitution.  After a successful political career as a U.S. Representative, Governor, and Senator, like many southern politicians of his class, he broke with Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party when Jackson backed a controversial Tariff and threatened to send Federal troops to South Carolina when it threatened to nullify the law.
Henry Clay of Kentucky--perhaps the most powerful of the Whig's three great national leaders including old Federalist Daniel Webster and pro-slavery firebrand John C. Calhoun.  Each represented faction of the party at war with each other from the beginning.

He was left with little other option than to join with other Jackson haters in the Whig Party.  The Whigs were a new party made up of the fragmentary remnants of the old Federalists in New England led by Daniel Webster and the western Nationalists and advocates of internal improvements led by Henry Clay.  Disgruntled southern aristocrats like Tyler added to the mix and were generally led by firebrand former Vice President John C. Calhoun. 

The Whigs were an inherently unstable alliance with the first two groups backing Northern business interests, strong central government, and Federal spending on infrastructure.  The old Federalists were generally opposed to slavery, or at least its expansion, while the Westerners were eager to add new states, slave or free.  The agrarian Southerners fought New England business interests tooth and nail, opposed spending on infrastructure as unconstitutional and likely to lead to Federal taxation, and were passionate advocates of slavery and its expansion.

An 1840 Whig ticket poster.

 Desperate to win the Presidency for the first time after failing to dislodge them under Martin Van Buren in 1836, the Whigs passed over their big three  leaders to run a military hero and “Man of the People” in the mold of Jackson in 1840.  They tapped William Henry Harrison, the vanquisher of Tecumseh and his federation of the tribes, hero of  the War of 1812 and former Governor of Indiana Territory.  The old general, although born a Virginia aristocrat, was portrayed as a simple frontiersman content to sit on his log cabin front porch with a jug of cider.  He was expected to be compliant to the wishes of Party leaders, especially Henry Clay.  Tyler was added to the ticket for balance and to attract votes in the South, where Democrats were the strongest.  The ticket prevailed under the banner of Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!

Tyler was expected to sink into honorable obscurity as Vice President.  But the old Indian fighter came down with pneumonia after giving the longest inaugural address in history in freezing rain and died just a few weeks later.  Tyler became the first accidental president.  He beat back attempts to characterize him as “The Vice President acting in lieu of the President” or as “Acting President” and insisted on assuming the full powers and title of the office.  He moved into the Executive Mansion and inherited Harrison’s Whig Cabinet.

The romance between the new president and his party was short lived.  Tyler remained ever an Old Republican at heart.  When Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, as leader of Congressional Whigs, tried to move key elements of the party platform, he found himself stymied again and again by Tyler, who vetoed cherished internal improvement projects.  But the number one objective of the Party was re-chartering the Second National Bank of the United States which Jackson had killed in his first term with the strong support at that time from Senator Tyler of Virginia.

The bank was seen by commercial and industrial interests as key to stabilizing the chaotic currency system, becoming a repository for Federal funds, and having enough capital to invest in both infrastructure and private industry.  Tyler, in the tradition of Jefferson and Jackson, hated banks as usurers and deeply distrusted the power of a central bank to subvert republican virtues.  He vetoed the first attempt at a re-charter and sent Congress a list of his objections.

Clay re-crafted the charter incorporating many of Tyler’s objections and expected that he would sign it.  Tyler vetoed it for a second time.

John Tyler--a much un-loved President without a party.

 It was that veto that set off the riot on the White House lawn.  It was not the only outlet for Whig rage.  On September 11, Tyler’s entire Cabinet with the exception of Secretary of State Daniel Webster resigned in mass at the urging of Clay.  Webster refused to resign citing on-going treaty negotiations with Britain over establishing an agreed upon northern boundary and probably to tweak his party rival Clay.  The resignations were expected to force Tyler himself to resign.  He did not.  Days later he was officially expelled from the Whigs by the Congressional caucuses.

Tyler was now despised equally by most Whigs and Democrats who viewed him as a turn coat.  He managed to survive an attempted impeachment promoted in the House of Representatives by John Quincy Adams.  But government was essentially in stalemate.  Congress rejected 11 of his appointments to the Cabinet until he was able to attract Southern Democrats to back his choice of Calhoun for Secretary of State.

Tyler lost two members of the Cabinet he did manage to put together—and nearly his own life—when a cannon exploded on the deck of the U.S. Princeton in February 1844.  Many regretted that the President was not among the dead.

Tyler’s major accomplishment was the Treaty of Annexation of Texas.  Tyler, who was usually lukewarm to western expansion, was eager to add a slave state.  Northern Whigs were adamantly opposed and even the usually pro-expansion Clay was worried about upsetting the delicate balance of power between slave and non-slave states.  The Senate at first rejected the treaty.

Meanwhile, Tyler, a man without a party, attempted to create one around himself for a run for the Presidency on his own.  He patched together a party of sorts from the few loyalists he had in Congress, conservative southern Whigs, and officeholders who he had appointed.  They even held a convention and nominated Tyler.

The Whigs put up Clay, who was opposed to the treaty, but the Democrats abandoned early favorite Van Buren, also a treaty opponent, for Speaker of the House James Knox Polk of Tennessee, an ardent expansionist and supporter of Texas.  Tyler withdrew from the race and threw his support to Polk.  Polk won the election and pro-Texas Democrats picked up seats in Congress.

Although his treaty could not get through the Senate, the new Congress, with the support of the President, voted to accept Texas into the union by resolution.  Tyler signed the act three days before leaving office.

Rejected and unloved by anyone but his brand new bride, Julia Gardiner, the daughter of a New York Congressman also killed on the Princeton, Tyler returned to his Virginia plantation expecting to live out his days in obscurity.  He surely would have succeeded in this aim had he not sided with the Confederacy and been elected to the Rebel Congress from Virginia.  He died shortly after taking office in January of 1861.

Considered a traitor to the country he once led, he was the only former president not to be memorialized in Washington upon his death.

A frequent denizen of worst president lists, John Tyler, top row center, and all of the rest have new competition.

 Most historians place Tyler close to the top of any list of worst presidents.  He is certainly among the most obscure.  History relegates him to a virtual footnote.
But once upon a time he stirred enough passions to earn the only riot ever at the White House.  That ought to count for something.
And, by the way, the riot had one other lasting effect. It led Congress to form the Auxiliary Guard, the predecessor to today’s Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia.  Prior to that the only law enforcement in Washington was the single U.S. Marshall for the District.