Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Riot at the White House—Whodunit?

The White House not long after the Riot.

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.

It got pretty boisterous when Andrew Jackson was inaugurated and he invited the “plain people” over to the house.  Things got out of hands 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.

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 great “march 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 Protests—War time picketing of Woodrow Wilson’s White House was a first for public demonstrations there, but it 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 in 1932 marching up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capital were disbursed by General Douglas MacArthur’s tanks and cavalry and chased across the river to 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.  But not 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 breeched the doors, but John Tyler undoubtedly had some very anxious moments.

What were they so mad about, you may well ask.  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, 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.

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.

Desperate to win the Presidency for the first time after failing to dislodge the Democrats under Martin Van Buren in 1836, the Whigs passed over their brilliant 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 War of 1812 and former Governor of Indiana Territory.  The old general, although born a Virginia aristocrat himself, was portrayed as a simple frontiersman content to set 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 1 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.

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 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.

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.

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