3 American Presidents in 8 Years — 1836 to 1844
In the 16 years between 1820 and 1836, the United States had three presidents. In the eight years between 1836 and 1844, it also had three.
“The Little Magician”
The first was Martin Van Buren, who was the first president born under the U.S. flag. Van Buren was a New York lawyer and governor whose political machine had helped elect Jackson. Dubbed “the Little Magician” for his political skills, Van Buren snuggled up to Jackson, serving as secretary of state and vice president and winning Jackson’s considerable support in beating Whig candidate William Henry Harrison.
Unfortunately for him, Van Buren took office just as the Panic of 1837 and its subsequent economic recession hit the country. The recession lasted most of his term, and he was blamed for it. But he did manage to strike a blow for labor while in office, agreeing to lower the working day for federal employees to ten hours.
Despite his vast political skills, Van Buren was outfoxed by the Whigs when he ran for reelection. It began when a Democratic newspaper reporter sneered at Harrison, who was again Van Buren’s opponent:
“Give him [Harrison] a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and … he will sit the remainder of his days in a log cabin.”
That image didn’t sound like a bad idea to a lot of voters. Harrison, an old Native-American fighter who had defeated Tecumseh at the Battle of Tippecanoe Creek in 1811, was actually a moderately wealthy Virginia farmer. But the Whigs seized on the chance to present him as a tough frontiersman. Rallies were held featuring log cabins and plenty of hard cider, and “Old Tippecanoe” squashed Van Buren in the election.
At his inauguration on March 4, 1841, a hatless 68-year-old Harrison gave a long and pointless speech in a pouring rainstorm. He fell ill with pneumonia and died a month later, making him the first president to die in office.
And John Tyler, too
His successor was the newly elected vice president: John Tyler, a stubborn slave owner from Virginia who had only become a Whig because he had a falling out with the Democrats and Jackson over the issue of nullification and states’ rights.
Tyler earned the distinction of being the only sitting president thrown out of his own political party when he refused to go along with Whig policies in Congress and vetoed many Whig bills. In 1844, Tyler started his own party, the Democratic-Republicans, so he could run again, but he gave up after Jackson asked him to step aside.
In 1844, the Whigs put up Henry Clay, who had been running unsuccessfully for president for 20 years. The Democrats, after a long and heated convention, nominated a dark horse, or surprise candidate in James K. Polk of Tennessee. Polk was such an ardent follower of Jackson that he was called “Young Hickory.”
It was a very close election, but Polk squeaked through. He made few promises during his campaign, among them: to acquire California from Mexico, to settle a dispute with England over the Oregon border, to lower the tariff, and not to seek a second term. When he took over the presidency in March 1845, he kept all of them.