I’ve read a number of opinions lately that American politics has become crazier and less civil than ever before, and that things have never been so bad in general. It’s the justification for the need to “take back America”. But if you look at our history, it’s easy to see that much of what we are experiencing now is just a re-run. These things happen in cycles, because people have short memories. We go through the same problems and conflicts and loopiness over and over. Here’s a quick look at some of what was going on in the early 1800s.
In 1826 William Morgan, an upstate New Yorker, became disillusioned with Freemasonry, or at least of the lodge he belonged to. He threatened to write a tell-all book about the secret society. The lodge boys tried to burn down the publishing house, and when that didn’t work they had him arrested on a ginned-up charge. Someone paid his bail, unknown persons transported him to Fort Niagara, and he was never heard from again.
The trial of the Morgan conspirators was bungled. The lodge boys kept their mouths shut. Non-Masons throughout the region rose in alarm. It was assumed there were Freemasons behind every unsolved crime, pulling unseen strings to make regular folks dance! This was the single, vital issue that gave birth to America’s first “third party”, the Anti-Masonic Party, in 1828.
One of the main movers and shakers in this party was an under-educated, opportunistic gasbag named Thurlow Weed. Weed, a mud-slinging journalist, bought the Rochester Telegraph in 1825, but he was forced out in 1828 by what he said were “Masonic interests”. So he founded an anti-Masonic paper he named the Enquirer, using it to launch his successful ascendancy to the New York State Assembly. He retained the ownership of his growing newspaper chain throughout his political career, becoming the most powerful shaper of opinions in New York.
The Anti-Masonic Party was responsible for a couple of innovations that are now standard in our political process. They invented the “party platform”, and Presidential nominating conventions. In the state of New York they became the main opposition to Andrew Jackson’s Democrats, Jackson being “a high-ranking Mason”. By 1829 the Albany Journal, edited by Thurlow Weed (also Assemblyman Weed), opined against Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, using invectives equivalent to those employed by today’s talk radio hosts.
You can start a movement based on conspiracy theories, but it’s hard to sustain one for long. Within four years the party had moved away from protecting us all from Masons toward economic protectionism. The Anti-Masons were swallowed up into the Whig Party and disappeared by 1838. The Whigs began as a coalition of different disgruntled groups with little in common except for being opposed to whatever President Andrew Jackson was in favor of.
In 1837 there was a “panic”. That’s what they used to call economic crises in those days. It was caused by over-speculation in real estate. People were buying land and houses not to occupy them, but to make small improvements and re-sell them quickly for profit. It created an unsustainable bubble market. Purchases were made with state bank notes of questionable value. Most states were heavily involved in deficit spending. Loans were contracted without proper qualification of lenders. Is this beginning to sound familiar?
Though the over-spending and fiscal mismanagement occurred under the previous president (Jackson), the Whigs managed to get Martin Van Buren, who had been in office five weeks, blamed for the panic. Van Buren probably made things worse by making sure the government did not involve itself in correcting the economy. There was high unemployment throughout his term, and the Whigs won in 1840.
The Whig Party did have a bit more gravitas than the AMP, but only a bit. They supported the big banks and the wealthy elite. Their idea of a great man was William Henry Harrison. Harrison ran for President after a career killing Indians and cheating them out of their land. He also spent time in Congress, made ten children with his wife, and six more by one of his female slaves. He was 68, the oldest man to be elected until Ronald Reagan.
Harrison did not, as many assume, die from something he caught during the two-hour Inaugural Address he gave in the rain (to show he was still virile). His health was stable for a couple of weeks after that. However, he had a contentious cabinet, and he spent his energy arguing bitterly with advisers. He caught cold, kept working, it turned to pneumonia and he died – one month after being sworn in.
When Vice President John Tyler assumed the office after Harrison’s death and made it clear he would be making his own decisions, most of the cabinet resigned. The Whigs began referring to Tyler as “His Accidency”, and refused to accept his legitimacy as President for the rest of his term. When Tyler vetoed a tariff bill in 1842, the House of Representatives tried to have him impeached. Four of his nominees for Cabinet posts, and four nominees for the Supreme Court were rejected. He had to fill posts by making recess appointments.
After the one-term strong presidency of James Polk, the Whigs won in 1848 with another old Indian fighter and slave-owner, Zachary Taylor. Taylor wasn’t very interested in politics, which made him out of sync with his times. Sixteen months into his tenure, he died after a five-day acute gastrointestinal ailment. Conspiracy theorists said he was poisoned with arsenic because of his moderate stance on expanding slavery into new territories. They exhumed his body in 1991 and found no evidence of poisoning.
I have my own theory about the death of Zachary Taylor. He got sick after sampling a number of dishes and shaking a lot of hands at an Independence Day celebration. That would be a great way to catch norovirus back when proper food handling and hand-washing techniques were not part of regular hygiene. The virus causes acute gastroenteritis, i.e. acute abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea and dehydration. The doctors gave him ipecac, an emetic, and calomel, a laxative. IV fluids were not in use until the early 1900s. Taylor was a 65 yr-old man in pain and already dehydrated, being given two substances that could worsen his condition enough to cause organ failure. They also bled and blistered him on the fifth day of his illness. Death by medical treatment, you might say.
That elevated Vice President Millard Fillmore, originally one of the Anti-Masons mentored by Thurlow Weed. As Vice President, Fillmore had been presiding over the Senate during the rancorous debates about the proposed Compromise of 1850. The Compromise of 1850 was founded on the absurd notion that you could somehow accept slavery in part of the country, and have no slavery in other parts. Some say it defused the tensions between North and South and delayed hostilities, but at the time it also managed to escalate the anger and incivility on both sides of Congress. During one debate Mississippi Senator Henry Foote drew his pistol on Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and had to be wrestled to the ground and disarmed.
The Whigs became so divided and factionalized over the slavery issue they refused to nominate Fillmore, the incumbent President, and instead went with another aging general (Winfield Scott) in the election of 1852. Fillmore quit the Whigs and joined the American Party. It was a xenophobic far-right movement of guys who believed Catholic immigrants were overrunning the nation, taking jobs from “true Americans”. Their platform demanded daily Bible readings in public schools, and restricting the use of languages other than English. Martin Scorsese made a recent movie about them called “Gangs of New York”. By 1856 most of the split Whigs had joined the American Party, the Southern Democrats, or the new Republicans.
Membership in, and activities of the American Party were supposed to be semi-secret. If a member was asked about it, they were supposed to answer, “I know nothing”. This unwittingly gave their opponents the perfect double-entendre. They were labeled the “Know-Nothings”, a term still used today to denote politicians and voters holding severe, irrational anti-immigrant views. This train of extreme thought re-emerged in the KKK of the 1920s, and is the underpinning for the current “Birthers”. Fillmore ran as their candidate for President in 1856. The Know-Nothings tallied a respectable 21.6% of the popular vote. The Republicans garnered 33.1%. Buchanan, the Democrat, won the election with 45% of the vote.
And there you have it; 30 years, 3 major parties that came and went, conspiracy theories, smear campaigns in mass media, high unemployment from a depression caused by a burst real estate bubble, political gridlock, obstruction and violence in the halls of Congress, religious bigotry, anti-immigrant mania, and 6 of the Presidents consistently ranked among the “Ten Worst”. Oh, I almost forgot – THEN we had the Civil War.
Still think we’ve never had it so bad?