Henry Clay, Trump, and Tyler too

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Henry Clay was Mr. Whig. He, more than anyone, helped found the Whig party and he was its standard bearer in the 1832 presidential election. Andrew Jackson, the incumbent, crushed him.

In 1840, the Whigs were poised to elect their first president, thanks to the unpopularity of Jackson’s Democrat successor, Martin Van Buren. Henry Clay was desperate to be the Whig nominee and expected he would be. However, meeting in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the Whigs nominated William Henry Harrison, a war hero, instead.

In those days, candidates did not attend nominating conventions. It was considered bad form. So Clay stayed in Washington to await the results. He did so at a hotel bar.

When the bad news came, Clay was devastated. Drinking excessively, the normally good-natured Senator railed profanely at the men, especially Daniel Webster, he held responsible for betraying him. Onlookers were shocked and offended. “That man can never be my political idol again,” one of them said.

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The Whigs needed a running mate for Harrison. Given their rejection of Clay, they wanted to nominate one of his allies. When several turned down the second spot, they wanted at least to select someone who had publicly displayed deep disappointment in the defeat of Mr. Whig.

They selected John Tyler. Tyler was more of an anti-Jacksonian than a true Whig. However, he had “shed tears” in Harrisburg. That, coupled with the balance he provided the ticket as a states’ rights anti-Bank man, was good enough. But one delegate described Tyler’s selection as “both a fraud and a treachery.”

Harrison died after only a month in office. Tyler succeeded him. As president, he clashed bitterly with Clay and other hardcore Whigs. Tyler ended up trying to steer some sort of “third way” course — neither Whig nor Democrat.

Today, we find President Trump in the Henry Clay role, raging about losing out on the presidency (though Clay’s public rage was an aberration, while Trump’s is anything but). As in 1840, leading members of the party want to show they share the disappointment. Some are prepared to go further than others in displaying it.

Some displayed it through a futile and constitutionally dubious attempt to have Congress overturn the results of the Electoral College. I don’t question the sincerity of any particular member of Congress who did so. In Harrisburg, 180 years ago, some of those who wept for Clay were were genuinely moved to tears. I don’t assume that all of this week’s “weepers” were doing a John Tyler. However, I think it’s likely that some were.

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The Whigs did not nominate a weeper for president in 1844. They nominated Henry Clay, the man for whom the tears had been shed.

It’s possible that, similarly, the Republicans will nominate Donald Trump in 2024. It’s also possible that by then, Trump will have lost his hold on the party. In that case, the party might well turn to someone who this week resisted the extreme measure of trying to overturn the work of the electoral college.

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