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Tippecanoe and Texas Too: February 28, 1845

In May 1836, John C. Calhoun said: “there [are] powerful reasons why Texas should be part of this Union.” The southern states, he said, “owning a slave population, were deeply interested in preventing that country from having the power to annoy them.” With other southerners, Calhoun feared an independent Texas could not maintain the institution of slavery by itself; and if Great Britain should annex Texas, slavery would end there. No fugitive slave agreement, as the South had with the North, would exist with an independent Texas; and if slavery were abolished in Texas, slaves in the states could easily escape there.

John C. Calhoun

Some southerners, too, thought admitting Texas would provide, as one Senator McDuffie said before his colleagues on May 23, 1844, “a safety valve to let off the superabundant slave population from among us.” Texas annexation, McDuffie continued, would “at the same time improve their [the slaves’] condition; they will be more happy, and we shall be more secure. But if you pen them up within our present limits, what becomes of the free negroes, and what will be their condition?”

Southerners had another reason to favor Texas’ annexation. As in 1820, Calhoun and other southerners feared the political dominance of the North. To date, there were 13 slave and 13 free states; but with Florida remaining the only potential slave state, and with Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota, all free territories, waiting in the wings for statehood, Southerners feared to lose their power in the Senate as they already had in the House. Texas, they thought, could be divided into several slave states and so provide their section the representation it needed to maintain its power in the national councils.

The growing number of antislavery “abolitionists” in the North, of course, disagreed. They wanted to keep Texas out of the union. Indeed, many thought the whole Texas revolution had been a plot by slaveholders for the extension of slave territory. In November 1837, the Vermont legislature protested the admission of any states that allowed domestic slavery. President Martin Van Buren, however, had a different reason for opposing the annexation of Texas; he was engaged in delicate negotiations with Mexico at the time, and Mexico was very sensitive about the issue. The annexation issue was brought before Congress in 1838 and was defeated after a three-week anti-annexation speech by Senator John Quincy Adams.

Sam Houston, president of the Republic of Texas, was eager for annexation into the United States; but if he could not get it, he would settle for protection and aid from either France or Great Britain. Texas’ finances were worse off than Mexico’s. Moreover, the financial panic of 1837 that hit the states had brought more debt-ridden small planters into Texas, increasing its Anglo-American population to 50,000.

William Henry Harrison

The financial panic, which began in 1837 and lasted to 1841, had important political effects. Because he was president when the panic hit, Martin Van Buren was blamed for it. His opponent in the election of 1840, nominated by the Whig party (a coalition of conservative Republicans and remnants of the Federalist Party), was William Henry Harrison, the Hero of Tippecanoe. Harrison and his vice-presidential candidate, John Tyler, an old-fashioned Virginia Republican, ran on no platform; instead, the Whigs paraded “Old Tippecanoe’s” military record. “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!” they cried. When a Democratic journalist sneered that “Old Tip” would prefer to retire to his log cabin if he had $2,000 and a barrel of hard cider, the Whigs took up the sneer and ran a campaign centered on log cabins and hard cider. They attacked Van Buren for his “aristocratic” New York ways:

Let Van from his coolers of silver drink wine,

And lounge on his cushioned settee;

Our man on his buckeye bench can recline,

Content with hard cider is he.

Then a shout from each freeman — a shout from each State,

To the plain honest husbandman true,

And this be our motto — the motto of Fate —

“Hurrah for Old Tippecanoe!”

John Tyler

But, despite the democratic appeal of the campaign, Harrison won the popular vote by only a small margin (though he captured 174 more electoral votes than Van Buren). But President Tip had not long for this world. Refusing to wear coat or hat at his inauguration (it was a bitterly cold day), the 70-year-old Harrison caught pneumonia and died a month after taking office. John Tyler then became president and proved himself more of a Democrat than a Whig. It was not long before he was repudiated by his old party and allied himself with the states’ rights Democrats.

Tyler joined John C. Calhoun and other Democrats and pressed for the annexation of Texas. A lame-duck president (he was nominated by neither the Whigs nor the Democrats in 1844), Tyler wanted Texas admitted to the Union before the end of his term. He resorted to a constitutionally questionable move — Congress approved the annexation, not by passing a bill of annexation but through a joint resolution. On February 28, 1845, just a few days before he left office, Tyler informed Sam Houston that Congress had approved Texas’ admission into the union.

Log Cabins and Hard Cider

“Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” was one of the songs the Harrison and Tyler campaign used to promote Harrison’s “everyday man” bona fides and to excoriate Van Buren’s aristocratic pedigree in the 1840 presidential election.

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