Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Bunning Seat -- John Rowan

As we mentioned in the last report in this series, 1824 was a good year politically for those folks who were looking to help debtors. Thus, it is not surprising that John Rowan (yet another guy with his own county) was chosen to replace Isham Talbot in the Senate. Rowan was born near York, Pennsylvania in 1773, and moved to Kentucky when he was about ten years old. He took the side of the debtors in the New Court-Old Court controversy, and was put into the Senate by the pro-debtor legislature elected in 1824.

Significantly, unlike all of our prior Senators (who lived in Bluegrass Region), Rowan practiced law in Louisville. As more and more people poured into the Ohio River valley, they found their progress down the river blocked by the rapids at the Falls of the Ohio. Settlements developed to serve these travelers, and Louisville slowly started to grow. By 1828 it would have 7,000 people. While Lexington and the Bluegrass would reflect the fact that so many of their early settlers came from the horse farms and plantations of rural Virginia, Louisville would be marked by the experience of the Yankees and immigrants who floated down the Ohio.

Kentucky was not the only place where rising tension between city-dwellers and farmers was felt. For almost 25 years, U.S. politics had slumbered in a peace generated by Jefferson's farmer-dominated coalition. But as the cities continued to grow, and as Virginia's slow and painful decline left it too weak to play its traditional role as a national leader, the old coalition began to fracture.

From 1800 to 1824, it had been very simple. Jefferson was elected President in 1800, and Madison was his Secretary of State. Eight years later, Madison became President, and James Monroe was his Secretary of State. Eight years after that, Monroe stepped into the big job, and John Quincy Adams became Secretary of State. But Adams was not a natural fit as the heir-apparent. He came from a family of Federalists -- perhaps the most famous Federalist family of all -- and his interpretation of Republicanism was very different from the version practiced in the South and West. Most white rural Americans -- as well as many working-class voters in Eastern cities -- simply wanted the government and the rich to leave them alone. Their dream was to live on little plots of ground, to work only as much as necessary, and to hurt anyone who interfered with them. Adams and the New England Republicans had a very different notion. They wanted a strong Federal government that would build infrastructure and encourage education (Adams wanted a national university). They also wanted tariffs to encourage U.S. manufacturing, and a robust foreign policy (Adams developed the so-called "Monroe doctrine").

Adams's views had a great deal of support -- especially from the business community. And they were not necessarily unpopular in rural America. Henry Clay, for example, strongly believed that the Federal Government should help develop the lands of the West. But Adams, Clay, and the business community would find their plans upended. Because at this point in history, the rednecks and crackers of America produced their greatest and most charismatic figure -- a man who sounds as if he were made up by the sort of people who used to call the Big Blue Line to complain that Richie Farmer should get more playing time.

Andrew Jackson was the ideal hero for rural white America. Rural white Americans wanted more land -- so did Jackson, who in 1818 arranged with the Governor of Kentucky to purchase the land that became the westernmost part of the Commonwealth from the Chickasaw indians. Rural white Americans loved fighting and violence; Jackson was a successful general who killed several men in duels. Rural white Americans loved the notion of setting out to the West and making it rich. Jackson moved from North Carolina to Tennessee and ended up with a beautiful plantation of over 1,000 acres. Rural white Americans loved the notion of sticking it to other countries; Jackson led American armies to victory over the British and Spanish. Most importantly, rural white Americans hated anything associated with the over-cultivated East, from its Europhile intellectuals to its scheming bankers. So did Jackson.

The conflict between Adams and Jackson in the election of 1824 was a battle between two visions of America that haunt the Republic to this day. But there were two other candidates for the White House that year -- Henry Clay (still hoping to appeal to the West) and William Crawford (a genteel Georgian backed by Madison and Jefferson). Given that virtually each section of the country had its own candidate, it is not surprising that the vote was badly split:

1. Jackson carried Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Tennessee. He got 99 electoral votes.
2. Adams carried Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Rhode Island. He got 84 electoral votes.
3. Crawford carried Delaware, Georgia, and Virginia. He got 41 electoral votes.
4. Clay carried Kentucky, Ohio, and Missouri. He got 37 electoral votes.

The Constitution provides that if no person has a majority of electoral votes, the election is decided by the House of Representatives -- but under a somewhat odd process whereby only the top three vote-getters are eligible and in which each state gets only one vote. (This process, so believed of Washington journalists and novelists, has not actually been employed since 1824). So Clay was eliminated. But not finished. Clay was, after all, Speaker of the House. And he hated Jackson, who he considered to be a violent and dangerous buffoon. Plus, he had sympathy for Adams's position on tariffs and other issues. So even though Jackson had received the most votes (both popular and electoral), Clay swung his support to Adams, and Adams was elected President. Soon afterward, Adams gave Clay the key position of Secretary of State, thus effectively making him next in line for the White House.

Now imagine how Fox News would respond if their favored candidate lost an election under such circumstances -- and then multiply that by about ten. Imagine Bobby Knight's rage at an official he thought was cheating him -- and multiply that by about 100. You will then have a sense of how Jackson and his followers responded to the election of 1824. Their fury would roil politics throughout Adams's administration, and would ensure that Henry Clay would never become President. Clay was left with a reputation as a sneaky, conniving double-dealer that he could not overcome -- in part because he was sneaky and conniving.

By 1828 Jackson had his ducks in a row. Adams and Co. knew they were in trouble, and the result was the most vicious and hateful presidential campaign ever fought in America. Adams's people accused Jackson of murder, of bigamy, of wanting to create a monarchy -- anything they could think of. Jackson's wife died soon after the election, and Jackson always believed that the Adams campaign drove her to her death. But nothing could stop Jackson now. The rural vote, along with the working-class vote of the Northern cities, rose up in a great tide and swept Adams (and Clay) from power by an electoral vote of 178 to 83. He even carried Kentucky (by 39,308 to 31,468). When Jackson was inaugurated in March 1829, D.C. was flooded with rednecks who literally trashed the White House in wild abandon. It was just about the happiest moment in cracker history.

Jackson's supporters were not disappointed. Jackson hated Adams's plans to use the Federal Government for various projects -- seeing them as nothing more than efforts to use tax money to help big business at the expense of the common man. In 1830, he showed that he was serious, vetoing a bill that would have used Federal funds to construct a road linking Lexington to the Ohio River. Jackson said it was unconstitutional for the Federal government to build a road that ran only through one state. Henry Clay, who saw such Federal projects as essential to his "American system," was furious -- but helpless, being out of power. Ultimately, he decided that he would run for the Bunning Seat when Rowan's term expired, to give him a platform from which he could battle Jackson.

Senator Rowan, being an old supporter of debtors and other downtrodden types, seems to have supported Jackson. He certainly agreed with him on the road veto. But he did not run for reelection. He went back to Kentucky, where he died in 1843. He is buried at his beautiful home near Bardstown, known as Federal Hill. Ten years later, in 1853, Rowan's cousin Stephen Foster would make Federal Hill famous when he wrote the greatest of all state songs.

1 comment:

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