Tyler's concept of the presidency was to be severely tested and challenged during the course of the special session. The Whigs controlled both houses of Congress, having a thin majority in the Senate and a margin of nearly fifty votes in the House. As enunciated by Clay, Whig political principles required that the executive branch be shorn of the excessive authority it had acquired under Andrew Jackson. Congress should determine the course of public policy; the veto power, wielded so devastatingly by Jackson, should be tightly curbed; and the president should be guided in all his actions by his "constitutional advisers," the members of the cabinet. What Clay envisioned was a crude approximation of the parliamentary model, with himself in the role of party leader.
Soon after the session opened, Clay set forth his legislative agenda. The central feature was the reestablishment of a national bank. But he called as well for the repeal of the Independent Treasury Act, the distribution to the states of the proceeds of public-land sales, an increased tariff, and a loan issue to meet immediate financial exigencies. Later he added a national bankruptcy bill, intended to afford relief to those victims of the economic depression who were unable to discharge their debts. These measures constituted an astutely contrived legislative package designed when taken together to win support from all segments of the congressional Whig party. Tyler had already indicated that he had serious constitutional reservations about a national bank and that he could accept distribution only if the tariff were not raised, but Clay remained fully committed to his program.
A fateful confrontation was not long in developing over the bank issue. A plan for a modified version of the old Bank of the United States, drafted by Secretary of the Treasury Thomas Ewing, was introduced in Congress in the summer of 1841. It was presumed that it had Tyler's approval. Clay, with the support of the well-disciplined Whig caucus, had the bill revised to reflect his own view of what was required. When it appeared that sufficient votes could not be mobilized for the amended measure, a "compromise" in the form of restrictions on the power of the bank to establish branches in the states was adopted. In this mangled form, the bill passed both houses by votes that closely followed party lines.
Ten days later, Tyler vetoed the measure, citing specific objections to the compromise amendment and to the discounting power conferred on the bank, while expressing more generally his familiar doubts about the constitutional authority of Congress to charter any national bank. Although the veto was not unanticipated, it produced a sensational reaction. An unruly crowd gathered at the White House that evening to assail Tyler, and Whig spokesmen condemned his un-Whiggish use of the veto. Some charged him with treachery and alleged that he was plotting to create a new party to support him for the presidency in 1844.
Almost immediately, further efforts were made to enact an acceptable bank bill. The product of too many hands and of resultant misunderstandings and suspicions, the new measure was to create a "fiscal corporation" of limited scope. Clay regarded it as too feeble to gain the confidence of potential investors, but Webster worked valiantly for its passage in the hope of preventing a total rupture between the administration and the congressional Whigs. The bill was hurried through Congress, despite last-minute efforts by Tyler to have it postponed. He had by now become wary of any Whig-sponsored bank scheme, and he was drawing closer to his small circle of strict-constructionist Virginia advisers. On 9 September, a week after receiving the bill and only a few days before the special session was to adjourn, Tyler again wielded his veto. His stated objections were minor and unconvincing, and he coupled them with the plea that he be given time for "deep and deliberate reflection" on how best to meet the need for regulating the currency and safeguarding the public funds.
Next to the reestablishment of a national bank, Clay's most cherished objective was distribution. Balked a decade earlier in his efforts to secure federal appropriations for internal improvements—such as roads, canals, and river clearance—Clay had fostered the proposal that monies from the sale of public lands should be distributed among the states, which in turn could carry out essential public works. Moreover, as an exponent of a protective tariff, he saw that with the elimination of land sales as a source of federal revenue, the government would be obliged to keep important duties at a high level.
The bill that took shape in the special session, the Preemption Act of 1841, called for the distribution of 90 percent of the land-sale revenues to the states, with the remaining 10 percent being granted as a bonus to nine of the newer states in which most of the public domain was located. As an inducement to the western Whigs, many of whom were cool to distribution, the measure included provision for preemption. Squatters on surveyed lands could acquire, or preempt, 160 acres at the minimum price of $1.25 an acre. But the most critical feature of the bill, inserted to appease southern Whigs, who feared that distribution would lead inevitably to a higher tariff, decreed that distribution would end if the tariff rose above the maximum level of 20 percent fixed by the Compromise Tariff of 1833. In this form the measure was enacted over the opposition of the Democrats, who argued that it was imprudent to deplete the treasury when there was a large deficit. Tyler signed the act.
Although major attention centered on the bank and on distribution, other matters also engaged Congress. With minimal difficulty, the independent treasury was abolished, leaving no depository for federal funds except the state-chartered banks. A national bankruptcy act that enabled thirty-four thousand persons to discharge $441 million of indebtedness by turning over to their creditors assets worth only one-tenth that amount was enacted, only to be repealed two years later in response to widespread protests. Congress also authorized a three-year loan of $12 million, but the government could sell only $5.5 million of these notes because the terms were unattractive to investors. As another emergency financial measure, articles that had not been subject to import duties or to minimal charges were now to be taxed at the maximum rate of 20 percent of their appraised value. To all of these Whig-sponsored enactments, Tyler gave his approval.
Despite his acquiescence to most of the items on the Whig agenda, Tyler had, with his two bank vetoes, damaged irreparably his relations with the Whig party. On 11 September, two days after the second veto, all the members of the cabinet except Webster resigned, citing the president's lack of candor in connection with the second bank bill. Webster justified his decision to remain in the cabinet on the grounds that the Whig party, including the president, should remain united and expressed the belief that it was still possible to create a satisfactory "fiscal agent." Tyler, who had already contemplated replacing the cabinet he had inherited from Harrison, quickly filled the vacant posts with Whigs who were hostile to Clay and who were disposed to give Tyler loyal support.
Even more dramatic than the cabinet resignations were the actions taken on 13 September by a caucus of Whig congressmen. In a fervent "Address," they expressed their frustration with the bank vetoes, charged that Tyler was seeking to "overthrow the present division of parties in the country," and declared that the Whig party could "be no longer . . . responsible or blamed for the administration of the executive branch of the government." Having thus ostracized Tyler, they pledged their party to seek constitutional amendments that would limit the president to a single term, curb the veto power, and restrict the chief executive's power to remove incumbents from office. Interestingly enough, they also announced their stand for "no government bank, but an institution capable of guarding the people's treasure and administering to the people's wants." According to his repeated declarations, this was what Tyler desired also.
The spectacular clash between the president and his party should not obscure the fact that the Whigs had at last united behind a program and a leader. The disparate factions that had coalesced to nominate "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" could not have adopted a platform, as their Democratic counterparts did; they were too diverse in their issue orientations. But marshaled by Clay's skillfully contrived package of legislation, which made for intraparty bargaining, and further goaded into unity by their conviction that the president was engaged in "treachery," the party came to stand on a common ground behind Clay. The degree of party unity manifested during the special session was not to be exceeded in the antebellum decades; on most key votes on economic legislation, four-fifths of the Whigs were aligned against an even more solid phalanx of Democrats. Although the Whigs suffered reverses in the 1841 state elections, all blame was attributed to Tyler's perverse behavior; the party showed no loss of confidence in its program or its acknowledged leader.
The struggle between the Whigs and Tyler continued during the first regular session of the Twenty-seventh Congress. Lasting from early December 1841 until the end of August 1842—a total of 269 days—it was the longest congressional session until that time. The matter of greatest interest was the tariff, coupled with distribution. The Compromise Tariff of 1833, which had provided for the gradual reduction of duties from the high levels that had been set by the Tariff of 1832 until they should reach a maximum of 20 percent in 1842, would expire on 1 July 1842. With the government facing a predicted deficit in that year of $14 million—out of a total budget of $32 million—tariff revenues would have to be increased. Tyler recommended such action, but he also made clear his conviction that if the rates rose above 20 percent, distribution must be ended.
Clay, while he recognized the problem of the deficit, was insistent both that the tariff should be raised and that distribution should continue. His position was based in part on his recognition of the political reality that some southern Whigs would not support a higher tariff unless it was tied to distribution. The first test came over the enactment of a "temporary" tariff (25 June 1842), which postponed until 1 August 1842 the final reductions scheduled under the 1833 act and specified that distribution was to continue. Tyler vetoed the measure, arguing that a temporary tariff was unnecessary and condemning the distribution feature.
Despite this indication of the president's views, the Whig majority in August passed a "permanent" tariff and again combined it with distribution. Not surprisingly, the result was another presidential veto. Tyler insisted there should be no distribution so long as the condition of the treasury made it necessary to impose tariff duties in excess of 20 percent. Clay had exulted on the first tariff veto. "The more vetoes now of right measures the better," he had declared. He reveled in Tyler's embarrassment, believing that it would redound to the benefit of the Whigs and of his own presidential ambitions.
But Tyler had his way. Because it was essential that government revenues be increased, Congress finally yielded and enacted the Tariff of 1842 with. out distribution; a separate distribution bill was pocket vetoed by Tyler. Average rates were restored to approximately the level of 1832, and the much abused credit system for the payment of duties was abolished. The measure was passed only with substantial support from northern Democrats and over the opposition of a large majority of southern Whigs, demonstrating that the latter remained cool to a high tariff in spite of their willingness to acknowledge Clay as their leader.
The second tariff veto, like the second bank veto, produced a furious reaction among the congressional Whigs. In an unprecedented move, Tyler's message was referred in the House to a select committee of thirteen headed by the redoubtable John Quincy Adams. The committee promptly brought in a report that rehearsed and deplored Tyler's two bank vetoes, scored his latest betrayal of the Whig concept of the presidency, and concluded that although his "weak and wavering obstinacy" surely merited impeachment, existing political conditions made such an action impractical. In his helpless rage, Adams could only propose the introduction of a constitutional amendment to enable Congress to override a presidential veto by a simple majority. When Tyler sent the House a "solemn protest" against this arraignment, that body indignantly refused to enter it in its official journal.
The issue of restricting the veto had already been raised in the Senate, where Clay had introduced a proposed amendment on lines similar to that of Adams. The move, he insisted, was not motivated by Tyler's actions; it was made to redeem a party pledge and to prevent encroachment by the executive on the legislative branch. After three months of intermittent and often brilliant debate, with the Democrats opposing the change, the proposed amendment was dropped without being brought to a vote. In the House, Adams' measure received a majority vote (99 to 90), but less than the required two-thirds. With much less seriousness of purpose, but in keeping with their campaign pronouncements, Whigs also sponsored amendments to limit the president to a single four-year term and to restrict the president's power of appointment and removal. Given the complexion of Congress, there was no likelihood that these proposals would receive favorable consideration.
Congress did take one momentous action that was to affect its future composition. Down to that time, many states had followed the practice of electing their members of the House of Representatives from the state at large, which meant that the majority party in a state would elect all of that state's congressmen. This was changed by the Apportionment Act of 1842, which reduced the size of the House from 242 to 223 members and required that thereafter each representative be chosen in his own, single-member district. Several states adopted protests against what they termed an assault on their prerogatives, and four refused at first to create the requisite districts. But, in time, the law was accepted, and election by districts became uniform among the states. (In a similar vein, Congress, in the closing days of the Tyler administration, established a uniform date for holding the presidential election. The election had previously been conducted in the states on various days between 30 October and 10 November; henceforth it was to occur in all states on "the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November.")
Except for essential appropriation acts, little more was accomplished in this interminable session. Tyler had brought forth a plan for a "board of exchequer" that would, he maintained, provide for a sound currency and safeguard the public funds, but the Whigs were in no mood to give serious consideration to the plan, which was not without merit.
Harassed by the unrelenting opposition of the Democrats and frustrated by Tyler's vetoes, the congressional Whigs had little to show for their efforts. The reestablishment of a national bank had been balked, and the issue soon receded from the political agenda. Distribution had been achieved for a brief period, during which the states received $600,000; then it, too, passed into oblivion. The bankruptcy bill had proved to be unpopular and was repealed. A tariff had been enacted, but it owed its passage to Democratic votes and had sorely divided the Whigs.
The congressional elections in the fall of 1842 added to the discomfiture of the Whigs. The Democrats captured the House of Representatives with a majority of nearly two to one. The Whigs remained narrowly in control of the Senate. With the two houses thus at odds and with the president allied to neither party, the Twenty-eighth Congress was predictably unproductive. Despite the setback to his party, Clay's fortunes seemed bright. In March 1842 he had resigned from the Senate with a moving vale-dictory speech in which he reiterated his principles and left no doubt of his availability as a presidential candidate. In April he was nominated by the North Carolina Whig convention, and similar endorsements followed rapidly.
Tyler meanwhile indulged himself in the futile hope that he could head a new party made up of anti-Clay Whigs in the North, conservative Democrats, and southern extremists. The prospect was remote, but if a suitable issue should arise, it was not beyond the realm of possibility, for both major parties were of recent origin and might well disintegrate under the impact of new issues.