Hugh Lawson White and the strange election of 1836
by Jack Neely
As one leader after another assures us the presidential election is "not a crisis," history's a comfort. This is not the weirdest presidential election ever, by a long shot.
It's especially comforting to remember that today's worst-case scenariothat the race will end up decided by the House of Representativeswas precisely what the opposition party wanted in 1836, even as they campaigned before the election.
I haven't heard this election mentioned in the history lessons we've gotten from the TV networks, probably because it's too complicated to explain in a 12-second sound bite. It wasn't even mentioned in the daily's list of strange elections, even though one of the main candidates that year is buried half a block from the News-Sentinel office.
His name was Hugh Lawson White, and he's still right there on State Street. It seems time to bring him up again.
He was 13 when he moved with his family to this remote riverside bluff. His dad was James White, an obscure militia captain who'd received a veterans' land grant. When he was only 28, Hugh was appointed a judge of Tennessee's Superior Court, and would thereafter be known as Judge White, though he'd later be a D.A., a state senator, and a bankerKnoxville's first, in fact. He got to know Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812, starting a friendship they would both outlive.
Jackson resigned his seat in the Senate to run for president in the election of 1824, the first of the three elections we've been hearing about in which the losing candidate got the greater popular vote. It was the first election forced into the House of Representatives, which picked John Quincy Adams over General Jackson.
White was the man who replaced Jackson in the Senate. Suffering from tuberculosis, which would kill several of his children and his wife, White was known on Capitol Hill as "the Skeleton."
When Calhoun resigned the vice presidency in 1833, the Senate picked Hugh White to be their president pro tem. and acting vice-president. If President Jackson had died of one of his various wounds and disorders in early 1833, Hugh White of Knoxville would have taken his place. As he turned 60, his star was on the ascent.
By then, many had begun to distrust the once-popular president some were calling King Andrew I. When it became clear that Jackson intended to hand-pick his own successor in office, several of his old allies revolted.
Among the first to be annoyed with Jackson were his fellow legislators from Tennessee. In 1834, a committee that included America's most popular Congressman, Rep. Davy Crockett (D-Tenn.), nominated Hugh White to run against Jackson's prince, Martin Van Buren.
With running mate John Tyler, White was popular in the South and in the Midwest. Helped by Crockett's wickedly funny satires of Van Buren, in 1835 White may have felt he had a chance at his nation's highest job. But then came some surprises.
His anti-Jackson allies, who were now calling themselves Whigsafter the opposition party in Englandnominated another candidate, too: Daniel Webster, who had a strong following in New England, where White's support was weakest. Then they nominated still another candidate: William Henry Harrison. More famous than White, he had a strong base of support in the Midwest.
By 1836, the Whigs were effectively running three regional candidates against Van Buren. None was likely to win by himself. The best White and Webster and Harrison could hope for is that they could throw the race. Old enough to remember the election of 1824, they knew that if they could keep Van Buren from getting a majority of electoral votes, they could force the decision into the Whig-dominated House of Representatives, where they'd pick someone they liked a lot better.
White's chief propagandist didn't get to vote for him. Crockett died a few months before the election, at the Alamo. White's candidacy especially rankled his old buddy, President Jackson, who campaigned vigorously against him in their shared home state. White swept Tennessee anyway. He won Georgia, too, chalking up a total of 26 electoral votes. Though he wasn't on the ballot in several states, White won 10 percent of the popular vote nationwide, a figure Ralph Nader might envy. White finished third in the four-man race.
But the fix didn't take. Though the anybody-but-Van Buren allies earned almost half the popular vote, they tallied only 124 electoral votes. Van Buren earned 170, and the presidency.
White remained a popular statesman in Tennessee, but was bitter about the loss. Asked how his old colleague was spending his time, Congressman Felix Grundy reported White was sitting in his corner cursing and "spitting tobacco juice by the gallon."
White resigned from the Senate in a dispute with the pro-Van Buren state Legislature, and died in 1840, during the presidential term he campaigned for. There was talk of building him a huge monument here. But the political turmoil of the 1840s and '50s blurred the old issues and alliances, as well as Hugh White's status as local hero. His headstone isn't much larger than most of them in the old First Presbyterian graveyard. He's not even mentioned on the historical plaque that stands a few yards away.
We're still not sure who he was. Historians refer to White variously as a naive dupe of the Whigs, as a cynical co-conspirator in a failed plot to steal a presidential election from the peopleor as an honest man who chucked his career for principle.
Less than a year after his death, White's old ally/rival, William Henry Harrison, became president. One month later, White's old running mate, John Tyler, followed.
November 23, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 47
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