This Shutdown Isn’t the First Time the U.S. Government Has Broken Down. The History Doesn't Bode Well for TrumpRoundup
tags: presidential history, shutdown, Trump, wall
David Kaiser, a historian, has taught at Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Williams College, and the Naval War College. He is the author of nine books, including, most recently, his autobiography, A Life in History.
Under the unique leadership of Donald Trump, the United States government is losing its ability to function. He is threatened by existing and imminent investigations and his impeachment is freely discussed. Two years into his term, he has had two secretaries of state, three chiefs of staff, two secretaries of defense (if you include the currently serving acting secretary) and three national security advisers. Less than half the country approves of what he is doing and his party just suffered a major electoral defeat, losing control of the House of Representatives. Now, the President’s insistence on some sort of wall on the southern border has led to what could soon be the longest government shutdown ever.
Have comparable breakdowns ever happened before? Yes, a few times. The earlier episodes shed some light on what has caused our current crisis, and give us some idea of how it is likely to be resolved.
The first occurred in 1841, when, for the first time in U.S. history, a President, William Henry Harrison, died in office. His Vice President, John Tyler, succeeded him. Tyler and Harrison had been elected as Whigs and Harrison had been expected to implement the Whig program of a new National Bank, higher tariffs, and money for roads and canals.
It turned out, however, that Tyler did not believe in most of those things. Nearly his entire cabinet resigned in protest during his first year in office, and he vetoed several key measures, establishing himself as the most prolific vetoer in the history of the White House to date. He even vetoed at least one measure he had initially agreed to—just as President Trump has refused to follow through on some deals he has made.
Only the threat of a government default—yes, essentially a shutdown—forced agreement on key financial measures. Tyler’s relations with Congress got worse and worse, and the Senate failed to confirm a number of his appointments, while the House looked actively into the possibility of his impeachment. He tried to rebuild his authority by pushing for the annexation of the independent Republic of Texas, but lacked the strength to bring it about. The Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives in 1842, and the Whig Party joyfully dispensed with Tyler in 1844, only to see their candidate defeated by Democrat James K. Polk. The nation had limped through four years of chaos.
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