United States Elections: Presidential Elections (1844)


Figure 1.--k

The Democratic Party in the 1844 election championed expansion. The Party supported the annexation of Texas to appeal to the southern wing of the Party and asserted a claim to all of the Oregon Territory up to 4940' which appealed to the northern wing of the Party. Nominee James K. Polk was adament about Texas which would mean war with Mexico. Southern Democrats were increasingly interested in expanding slavery even at the cost of undoing the Missouri Compromise. Gaining Texas a a new slave state was first step in this enterprise. Whig nominee Henry Clay opposed expansion. This probably cost him the election. The possibility of a third war with Britain loomed. And by a 1840 American-British relations were approaching a crisis. Polk was, however, willing to compromise over Oregin as the United States could no go to war with both Mexico and Britain. Polk's bold statements were designed to obtain an acceptable compromise with the British.

Tyler Presidency (1841-45)

John Tyler was the 10th president of the United States. He was the first vice-president to gain office as a result of the death of a setting president. While never elected president, he established many precedents. He was the first vice president to assume the office because the elected president died in office. He was also the first president to to be married in office on June 26, 1844. The Whigs who elected Harrison were so outraged that Tyler opposed their policies that they expelled him from the party. This did not bother Tyler who was more of a democrat anyway. At the end of John Tyler's administration to upsage Polk, the United States annexed Texas. He was raised believing that the Constitution must be strictly construed and he never wavered from this conviction.

Democratic Convention (May 1844)

The Democrats held their convention in Baltimore (May 1844). The Democratic Party in the 1844 election championed expansion. The Party supported the annexation of Texas to appeal to the southern wing of the Party and asserted a claim to all of the Oregon Territory up to 4940' which appealed to the northern wing of the Party. The Party also opposed Federal-financed internal improvements and any resurrection of the Federally-chartered Bank of the United States. Govenor Polk was a Jackson loyalist with a substantial record in Congress. Until circumstances raised Polk's ambitions, he was a leading contender for the Democratic nomination for Vice President in 1844. It was assumed that they would remominate President Van Buren. It was unheard of to deny the nomination to an elected president, especially the president that had played such a key role in fashioning the Demoratic Party machine. Both Martin Van Buren, who had been expected to win the Democratic nomination for President, and Henry Clay, who was to be the Whig nominee, tried to take the expansionist issue and indirectly slavery out of the campaign by declaring themselves opposed to the annexation of Texas. The formr-President had lost the 1840 election and could not muster the 2/3s vote required at that time for the nomination, largely because of his position on expansionism. The convention was deadlocked. Polk, however, publicly asserted that Texas should be "re-annexed" and all of Oregon "re-occupied." The aging Jackson, correctly sensing that the people favored expansion, urged the choice of a candidate committed to the Nation's 'Manifest Destiny'. This view prevailed at the Democratic Convention and it won Polk the nominated on the ninth ballot. Polk gained support over Van Buren who himself had been a ackson man in part because of his strong support for Texas statehood. [Borneman] He was nominated on the 9th ballot.

Whig Convention

President Tyler while elected on the Taylor Whig ticket was a Democrat and had throughly alienated Whig stalwarts. There was no division among the Whig Party. Sensing victory, they nominated Whif-stalwart Congressman Henry Clay unanimously.

Issues

The major issue of the electiion was expansion. Nominee James K. Polk was adament about Texas which would mean war with Mexico. Southern Democrats were increasingly interested in expanding slavery even at the cost of undoing the Missouri Compromise. Gaining Texas a a new slave state was first step in this enterprise. Whig nominee Henry Clay opposed expansion. President Tyler had dropped a nombshell in the election when he submitted a treaty to annex Texas (April 1844). This help to ensure that expansion (Manifest Destiny) and slavery would be at the heart of tghe campaign.

Liberty Party

The Liberty Party emerged as an one-issue abolitionist political organization centered in upstate New York (1839). Organized abolitionism developed along different issue lines. One of the most important focused on the constitutionality of the institution of slavery. Here William Lloyd Garrison who became the major fifure in the American Anti-Slavery Society, attackedv the Constitution as a "covenant with death and an agreement with hell." The Liberty Party opposed this approach to opposing slavery. The Liberty Party nominated James G. Birney in 1840. Birney was a Kentucky-born lawyer and former slaveholder who converted to the abolitionist cause. Mob violence forced him to relocated to Ohio. Birney garnered only about 7,000 voyes in 1840 and was not a factor in the race. The Party in 1844 again nominated Birney. A rising force in the Party, Salmon P. Chase, had doubts based primarily on Birney's ability to generate popular appeal. The debate over Texas appears to generated substantial support to the Liberty Party. He had no channce of election, but hoped to affect some state races. Birney in fact won more than 60,000 votes which had a major impact on the election. It was also an indication that the abolitionists were making headway. Chase as a result was convinced that abolitionists should begin to organize an anti-slavery party with more broadbased appeal. The end result would be the Republican Party.

Campaign

Henry Clay who had longed dreamed of the presidency seemed likely to win the election at the onset of the campaign. Many thought he would win an easy victory over the lesser-known Polk. Polk was an ardent Jacksonian and was known as "Little Hickory," a play on Jackson;s knickname "Old Hickory". "Who is James K. Polk?" Whigs jeered derisively to remind the voters that the Democrats had chosen such a little known candidate. The Whigs were sure that their nominee, the well known Congressman Henry Clay, would easily win. Clay soon became tied up on the increasingly bitter sectional divide. It was gthis issue that would eventually lead go the demise of the Whig Party. He was from Tennesse, a slave state, yet he opposed the annexation of Texas. This denied him much of his southern support, but gained him little support in the north. There he faced a growing and increasingly vocal abolitionist movement. The press attacks on the two candidates were extremely stinging. Polk was labeled a coward and Clay a drunkard. President Tylercould have caused problems for Polk, but Jackson helped dfuse this problem. The Democrats with the Roorback Hoax attempted to tarnish Polk as an abusuve slave trader who branded his slaves. In fact he held very few slaves. The Democrats replied Polk was the candidate who stood for expansion. He defused the sectional issue by linking the Texas issue, popular in the South, with the Oregon question, attractive to the North. Polk also favored acquiring California. To Polk's surprise he eaked out a narrow victory. The Polk election was one of a string of Presidential defeats for the Whigs who were to be primarily a Congressiinal party. The only Whigs who managed to win the presidency were popular military heros (W.H. Harrison and Z. Taylor) with little commitment to the Whig program.

Election

Polk's won the election, but by a very narrow margin, interesting in that the election resulted in very signoficant developments. Clay's principled opposition to expansion probably cost him the election. Polk won decisesly in the Electoral College, by combining victories in the South to enough northern states to win in the electoral college. The actual election was much closer. Polk carried New York by only 6,000 votes. Here the Liberty Party candidate, James Birney, siphoned off votes from Clay.

Texas Annexation (1845)

Tyler was limited in his domestic programs by the disagreements with the Whigs who controlled Congress. Thus he turned his attention to foreign affairs. The Constitution vests considerable power in the presidency to conduct foreign policy. His major accomplishment was the annexation of Texas (1845). Here Tyler diverged from his strict-construionist interpretation of the Constitution. He was a strident nationalist who believed in American exceptionalism and determined to persue America's 'manifest destiny'. He believed in preserving and expanding the union, but as a slave-holding republic. His goal was a continental empire. He issued the Tyler Doctrine guaranteeing the independence of the Hawaian Islands, essentially putting the Islands off limit to European colonization (1842). It was essentially a coralary to the Monroe Docrine. This paved the way for American missionary dominance. Tyler also layed the groundwork for the Open Door policy with China. He approved America's first treaty with the Celestial Kingdom. It guaranted favorable trading privliges, equal access to Chinese ports and extra-territorial rights for U.S. citizens. When the Texas annexation treaty languished in the Senate, to upstaged President-Elect Polk, he obtined approval through a joint resolution of Congress. Tyler expanded the war powers of the presidency by committing to the defense of Texas even before annexation. Another issue was the Oregon Territory. Tyler also secured ratification of the Webster-Ashburton treaty that ended the boundary dispute with Canada.

War and Western Expansion

The 1844 election as is the Polk presidency is often neglected by historians, but Clat and Polk had very different viuews. A Clay victory coukd have significntly affected U.S. history. Clsy was much less interested in western expansion, especially expansion thst meant war with Mexico. Thhis might have mneant that the Medxicxan-American War woulkd have been avoided and the United states wiulkd not have annexed what uis now the southwest. This woukd have limited the expabsion of slaverty and oerhos have prevented the Civil war. [Kornblith] The possibility of a third war with Britain loomed. And by a 1840 American-British relations were approaching a crisis. Polk was, however, willing to compromise over Oregin as the United States could not go to war with both Mexico and Britain. Polk's bold statements were designed to obtain an acceptable compromise with the British.

Polk Presidency (1845-49)

James K. Polk was the 11th president. He is often referred to as the first "dark horse" President or little-known candidate, to win the presidency when he unexpectedly defeated Henry Clay in the election of 1844. Polk was a comitted Jacksonian and the last strong President until the Civil War. At 49 years of age, he was also the youngest president the United States had yet had. During his term of office Polk added more territory to the United States than any other president other than Jeffereson with the Louisiana Purchase. The vast region stretching from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean acquired from Mexico. The immediate consequence, however, was a rise in sectionlism as the issue of the extensuion of slavery in the new territories inflamed passions in the North and South. Abolistionists condemned Polk, believeing that he desired to extend slavery. Many modern scholars, however, classify this lesser known president and often rank Polk as one of the 10 greatest American presidents.

Mexican War (1846-48)

As expected, American annexation of Texas brought war with Mexico. It is one of the most important wars fought by the United States because of the vast area of land annexed, about one-third of Mexio. It has, however, been given relatively little attention by American historians, possibly because it does not fit well into America's self image. Assessments of the War vary among both Mexican and American historians and among American historians. And these assessments have varied over time. The War began when Mexican units attacked U.S. troops in dispured territory between Mexico and Texas (April 25, 1846). Ther initial fighting took plasce in northern Mexico when General Zacrarry Taylor attacked across the Rio Grande. A small American force took New Mexico and California. When Mexico refused to make peace the United States invaded Mexico at Vera Cruz. The forced commanded by Gen. Winfield Scott moved inland and occupied Mexico City (September 14, 1847). A peace treaty was signed a few months later at Guadalupe Hidalgo (February 2, 1848). Mecico recognized the U.S. annexation of Texas and ceded California and New Mexico to the United States. Mexian historians have always seen the Mexican War as naked agression by the United States. Some American historians in recent years have also come to this conclusion. This is considerable truth in this, but a strong jigoist element in Mexico desiring to retake Texas has to be considered. One often ignored question is why so few Mexicans moved into the northern territories. One reason the United States prevailed in the War was that so few Mexicans lived in California and New Mexico. The War is also notble because of the roles played by key figures in the coming American Civil War.

Sources

Borneman, Walter. Polk.

Kornblith, Gary.

Strong, Douglas M. Perfectionist Politics: Abolitionism and the Religious Tensions of American Democracy.







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Created: 5:05 AM 3/18/2007
Last updated: 10:42 AM 2/22/2012