Election of 1844

Election of 1844

The frontrunners for the presidential nominations in both parties, Henry Clay (Whig) and Martin Van Buren (Democrat), feared that the annexation of Texas would split their parties. They expressed a willingness to support annexation if Mexico would agree; there was absolutely no chance that would occur.President Tyler used this situation to advance his feeble hope for a second term. Lacking support from either party, he attempted to build support by backing the annexation of Texas.Clay easily won the 1844 Whig nomination, but Van Buren ran into trouble at the Democratic convention, which was held in Baltimore on May 27-29, 1844. The delegates reinstituted an old rule that required a two-thirds majority for nomination, rendering it impossible for Van Buren's anti-annexation campaign to succeed. For the first time in American history, a true "dark horse" candidate (meaning a candidate who had received little notice before the convention) was able to secure the nomination. James K. Polk of Tennessee appealed to the delegates because he was a protégé of Andrew Jackson (called "Young Hickory"), had initially supported the frontrunner Van Buren, and was an outspoken advocate of annexation. Polk won the 1844 nomination on the ninth ballot.The campaign was confusing and bitter. Polk and the Democrats espoused the expansionist position, calling for the "reoccupation of Oregon" and the "reannexation of Texas." The cry of "Fifty-four Forty or Fight!" was raised by the Democrats, condemning the British presence in the Northwest. Newspaper attacks targeted both major candidates, Clay labeled a drunkard and Polk chided as an unknown, repeatedly asking "Who is James K. Polk?"Polk's margin in the Electoral College was substantial, but the popular vote in the presidential election of November, 1844, was extremely close. Birney of the Liberty Party drew away sufficient votes to deny Clay the presidency.

Election of
James K. Polk (TN)
George Mifflin Dallas (PA)
Henry Clay (KY)
Theodore Frelinghuysen (NJ)
James G. Birney (KY)
Thomas Morris (OH)

Presidential Election of 1844: A Resource Guide

The digital collections of the Library of Congress contain a wide variety of material associated with the presidential election of 1844, including manuscripts, broadsides and government documents. This guide compiles links to digital materials related to the presidential election of 1844 that are available throughout the Library of Congress Web site. In addition, it provides links to external Web sites focusing on the 1844 election and a selected bibliography.

1844 Presidential Election Results [1]

  • On February 12, 1845, the Electoral College votes for the presidential election of 1844 were counted by a joint session of Congress and reported in the Congressional Globe , as well as in the Senate Journal and the House Journal .

Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1820-1860 consists of over 15,000 pieces of sheet music registered for copyright during the years 1820 to 1860. Included in this collection are sheet music related to the 1844 presidential election, including over twenty pieces about Henry Clay and four pieces about James Polk.

Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers

    , Jeffersonian Republican (Stroudsburg, Pa.), May 2, 1844 . Boon's Lick Times (Fayette, Mo.), May 4, 1844 . New-York Daily Tribune (New-York [N.Y.]), May 31, 1844. . New-York Daily Tribune (New-York [N.Y.]), June 1, 1844. . New-York Daily Tribune (New-York [N.Y.]), November 12, 1844 . Jeffersonian Republican (Stroudsburg, Pa.), November 21, 1844

Voices, Votes, Victory: Presidential Campaign Songs

This exhibition presents a sampling of the rich collection of campaign songs housed in the Music Division of the Library of Congress, including Democrat and Whig Songsters from the 1844 presidential election.

Prints & Photographs Division

November 5, 1844

On November 5, 1844, Democratic candidate James K. Polk defeated Whig Party candidate Henry Clay to become the eleventh president of the United States.

The American Presidency Project: Election of 1844

The American Presidency Project Web site presents election results from the 1844 presidential election. This site also contains the Whig Party Platform of 1844.

The Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project Web site provides histories of the presidential campaigns from 1840-1860, as well as primary source material, such as campaign biographies and campaign songbooks. Recordings of some of the songs are also available.

1844 Presidential Election

The United States presidential election of 1844 saw Democrat James Knox Polk defeat Whig Henry Clay in a close contest that turned on foreign policy, with Polk favoring the annexation of Texas and Clay opposed.

Democratic nominee James K. Polk ran on a platform that embraced American territorial expansionism, an idea soon to be called Manifest Destiny. At their convention, the Democrats called for the annexation of Texas and asserted that the United States had a “clear and unquestionable” claim to “the whole” of Oregon. By informally tying the Oregon boundary dispute to the more controversial Texas debate, the Democrats appealed to both Northern expansionists (who were more adamant about the Oregon boundary) and Southern expansionists (who were more focused on annexing Texas as a slave state). Polk went on to win a narrow victory over Whig candidate Henry Clay, in part because Clay had taken a stand against expansion, although economic issues were also of great importance.

This was the last presidential election to be held on different days in different states, as starting with the presidential election of 1848 all states held the election on the same date in November.

James K. Polk: Campaigns and Elections

When Democrats gathered in Baltimore, Maryland, in May 1844, none could have foreseen the eventual outcome. Former President Martin Van Buren came to Baltimore with a clear majority of delegates pledged to him on the first ballot, but many Democrats opposed the New Yorker for a variety of reasons. Some simply thought Van Buren was a losing candidate given his unpopularity in 1840, when he had lost decisively to the Whig candidate, William Henry Harrison. Also, many "Young Democrats" judged Van Buren as a member of the "old dynasty" associated with "old politics." Others were southern men enraged that Van Buren had recently come out in opposition to Texas annexation. It was this concern for victory and new faces that moved anti-Van Buren forces to insist that the convention follow the precedent of previous Democratic conventions by requiring a two-thirds majority for nomination.

When Van Buren announced his opposition to annexing Texas, he committed political suicide. It was one of the most calculated decisions he ever made, one he knew would make it very difficult to bring southern Democrats to his side. He reasoned, however, that to support the annexation—which President John Tyler had surprisingly proposed—would lose him his home state of New York and any chance for soothing the growing antislavery sentiments of the Northeast. His only hope when the convention opened was that while he could not easily get the two-thirds vote required, no other candidate stood a better chance. His strongest opponent, Lewis Cass of Michigan, the former minister to France and Jackson's secretary of war, came to the convention with the solid support of Delaware, Virginia, Mississippi, and Tennessee but far behind in the actual delegate count.

When the balloting began, Van Buren peaked on the first ballot, then fell downward while Cass moved up. On the fifth ballot, Cass overtook Van Buren. Seeing that he would never be nominated and furious with Cass for having robbed him of the nomination, Van Buren threw his support behind the first dark horse candidate ever to be nominated by a major political party: James K. Polk. It had happened on the ninth ballot at 2 p.m. on May 30, 1844.

Early the next morning, the Democrats nominated George M. Dallas of Pennsylvania for vice president and presented the expected party platform: strict construction of the U.S. Constitution and opposition to the Whigs' "American System" of a national bank, high protective tariffs, and federally funded internal improvements such as canals and roads. The platform also denounced federal interference with "the domestic institutions of the several States"—meaning slavery. On the issue of westward expansion, Democrats committed their party to the "reoccupation of Oregon and the re-annexation of Texas, at the earliest practicable period." This was a compromise between southern Democrats who wanted immediate annexation and northern Democrats who had their doubts about any annexation treaty at all.

At its convention, the Whig Party nominated Henry Clay on the first ballot. This was a bold attempt to distance the party from President John Tyler, whose fights with his cabinet and his party had left him without a trace of support from the party whose ticket he had run on in 1840. (See the Tyler biography, 1844 campaign and election section for details on this episode.) When Tyler, having succeeded the dead President Harrison to office, vetoed in succession two Whig bills creating a new national bank, his entire cabinet—except for Daniel Webster—resigned in protest. Hoping to create a new constituency for himself, Tyler then endorsed, contrary to Whig sentiments, the immediate annexation of Texas, sending a hastily drawn treaty to the Senate for its consent. When the Whig-controlled Senate refused to approve the treaty, Texas annexation became the key issue of the 1844 election.

After nominating as its vice presidential candidate Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, an active evangelical Christian with known antislavery views, the Whig Party adopted its first ever platform. It supported high tariffs, restrictions on the presidential veto, and a one-term presidency. Convinced that the election would propel the well-known Clay into the White House and that Frelinghuysen's views on slavery might help the Kentuckian in the Northeast, most Whigs paid little attention at first to the new antislavery Liberty Party, which nominated former Democrat James G. Birney of Michigan. Indeed, perhaps Polk had more to fear since, other than antislavery, the Liberty Party's platform mirrored that of the Democrats. But Birney also hated Clay.

Because Clay came out decisively against the immediate annexation of Texas, and because Polk just as firmly supported it, the campaign presented a clear choice to the American electorate. Once Clay realized that the new Liberty Party might pull away just enough Whigs to hurt him, he tried to present himself as an enemy of slavery by the mere fact that he opposed the immediate annexation of Texas. The fact that he was a slave owner convinced most abolitionists, however, that Clay would do little as President to hinder slavery as an institution. On the other hand, the more he tried to identify himself as an opponent of slavery expansion, the less chance he had for winning the South.

Polk, also a slaveholder, vowed to serve just one term as President and restated not only his commitment to the annexation of Texas but also to obtaining clear title (from the British) to all of the Northwest between the latitude of 42° south and 54°40' north—present day Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and much of British Columbia. Allowing his supporters to use the campaign slogan, "Fifty-four Forty or Fight," Polk balanced the idea of a new slave state (Texas) entering the union with the possibility of a new free state (Oregon) joining as well.

Although where each candidate stood on Texas was clear, both candidates danced around other issues. For example, Polk—who had always opposed high tariffs—confused matters when he tried to assure eastern Democrats that he understood their needs to have protective tariffs imposed on foreign goods. As a result, much of the campaign centered on personal attacks against each candidate. Despite Polk having been Speaker of the House of Representatives, Andrew Jackson's point-man in the Bank War, and governor of Tennessee, Whigs still mocked him as a nobody, asking again and again, "Who is James K. Polk?" One prominent Whig answered the question thusly: "A blighted burr that has fallen from the mane of the war-horse of the Hermitage." The Whigs blanketed the nation with hundreds of thousands of anti-Polk tracts, accusing him of being a puppet of the "slaveocracy" and a radical who would destroy the United States over Texas. They circulated a false story alleging that Polk had sold many of his slaves to slave traders over the years—and in those days no category of individuals held a more negative reputation than did the roaming slave traders of the old South.

Democrats responded to these attacks in kind, slandering Clay as a man "notorious for his fiendish and vindictive spirit, for his disregard of the most important moral obligations, for his blasphemy, for his gambling propensities, and for his frequent and blood-thirsty attempts upon the lives of his fellow-men." They claimed that Clay had systematically violated every one of the Ten Commandments. Especially played up were rumors of his womanizing habits in Washington brothels. According to the Democratic press, candidate Clay had left no sin untried. In the South, Democrats employed racist language and accused Clay of perhaps the worst sin of all: being an abolitionist.

Presidential Election of 1844: Platforms

Slavery was becoming the most dominant issue of the day. Both candidates played the middle ground on that issue.

Whigs: Henry Clay made a crucial mistake during his Presidential campaign. He was originally for the annexation of Texas and then waffled on the issue which cost him. He also argued for the recharter of the Bank of the United States.

Democratic: Polk had a clear and concise message. He promised to only serve 1 term and he articulated his 4 goals: lower tariffs, establish a federal treasury, settle disputes over the Oregon Territory with the British, and the acquisition of California.

After the debacle of John Tyler&rsquos administration, the Vice President nomination became more important than it had been in the past. As Tyler&rsquos refusal to carry out the Whig ideas that many believed William Henry Harrison would have done pushed each political party to look at the Vice-President as a or unified position that would carry out the president&rsquos mission in case of an untimely death.

Historical Events in 1844

Historic Expedition

Feb 14 John C. Frémont and his party become the first Europeans to discover Lake Tahoe during his second expedition through the American West

    Dominican Republic gains independence from Haiti (National Day) 12-inch gun aboard USS Princeton explodes, killing Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur, Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer, and other high-ranking U.S. federal officials 6th Grand National: John Crickmere wins aboard 5/1 co-favourite Discount King Oscar I ascends to the throne of Sweden-Norway

Music Premiere

Mar 9 Giuseppe Verdi's opera "Hernani" premieres in Venice

    Origin of Baha'i Era-Baha'i calendar starts here (Baha 1, 1) The original date predicted by William Miller of Massachusetts for the return of Christ and the end of the world Jose Zorilla's "Don Juan Tenorio" premieres in Madrid Texan envoys sign Treaty of Annexation with the United States

Presidential Convention

May 1 Whig convention nominates Henry Clay as presidential candidate

Historic Communication

May 24 Samuel Morse taps out "What hath God wrought" in the world's first telegraph message

Event of Interest

Jun 6 Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) formed by George Williams in London

Historic Invention

Jun 15 Charles Goodyear patents the vulcanization of rubber

    Influential North American fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon is founded at Yale University The last pair of Great Auks is killed Fire destroys US mint at Charlotte, North Carolina 1st US yacht club - NY Yacht Club organized by John Cox Stevens and 8 friends aboard the Gimcrack

Event of Interest

Aug 8 Brigham Young chosen as head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints following the death of Joseph Smith

    1st white-indian lacrosse game in Montreal, Indians win Iron ore discovered in Minnesota's Mesabi Mountains Canada defeats USA by 23 runs in the 1st cricket international Oscar I of Sweden-Norway is crowned king of Sweden

Event of Interest

Oct 1 German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt departs Jimbour, the farthest outpost of settlement on the Queensland Darling Downs, to begin his exploration of Australia's Northern Territory from Moreton Bay to Port Essington

    Millerite Adventists wait for appearance of Jesus Spain grants Dominican Republic independence Independence of the Duke of Schleswig-Holstein from Denmark. RC Society Apostole of Prayer forms

Election of Interest

Dec 4 James Knox Polk elected 11th US President

Voter Fraud

The right to vote in a free and fair election is the most basic civil right, one on which many other rights of the American people depend.

Congress and the states should guarantee that every eligible individual is able to vote and that no one’s vote is stolen or diluted.

Voter fraud is real and hundreds of convictions have been made and documented.

Preserving the great experiment that is the American republic is dependent upon free and fair elections. When selecting a city councilor or the president of the United States, every American must be able to trust the process and the result, or the democratic system itself breaks down.

Election integrity is essential and the security of the ballot box cannot be left to a simple honor system.. It is incumbent upon state governments to safeguard the electoral process, and ensure that every voter’s right to cast a ballot is protected.

The history of voting in the United States

Contrary to the claims of many liberals, the problem of voter fraud is as old as the country itself. As the U.S. Supreme Court noted when it upheld Indiana’s voter identification law, “flagrant examples” of voter fraud “have been documented throughout this Nation’s history by respected historians and journalists.”

Attempts to commandeer election results have been documented dating back to the 19th century, when New York City’s infamous Tammany Hall was synonymous with political corruption and election fraud. In one New York election 1844, 55,000 votes were recorded even though there were only 41,000 eligible voters. Decades later, these efforts have continued and determined fraudsters have become only more creative in their efforts to fix the outcome of elections.

Different types of election fraud

There are many ways for criminals to steal votes and change the outcome of an election. These include:

  • Impersonation fraud at the polls:Voting in the name of other legitimate voters and voters who have died, moved away, or lost their right to vote because they are felons, but remain registered.
  • False registrations: Voting under fraudulent voter registrations that either use a phony name and a real or fake address or claim residence in a particular jurisdiction where the registered voter does not actually live and is not entitled to vote.
  • Duplicate voting: Registering in multiple locations and voting in the same election in more than one jurisdiction or state.
  • Fraudulent use of absentee ballots: Requesting absentee ballots and voting without the knowledge of the actual voter or obtaining the absentee ballot from a voter and either filling it in directly and forging the voter’s signature or illegally telling the voter who to vote for.
  • Buying votes: Paying voters to cast either an in-person or absentee ballot for a particular candidate.
  • Illegal “assistance” at the polls: Forcing or intimidating voters—particularly the elderly, disabled, illiterate, and those for whom English is a second language—to vote for particular candidates while supposedly providing them with “assistance.”
  • Ineligible voting: Illegal registration and voting by individuals who are not U.S. citizens, are convicted felons, or are otherwise not eligible to vote.
  • Altering the vote count: Changing the actual vote count either in a precinct or at the central location where votes are counted.
  • Ballot petition fraud: Forging the signatures of registered voters on the ballot petitions that must be filed with election officials in some states for a candidate or issue to be listed on the official ballot.

Can illegal votes actually affect election outcomes?

Liberal groups often claim that known instances of voter fraud are inconsequential when compared to the total number of ballots cast in American elections. However, as the National Commission on Federal Election Reform has stated, the problem “is not the magnitude of voter fraud. In close or disputed elections, and there are many, a small amount of fraud could make the margin of difference.” The U.S. Supreme Court has concurred with this assessment, noting that known instances of fraud “demonstrate that not only is the risk of voter fraud real but that it could affect the outcome of a close election.”

Indeed, recent elections bear this out. In 2015, a city council election in the New Jersey town of Perth Amboy was decided by a mere 10 votes. A judge overturned the election and ordered a new one after it was revealed that at least 13 illegal absentee ballots had been cast. The 2003 mayoral primary in East Chicago, Indiana, was overturned by the state Supreme Court after evidence of widespread fraud was revealed. The new election resulted in a different winner. Numerous convictions for election fraud resulted from this election, and are documented in The Heritage Foundation’s Voter Fraud Database.

Who is responsible for ensuring the integrity of elections?

Each state is generally responsible for the administration of its own electoral systems, including elections for federal office. State governments must take this responsibility seriously and adopt policies sufficient to secure their elections against fraud, including efforts by noncitizens to vote, and by citizens registered in multiple states.

The Heritage Foundation has outlined several policies states should adopt, including requiring government-issued identification and proof of citizenship to vote. States should enter into interstate voter registration crosscheck programs to identify voters registered in multiple states. They should verify the accuracy of their voter registrations, by comparing voter rolls with jury forms, DMV files, and other government records to identify noncitizens so that they can be removed from voter rolls. The federal government should cooperate with state efforts to clean up their registrations, and make Department of Homeland Security and other databases available to state officials for this purpose.

In recent years, some proactive secretaries of state across the country have taken the lead in securing American elections. Kansas’ Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program has identified hundreds of thousands of potential duplicate registrations in the 30 states participating in the initiative, as well as evidence of double voting. At the same time, more states have passed voter ID laws to detect and deter fraud.

There are now 34 states that have laws requiring voters to show some form of identification at the polls, although not all require photo identification or proof of citizenship. A small number of states have extended that ID requirement to absentee ballots, a requirement that all states should implement.

Examples of election fraud cases across the country

Heritage’s Voter Fraud Database contains a sampling of voter fraud cases from across the country, all of which have resulted in either a criminal conviction or an overturned election. The Heritage Database is not representative of the full scope of the problem. Unfortunately, too often voter fraud goes undetected, and when it is discovered, overburdened prosecutors seldom prioritize these cases.


Whig Party convention and campaign

Grand National Whig banner

Former senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, effectively the leader of the Whig Party since its inception in 1834, was selected as the Whig presidential nominee at the party's convention in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 1, 1844. Clay, a slaveholder, presided over a party in which its Southern wing was sufficiently committed to the national platform to put partisan loyalties above slavery expansionist proposals that might undermine its North-South alliance. Whigs felt confident that Clay could duplicate Harrison's landslide victory of 1840 against any opposition candidate.

Southern Whigs feared that the acquisition of the fertile lands in Texas would produce a huge market for slave labor, inflating the price of slaves and deflating land values in their home states. Northern Whigs feared that Texas statehood would initiate the opening of a vast "Empire for Slavery".

Two weeks before the Whig convention in Baltimore, in reaction to Calhoun's Packenham Letter, Clay issued a document known as the Raleigh Letter (issued April 17, 1844) that presented his views on Texas to his fellow southern Whigs. In it, he flatly denounced the Harrison annexation bill and predicted that its passage would provoke a war with Mexico, whose government had never recognized Texas independence. Clay underlined his position, warning that even with Mexico's consent, he would block annexation in the event that substantial sectional opposition existed anywhere in the United States.

Unfortunately Clay died in a carriage accident hours before the Whig convention in Baltimore officially ending both the Clay and Whig campaign.

Democratic Party campaign

President William Henry Harrison

William Henry Harrison, President of the United States from 1837-1844 was the presumptive Democratic presidential contender in the spring of 1844. With Martin Van Buren withdrawing his bid for the presidency in January 1844, the campaign was expected to focus on domestic issues. All this changed with the uprising of the annexation of Texas. Having to decide rather to annex Texas as a free or slave state was regarded to Harrison as an attempt to sabotage his bid for the White House by exacerbating the already strained North-South Democratic alliance regarding slavery expansion.

Joseph Smith’s 1844 Campaign for United States President

Joseph Smith declared his candidacy for president of the United States in February 1844. Joseph personally and the Saints more generally had experienced several years of harassment and persecution both in Missouri and in Illinois. Joseph had written to five men expected to be candidates for the presidency in the election of 1844, asking each man what he would do to protect the citizenship rights of the Latter-day Saints if he were elected. Three of the men responded, but none of them promised to help the Saints. As a result, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles nominated Joseph Smith to be a candidate. He accepted the nomination and proceeded to develop a political campaign. In describing his reasons for accepting the nomination, Joseph Smith stated publicly, “I would not have suffered my name to have been used by my friends on any wise as president of the United States or candidate for that office if I and my friends could have had the privilege of enjoying our religious and civil rights as American citizens.” 1

Joseph’s campaign platform was summarized in a pamphlet titled General Smith’s Views on the Power and Policy of Government. Empowering the federal government to protect the rights of religious minorities was at the heart of his campaign, but he took public positions on a host of controversial issues. His platform included a call for the closure of the country’s growing prison system, decreasing the size of the House of Representatives, chartering a new national bank, and promoting national expansion conditioned upon receiving the consent of American Indians. Joseph also called for the abolition of slavery in the United States by the government using revenues generated from the sale of federal lands in the western United States to purchase the freedom of enslaved men and women. 2

Joseph Smith’s Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States.

Church leaders recognized the power of print media to spread their message through the country, so they printed and distributed thousands of copies of Joseph Smith’s campaign pamphlet. In New York City, Church leaders started a newspaper called the Prophet, which was dedicated to covering Joseph’s candidacy and compared his policy positions to the other candidates in the race. In addition to printed campaign messaging, over 300 Church members served electioneering missions throughout the country.

President John Tyler’s failure to gain his party’s nomination meant there was no incumbent, so the 1844 presidential race was wide open. However, it was unlikely that a candidate running outside the two-party system could win the race. Some thought that the campaign was not a serious attempt to elect Joseph Smith, but rather an undertaking designed to raise public awareness of the plight of the Latter-day Saints amid rising persecution in a country that boasted about its exceptional level of freedom. While the Saints acknowledged that even an unsuccessful presidential campaign could raise such beneficial awareness, Church leaders insisted that they intended to elect him. They selected electors from each state, an action that served virtually no public relations function but, rather, would serve to translate popular votes into electoral votes should the campaign succeed in gaining enough support in any of the 24 states that then comprised the United States. Church leaders apparently believed that Joseph Smith could win if it were God’s will, but they did not necessarily believe that he would win. Accordingly, they pursued other plans to relieve the Saints of the pressures and persecutions they felt, including petitioning the United States Congress to make the city of Nauvoo a federal territory, asking Congress to make Joseph a general in the United States Army, and exploring the possibility of leaving the United States altogether. Joseph’s campaign for the presidency was, therefore, one of several potential avenues Church leaders explored to bring the Saints the peace and protection necessary for them to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences. 3

James B. Allen, in “I Have a Question,” Ensign, Sept. 1973, 21–22.

The following publications provide further information about this topic. By referring or linking you to these resources, we do not endorse or guarantee the content or the views of the authors.

Spencer W. McBride, “The Council of Fifty and Joseph Smith’s Presidential Ambitions,” in Matthew J. Grow and R. Eric Smith, eds., The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal about Mormon History (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017), 21–30.

Margaret C. Robertson, “The Campaign and the Kingdom: The Activities of the Electioneers in Joseph Smith’s Presidential Campaign,” BYU Studies, vol. 39, no. 3 (2000), 147–80.

A history of the 1844 Presidential Election

For most months I write and article for my local club's newsletter. Once used, I don't have another outlet for them so a I sometimes post them here. This long for a post, but I hope you enjoy it

Manifest Destiny! That slogan might seem foreign to modern ears, but in the mid to late 1840s it was on the minds a majority of American voters and many of those had yet to gain the right to vote, which included women and minorities. The slogan advanced the concept that the United States was destined to become an empire that would stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. It was coined by editor John L. O’Sullivan in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review. The issue ruined the political careers two veteran American politicians and pulled the career of another from the brink of political oblivion to White House.

This chain of events began in 1836 when Texas won its independence from Mexico. Texas became an independent nation, but many of its residences wanted to become a part of the United States. That presented a problem because of slavery. The admission of Texas as a slave state brought up the thorny question of the political balance between the number of states that allowed and prohibited the South’s “peculiar institution.” The situation became even more complicated when some southerners advocated splitting Texas up into as many as five states.

At the beginning of the 1844 presidential election cycle, the leading contenders for their party’s nominations were Henry Clay for the Whigs and Martin Van Buren for the Democrats. Although the Whigs had won the 1840 presidential election, the winner, William Henry Harrison, had died after only month in office. His successor, John Tyler, had so alienated the party with his two vetoes of bills that would have restored the Bank of the United States, that few Whig Party members supported him. Tyler hoped that the Democrats would give him their presidential nomination. The “party of Jackson” wanted no part of a man who had left them to join the Whigs because of his distaste for the former president. That opened up the race for Henry Clay, who had long been the heart and soul of the Whig movement.

An 1840 Martin Van Buren campaign token

Van Buren had lost his bid for re-election in 1840, and was looking forward to returning the White House. The Panic of 1837, which had driven him from office, had ended by 1844, and he believed that his populist message of support for yeoman farmers and city workers would resonate with the voters once again. Van Buren had a lot of support within the Democratic Party, but his backers were not enthusiastic. They were ready to bolt if a more attractive candidate arose from the crowd.

Many Americans had seen opportunities for economic growth that went beyond Van Buren’s egalitarian, farmer and wage earner message. They wanted to become rich, or at least more better off than they had been. There seemed to be more opportunities for them if The United States expanded its borders westward.

The problem of Texas statehood remained for both frontrunners. Van Buren opposed it, which instantly got him in trouble with the southern delegates to the Democratic convention. By then the southerners were suspicious of any politician who didn’t support the spread of slavery without reservations. At the 1844 Democratic Party National Convention, Van Buren led on the first ballot but failed to get the two-thirds majority which the party rules required for the nomination. Van Buren’s support slipped away to other candidates, including Lewis Cass who would win the nomination in 1848 and James Buchanan who won the prize in 1856.

James K. Polk’s supporters had been positioning him for the vice-presidential nomination. As the other candidates faded in the convention voting, interest in Polk increased, especially when he got an endorsement from former president, Andrew Jackson. He received his first votes on the eighth ballot and won the nomination on the ninth.

Polk was a dark horse candidate because no one thought that he would have chance for the top prize when the convention opened. Although Polk had been Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, he had lost consecutive runs for Governor of Tennessee and appeared to be washed up politically.

The delegates selected George M. Dallas as Polk’s running mate. Although Dallas had severed briefly in the United States Senate and as mayor of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, most of his experience had been in the diplomatic corp. As a young man, he had been a private secretary to Albert Gallatin when he was Minister to Russia in 1813. Dallas had also been an Envoy to Russia during the Van Buren administration. Later he serviced as Envoy to Great Britain from 1856 to 1861. Today he is best remembered as the man for whom Dallas, Texas is named.

The Whigs nominated Henry Clay for president by acclimation. The annexation issue was not mentioned in the party platform, and almost nothing was said about Texas at the convention. In place of a discussion of the issues, Whigs hoped to cheer, march and sing their way toward another campaign, which would be like the almost issueless crusade that had brought them victory in 1840.

For the second spot on the ticket, the Whigs nominated Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey. Frelinghuysen, who had served one term in the Senate from 1829 to 1835, brought geographic balance to the ticket. More importantly to some, his leadership positions in several non-sectarian religious groups gave the Whig campaign an image of morality. Later Frelinghuysen would be a strong advocate for the end of slavery.

For Clay, 1844 marked his third attempt in the final round of the presidential sweepstakes. He had first run in 1824 when he had finished last among four candidates. He had been the Whig candidate again in 1832 when he had based his campaign upon obtaining a new charter for the Bank of the United States. He lost to Andrew Jackson. During all of the other election cycles, except 1828 when John Quincy Adams had been running for re-election, Clay had been “available” if his party had called upon him.

A Presidential Campaign Without Active Presidential Candidates

As was the custom of the times, neither Clay nor Polk campaigned actively. Like George Washington, presidential candidates “waited” to asked to take the presidency. It was considered to be poor form to campaign for president actively, but if it was offered, it was one’s duty to accept it. The vice-presidential candidates and surrogate speakers represented the presidential candidates at rallies and political events. In the meantime, only those who were naive to the ways of politics could have believed that the presidential candidates were not involved with their campaigns behind the scenes.

Polk soft peddled some issues, but he did take a stand on Texas statehood. He favored it, and he joined the “54-40 or fight!” faction over the settlement of the Oregon border. Since the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804 – 6, Americans had begun to settle the northwest territories that are now in the area of Oregon and Washington State. The British also had a foothold in the area, but the Americans outnumbered them.

By 1844 those Americans were looking for a boundary between the American and British territories. The most militant Americans wanted the boundary to be at latitude 54 degrees, 40 seconds, which placed it just south of Alaska, which was a Russian territory at that time. As their slogan implied, they were ready to rattle sabers over the issue. The British wanted the boundary to be at 42 degrees, which was over 1,000 miles south of the American claim. Polk supported the militants which added to his American expansionist coalition.

At the beginning of the presidential race, some Whigs posed the question, “Who is Polk?” which reflected their belief that he was almost an unknown candidate. As the race continued, Henry Clay sensed that the expansionist mood had gained considerable traction with the voters. Finally Clay endorsed statehood for Texas, but that change in position got him into political trouble.

In the South his attempts to straddle the issue destroyed their trust in him. In the North, the anti-slavery Whigs were disappointed in his new position. Clay pleased no one, which cost him dearly.

A Close Election, Probably Determined by a Third Party Vote

The election produced a close result. On the surface, Polk appeared to have won by a wide margin with 170 electoral votes to Clay’s total of 105, but that those numbers were deceiving. The popular vote was close with Polk receiving 50% and Clay 48%. The key to the election was New York State with its critical 36 votes in the Electoral College. If Clay had won New York, he would have been elected president.

Clay lost of the Empire State by 5,106 votes, which was less than a 1% margin. Liberty Party candidate, James Birney, received almost 16,000 votes. If he had not been a factor in the race, Clay might well have carried state. Most of Birney’s voters were abolitionists who would have preferred Clay’s more moderate approach to adding more slave states to the Union. When Clay switched his position on Texas, he lost many of those voters. Conversely Clay’s late turn toward Texas statehood did him little good in the South. He lost all of the states in the deep south, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina in addition to Virginia.

For Clay it was a bitter pill. He had spent his entire political life running for president. Now he had lost in his final bid for the Whitehouse to a comparative political unknown who had not even been in the running for his party’s nomination at the beginning of the election cycle.

A Survey of 1844 Presidential Campaign Tokens

All James K. Polk political campaign tokens are scarce to rare. The reason for this was that the Democrats heaped scorn in their platform on campaign tokens as “factitious symbols” and “displays and appeals insulting to the judgement and subversive to the intellect of the people.” This position was a reaction to the flood of campaign tokens and other knickknacks the Whigs had issued during their “log cabin and hard cider campaign” that had gotten William Henry Harrison elected in 1840.

A William Henry Harrison 1840 "log cabin and hard cider campaign" token

The Polk "Press onward" token

The most interesting of the Polk pieces is listed in the DeWitt/Sullivan guide as JP 1844-3. The obverse features a portrait of Polk with the slogan, “Press onward – enlarge the boundaries of freedom / young hickory.” The first part of the slogan was call for the expansion of United State territory to the west and the annexation of Texas. “Young hickory” tied Polk to Andrew Jackson who was known as “old hickory.” The reverse features a portrait of Polk’s running mate, George Dallas and the slogan, “Equal protection to all classes.” This token is quite rare with perhaps less than 40 pieces known.

Another even rarer token addresses the issue of Texas statehood. It features a profile of Polk on the obverse surrounded by his name, “James K. Polk.” The reverse features an Andrew Jackson style hickory pole with a large Texas star in the middle of it. This image is surrounded by rays. The slogan around the edge reads, “Polk, Dallas, Texas. This token is 27mm in diameter and is listed in DeWitt/Sullivan as JP 1844-5. It is exceedingly rare with perhaps fewer than 25 pieces known.

A Clay "American System" campaign medal

The Clay campaign issued far more pieces, and most collectors will have little trouble adding an 1844 Henry Clay medalet to their sets. A continuing theme on some Clay pieces displayed sailing ships and factories with smoke belching out their chimneys. This symbolized Clay’s “American System” of protective tariffs and internal improvements, like roads and bridges, which he claimed would bolster commerce and wealth.

Another Clay medalet advocated a less positive position. It featured Clay holding a tattered American flag with the phrase, “Our flag trampled upon.” The reverse featured an American eagle with the slogan, “Americans beware of foreign influence.” This was an early outcropping of anti-immigrant sentiment that would become more prevalent over the next decade and a half. This prejudice would blossom into the American or “Know-nothing” Party in the 1850s.

The Polk Presidency Is Still Controversial

Despite the fact the James K. Polk left office almost 170 years ago, historians disagree sharply over the merits of his presidency. There can be no question that Polk accomplished a great deal during his single, four year term in office. Here are the major highlights:

• He completed the annexation of Texas as the 28th state in the union.
• He settled the boundary between the British and Oregon Territories. That boundary is now the border between Washington State and Canada.
• His administration succeeded in lowering the tariffs between the United States and Great Britain. This greatly increased trade between the two countries which benefited the wage earners in both nations.
• His administration fought and won a war with Mexico. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, completed in February 1848 greatly expanded U.S. territory. In exchange for a payment of $15 million, the U.S. acquired all or part of the following states: Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.

Polk’s war with Mexico is the most controversial aspect of his presidency. When historian, Arthur Schlesinger, conducted his poll of historians in 1962, they ranked Polk as a “near great president.” Today some historians characterize him as an outlaw president who intentionally started a war with Mexico with the express purpose of taking its territory in an imperialist land grab.

The fact that Polk was looking for a provocation to start the Mexican War cannot be denied. From a nationalistic point of view, however, what would the United States have become had it not gained control of that vital part of our nation? In her book, A Wicked War, historian Amy S. Greenberg claimed that the United States would have subsequently acquired the lands gained from the Mexican War by peaceful means. The problem with her assertion is that she provides no evidence to back that claim.

Given the fights for freedom in the 20th century, which included World War II and the Cold War, it could be argued that the world might be a very different place had there not been a strong United States of America to tip the balance. I believe that the Mexican War was fought under false pretenses, but it is hard to argue that the world has not benefited from the results.

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