1844, James K. Polk Defeats Henry Clay, James Birney – Texas Annexation As It Related To The Issue Of Slavery: Guest Essayist: Daniel A. Cotter
The election of 1844 was notable in that the incumbent Whig President, John Tyler, who ascended to the Presidency when President William Henry Harrison died one month after his inauguration, was not nominated by his party to seek a second term as President. Tyler’s focus on the annexation of Texas as a slave state set the themes for the 1844 presidential election and also led to James K. Polk becoming the Democratic President.
The Candidates and the Presidential Election
Tyler became the first Vice President to succeed to the Presidency in our nation’s history and, because of the very short duration of Harrison’s tenure, was the longest serving President in United States history who was not elected to the White House. The Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution eventually codified the protocol under which Tyler took office after Harrison’s death.
Tyler was a strict constructionist of the Constitution, vetoing many bills passed by the Whig-controlled Congress and believing much of the Whig platform and positions unconstitutional. The Whigs derisively referred to Tyler as “His Accidency” and, based on his conduct and differences with the party, expelled Tyler from the Whig Party. Tyler focused on the annexation of Texas his last two years in office. Tyler originally wished to be elected President to serve a full elected term, but with the loss of support of the Whigs as well as the Democrats, he withdrew from the race in August 1844 after being assured that annexation of Texas would be completed under a James Polk administration.
The 1844 Democratic nominating convention was held in Baltimore, Maryland. The main question for the attendees was the issue of Texas annexation. Former President Martin Van Buren was the leading candidate for nomination entering the convention. However, his opposition to immediate annexation due to concerns about sectional crises that might result from such a movement led the convention to consider other candidates and Van Buren did not receive enough votes to secure the nomination. After a number of ballots, Massachusetts delegate George Bancroft proposed that former Speaker of the House James K. Polk be the nominee. Polk was the first “dark horse” candidate for President and eventually received unanimous support of the Democratic Party delegates.
The Whig Party also held its nominating convention in Baltimore, Maryland. Unlike the Democratic nominating convention, there was little doubt who would be the Whig nominee–Henry Clay, who had led the Whig Party since its inception in 1834. Clay’s task was to calm the concerns of Northern Whigs, who feared annexation of Texas would create an “Empire of Slavery,” while also calming those of Southern Whigs, who feared annexation would increase the price of slaves leading to property price declines in their states. On April 17, 1844, Clay, a slaveholder, wrote the “Raleigh Letter” to his fellow Southern slaveholders, in which he strongly denounced the Tyler annexation bill. Clay was concerned that annexation might lead to war with Mexico and also assured the Whigs he would not annex Texas if it would cause any sectional crisis. The Whigs rallied around a platform of no acquisition by the United States of another slave state. The platform hurt Southern Whigs in their efforts during the 1844 election.
James Birney, an abolitionist, also ran for President in 1844 as the anti-slavery Liberty Party candidate. Birney published a weekly abolitionist newspaper, The Philanthropist, and had been the Liberty Party candidate for President in 1840. Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints, was also a candidate for President as an independent until his murder in a Carthage, Illinois jail on June 27, 1844.
Polk committed to following through on the annexation of Texas that began with Tyler. Polk’s plans for westward expansion, what came to be known as “Manifest Destiny,” was a powerful message in a presidential election in contrast to Clay’s balancing of interests and timidity concerning westward expansion. “Manifest Destiny” also shifted the focus away from the spread of slavery and onto general expansion of our nation. Despite the widely different views on westward expansion and the annexation of Texas, the presidential election was an extremely close one, with Clay winning the Northeast and border South, while Polk won in the Southern States. Polk received 49.5% of the popular vote and 170 of the 275 Electoral College votes. Clay received 48.1% of the popular vote and 105 Electoral College votes. Clay’s position against annexation of Texas likely cost him close races in New York and Michigan as well as the Presidency.
Texas declared its independence from the Republic of Mexico in 1836. A large majority of Texans favored annexation by the United States, but both Whig and Democrat leaders were reluctant to bring Texas into the difficult political climate surrounding the question of slavery. As noted above, President Tyler decided to pursue annexation in an attempt to solidify his popularity leading to the 1844 election. After negotiations with Sam Houston, President of the Texas Republic, Tyler secured a treaty of annexation in April 1844. Details of the treaty leaked and led to the selection of Polk as the Democratic nominee. In June 1844, the Whig-led Senate overwhelmingly rejected the treaty.
Post-election, Tyler advocated that Congress use the Constitutional provisions for adding a state by joint resolution rather than by treaty. The lame duck Congress passed the joint resolution in February 1845 and lame duck President Tyler signed the bill into law on March 1, 1845, three days before the end of his term. Tyler had assured Congress he would sign the joint bill but that would leave implementation to Polk. On March 3, 1845, Tyler reneged on his promises, dispatching via courier an immediate offer to the Republic of Texas for annexation. When Polk became President the next day, he had the option of recalling the dispatch, but decided not to do so for practical reasons. Texas accepted the annexation terms on December 29, 1845, becoming the 28th state.
As Clay had feared, Mexico did not accept the annexation lightly and while it did not follow through on its threats to wage war against the United States if annexation of Texas occurred, Mexico did continue to dispute the border with Texas. In November 1845, Polk sent John Sidell to Mexico to negotiate the border and to acquire additional territory. When the mission failed, the United States declared war on Mexico.
The annexation of Texas raised already heightened tensions around the question of slavery and was the featured issue of the 1844 presidential election. Tyler’s hopes for an elected term were crushed by his annexation plans and Polk rode his strong views on westward expansion to the White House. Polk followed through on his promise to serve only one term, having fulfilled his goals, including westward expansion (in addition to the Texas annexation completed in his term, he also oversaw acquisition of the non-slave Oregon Territory, the territory that became New Mexico, California, and other western states). Less than sixteen years after the annexation of Texas was completed, the slavery question would lead the nation to division and the Civil War.
Dan Cotter is a Partner at Butler Rubin Saltarelli & Boyd LLP and an Adjunct Professor at The John Marshall Law School, where he teaches SCOTUS Judicial Biographies. He is also Immediate Past President of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to Butler Rubin or any of its clients, The Chicago Bar Association, or John Marshall.