james k polk
Hakeem Fullerton,  Off Beat,  Our Writers,  Politics

The Election of 1844: Polk vs. Clay

Hello, and welcome back to another edition of Lace ‘Em Up’s Presidential Election series. Today we will be going over the Election of 1844 as the Whig Party’s own Henry Clay is looking to finally win the Presidency that’s alluded him for so long, but first, he has to go through the Democratic Party’s Dark Horse Candidate: James Knox Polk.

President Tyler and the Annexation of Texas

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As we discussed in the previous article, John Tyler became the 10th President of the United States following the death of his predecessor William Henry Harrison just a little over a month into his Presidency.

Since then, President Tyler’s time in office has been problematic with him alienating most of everyone within the Whig Party over his decisions regarding the banking crisis, tariffs and other important pieces of business. This led to members of Harrison’s cabinet (who were still working under Tyler) to quit in protest and Tyler himself would soon be expelled from the Whig Party making him the second and last Independent President in U.S. history.

Around this time, many Americans were interested in the idea of expanding the amount of land the U.S. had control of. By the mid-1840s John Tyler decided to run for re-election as a third party candidate on the platform of Annexing the Republic of Texas.

Texas by this point was under the control of Mexico and many politicians were uncertain about adding the future ‘Lone Star State’ to the Union as it could not only lead to war with Mexico. The annexation of Texas into the U.S. would also cause divisions between the amount of free and slave states within the country with many signs indicating that Texas would most certainly be brought in as a slave state if it joined the Union.

The Return of Henry Clay

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With William Henry Harrison gone and John Tyler kicked out of the party, the Whigs decided to nominate Henry Clay as their candidate. Clay had lost the elections of 1824 and 1832 while also failing to get his party’s nomination for President in 1840.

Regardless, Clay and his running mate Theodore Frelinghuysen believed that the Whigs had another chance to win the Presidency following their landslide victory in the previous election. The Whigs also had success in the early to mid-1840s when it came to getting seats in Congress.

However, the issue of annexing Texas was a major talking point in this election and many within the Whig Party were divided on the issue. Some were against it as it would hurt their chances of winning any free states like New York, who were against Slavery while Southerners within the Whig Party supported the idea of annexation.  

Not wanting to divide the party he created over this hot-button issue, Clay published a series of letters like ‘The Raleigh Letter’ where he mentions how the annexation of Texas would cause a sectional divide within the country, so it’s best to avoid it. In ‘The Alabama Letter’ Clay mentions that he isn’t personally against the annexation of Texas but felt that the issue should best be ignored for the time being, unfortunately for Clay, this indecisiveness on the issue is going to hurt him when it comes to keeping unity within the Whig Party going into the election but it will also be used as fuel against him by the opposition party: The Democrats.

Deciding the Democratic Nominee

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When it came time to figure out who would be the Democratic Party’s pick for president in 1844, three candidates were considered at first: Lewis Cass the current U.S. Minister of France and former Secretary of War in the Jackson Administration, James Buchanan the Senator from Pennsylvania, and finally Martin Van Buren, the former Vice President turn President who lost in the previous election.

Due to Van Buren’s status as the co-founder of the Democratic Party, many believed that the former President would get the nomination a third time. That is until the Texas issue was brought up and with Van Buren living in New York, if he supported annexation he would not only lose his home state but other Northern states which was strongly against slavery expansion.

On the other hand, Southern Democrats like former Vice President, John C. Calhoun and former President, Andrew Jackson were firmly in support of acquiring Texas and this led to neither Van Buren, Buchanan or Cass having enough votes to get the nomination. In response, a compromise or Dark Horse candidate needed to be found in order to break up the deadlock.

James K. Polk & Manifest Destiny

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The Democrats would soon find their Dark Horse in the form of James Knox Polk, a little-known former Speaker of the House who initially planned to run for the Vice-Presidency in this election. He was a good friend of Andrew Jackson, so much so that Polk was given the nickname “Young Hickory”.

By the time Polk’s name was added into the mix, most of the Democrats threw their support to him and his running mate, George Dallas the former U.S. Minister To Russia and former Senator from Pennsylvania.

Instead of waffling on the issue of whether Texas should be added to the United States, Polk decided to embrace the idea of adding Texas. Upon hearing that the Democrats’ pick for President was supporting Texas annexation, John Tyler officially dropped out of the race and gave his support to Polk.

Polk like so many others around this time believed in the idea of ‘Manifest Destiny’ aka the belief of expanding the size of the U.S. from sea to shining sea. In order to quiet down the growing anger that Northerners were having over this support for Texas annexation Polk proposed the idea of bringing in the Oregon territories as free states thereby keeping the balance when it came to the number of free and slave states in the U.S. 

Many of the Whigs attempted to run a campaign similar to that of 1840 by degrading the unknown Democratic candidate with the phrase “Who Is James K. Polk?”, However, Clay’s waffling on the Texas issue was too strong for him and the Whigs to overcome. The Democrats responded by portraying Henry Clay as someone who wasn’t fit to run for office and being a supporter of African Americans, which doesn’t make sense as Clay was a slaveholder. This combined with Polk’s pledge to serve only a single term as President made things look like the Democrats would regain the White House…Or did they?

The Liberty Party

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A third party worth mentioning for this election is the ‘Liberty Party’, a small group of Northerners who were against the expansion of slavery throughout the Western territories.

While the Liberty Party ran in 1840 on similar issues to end slavery expansion, the party only got .3% of the popular vote as the nation wasn’t too concerned about the issue. In 1844 all this talk of including Texas as a part of the U.S. as a slave state has gotten the party all fired up.

The Liberty Party decided to run the same candidate that they had in 1840 which was James Birney, who was a lawyer and abolitionist from Kentucky. With the Liberty Party’s support mainly coming from the North, many believe that this party might steal away some support from Northern states that would’ve voted for Clay…But was that the case? Well, let’s take a look at the results and find out.

The Election of 1844: The Results

Election of 1844

As you can see from the electoral map, James K. Polk decisively beat Henry Clay to become the 11th President of the United States; Polk received 170 electoral votes to Clay’s 105 electoral votes.

In terms of the popular vote, the race was much closer with Polk getting 49.5% to Clay’s 48.1%.

The state of New York ended up being the deciding factor in this election with Polk winning the state albeit with around 5,000 more votes. Had Clay gotten New York he would’ve won the election with 141 electoral votes to Polk’s 134 as you needed 138 votes or more to win, but the factor that was the Liberty Party criticizing Clay for his muddled stances on the annexation issue is what ultimately costed him.

Speaking of the Liberty Party, James Birney still received no electoral votes but did receive 2.3% of the popular vote which was a much better showing for the party compared to 1840.

George Dallas became the 11th Vice President in American History and fun fact he would be the reason why a certain part of Texas is called ‘Dallas, Texas’…The More You Know. Polk became the youngest man to ever become president at the time at just 49 years old and he immediately went headfirst into tackling the major issues he ran on including the annexation of Texas and Oregon.

Be sure to come back for the next Presidential Election, as will be talking about the Election of 1848, but if you are interested in learning more about U.S. political history on this site be sure to follow Lace ‘Em Up on Twitter @laceemupoffice you can follow me also on Twitter @hakeemfullerton and I’ll see you in the next article.

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