James K. Polk: Campaigns and Elections

James K. Polk: Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1844:

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.

When the balloting finished, the dark horse candidate had beat Clay by a razor thin margin—1,338,464 popular votes to Clay's 1,300,097—a difference of 38,367 votes. Even though Clay won five slave states, including Tennessee and North Carolina, Polk netted 170 electoral votes to Clay's 105. Birney, who in the campaign had accused Clay of secretly planning to annex Texas, won 62,300 votes. In the pivotal state of New York, Birney won more than the number of votes Clay needed to carry the state, handing it to Polk. Had Clay won New York, he would have defeated Polk in the popular vote and, more importantly, by a slim margin of 141-134 in the Electoral College. Polk assumed the presidency without having won a majority of the popular vote, although he did win a plurality. His election was the closest in U.S. history, and it demonstrated that a mature two-party system had finally emerged out of the tumultuous Jacksonian years. Party newspapers, machinery, and organizations were fully operational at the town and county level, and a great deal of party loyalty dominated the election. Most men had based their vote less on their preference for any individual candidate than on their own party identification and the twin issues of slavery and Texas annexation.