The Election of 1844


Early in 1844 Van Buren and Clay were generally considered the inevitable candidates of their respective parties in the coming campaign. The former had much reason to feel satisfied with the outlook, for the congressional elections of 1842 gave the democrats a majority of 70 in the house, and the discouragement of the Whigs through the quarrel with Tyler had added greatly to their embarrassment. Across this promising sky fell the cloud of antislavery. The year was hardly begun before each candidate was forced to reply to questions as to his position on the annexation. The democratic leader replied in a letter which showed that he was at last in the same position that his ancient enemy, Calhoun, was in when the nullifiers forced his hand in 1828. He must oppose annexation and lose the support of his own section. He chose the former course, hoping, no doubt, that he could so soften the blow as to retain the good will of the South. He believed annexation constitutional, he said, but inexpedient because it would involve a war with Mexico, violate our neutrality obligations, and hold us up to the world as willing to extend our power through a war of conquest; but if Mexico carried herself toward Texas so as to threaten our interest the people of the United States could be relied on to unite against (__?) in that case he would, if president, submit the matter to the (___?)of congress.

Calhoun must have remembered the days of his own humiliation when he saw this letter. He had spent the past thirteen years in arousing the South on slavery, and the result is now apparent. From every slaveholding state came protests against the man who could temporize in such a situation. Van Buren, said the Southern democrats, could not be trusted; he was intimidated by the Northern antislavery men, and he must not be nominated. From that time his selection, as even his best Southern friends admitted, was impossible. Andrew Jackson, old but keenly watching the political field, could only exclaim: "I would to God I had been at Mr. V.B.'s elbow when he closed his letter, I would have brought to his view the proper conclusion. We are all in sack-cloth and ashes!"

If Clay thought he would profit by his rival's predicament, he was mistaken. He also had written a letter, known as his "Raleigh Letter," from the place in which it was written; and in it he took almost exactly the same ground that Van Buren took. It did not defeat his nomination for it pleased the North, where his greatest strength lay; but it caused dismay in the South, and so many requests that he soften his expressions came from the Whigs there that later in the summer he wrote other letters saying that he had no personal objection to annexation "without dishonor, without war, with the common consent of the union, on just and fair terms." We shall see how this apparent juggling of the question worked his ultimate undoing.

The two leading parties held their conventions in Baltimore in May, 1844. The Whigs made their choice harmoniously, naming Clay without a dissenting voice, and Frelinghuysen, for vice-president, on the fourth ballot. The democrats were in sad confusion. A majority of the convention was instructed for Van Buren, but some of the pledged delegates were opposed to him, and the two-thirds rule was used to prevent his nomination. For a time it seemed that the party would be seriously divided.

Most of the Northern delegates stood by Van Buren, while the Southerners were divided, some going for Cass, of Michigan, who had strong Western support. As the ballots were taken. Van Buren declined and Cass gained strength, until on the seventh he seemed in a fair way to succeed. He was unpopular with the Old North, and an adjournment was carried until next day in order to stop the trend toward him. During the night much was done to find some man to beat him. James K. Polk, of Tennessee, urged by his friends as a man vouched for by Jackson, was now brought forward. On the first ballot taken next morning he had 44 votes, and on the second Van Buren was withdrawn and Polk nominated by a union of North and South which swept away in the enthusiasm with which it was received even the original Cass support. The nomination for vice-presidency was offered to Wright, of New York, Van Buren's ablest lieutenant, but he declined peremptorily, and it was then given to George M. Dallas, of Pennsylvania,. The platform declared for Texas and Oregon and reaffirmed the party's opposition to a bank and to the distribution of the funds derived from lands. Polk was not a brilliant man, but he was a steady and industrious politician, and his party put away its dissensions and entered the canvass hopefully.

Two other conventions were held. One nominated Tyler for president with no other platform than his Texas record. The other was held by the Liberty party, organized 1840, when it cast 7100 votes for James G. Birney. He was now re-nominated, with Morris, of Ohio, the candidate for vice-president.

The campaign was full of bitterness and excitement. Clay traveled widely, making speeches to immense audiences. The Texas men of the South began to declare for annexation or a dissolution of the union with such fervor that Whigs and democrats became alarmed, and hastened to say that no one ought to think of disunion. In Pennsylvania Polk was openly accused of being a free trader. In a letter to Kane, of that state, he said he was for a judicious tariff yielding enough revenue for the expenses of government economically administered. It was a clever statement, pleasing the South, which was alarmed at the turn toward protection manifested in the tariff of 1842. It also gave the democrats in protectionist Pennsylvania an opportunity to proclaim him a supporter of the tariff of 1842, which was enacted to get money to defray the expenses of government. They raised the cry, "Polk, Dallas, and the tariff of 1842 !" and thereby held the state in its old political faith. Still more important was the attitude of the antislavery Whigs, strong in New York. Their first inclination was for Clay, but his quibbling over annexation was so evident that several thousand of them voted for Birney, thus reducing his vote until it was below Polk's by 5104. If he had received New York's 36 electoral votes, he would have been elected. As it was, he got 105 votes, while Polk got 170. Polk lost North Carolina, the state of his birth, and Tennessee, the state of his residence. He carried all the Gulf states, where annexation was strongest, and all of the Northwest, where Oregon was an important issue, while Clay carried all New England, where annexation was opposed, and the Middle and the upper Southern states were divided.

Website: The History
Article Name: The Presidential Election of 1844
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: A Short History of the United States by John Spencer Bassett, Ph.D. The Macmillan Company 1913
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