In 1844, as the United States shook off the effects of the worst depression in its history, the presidential election season began with the two major political parties riven by internal divisions. It saw a campaign filled with vicious personal attacks that often overshadowed the issues at stake. And it ended with popular vote totals so close that supporters of an ideologically purist third party effectively handed the presidency to a man whose policies were at explicit and direct cross-purposes with their goals. They voted their consciences, and the nation received neither the perfect nor the good.
Virginia Whig John Tyler was the sitting president in 1844, but over the course of the term he inherited after the untimely death of William Henry Harrison he had managed to alienate his entire party. Indeed, in 1841 the Whigs had booted Tyler from the party altogether after he vetoed several banking and tariff laws central to the Whig agenda. Tyler then tried building a new constituency by coming out in support of the annexation of Texas, which had declared itself an independent slaveholding republic in the 1830s after revolting against Mexican rule. But the effort failed dramatically and doomed Tyler’s already dicey ambitions for a second term.
It did, however, help situate the question of Texas as the central issue in the 1844 election.
The Whig Party, meeting in convention at Baltimore that spring, was the first major party to nominate a candidate for the White House. Their alliance was a fragile one that united anti-expansionist and moderately anti-slavery northerners with conservative proslavery southerners under a banner of federal support for economic development. Kentuckian Henry Clay, they believed, could do a great deal to hold that alliance together. Clay’s commitment to the party matched Tyler’s wobbliness towards it, and Clay was willing to stake out a position against bringing Texas into the Union. He was thus a southerner who could also appeal to northern Whigs hostile to the expansion of slavery that would come with Texas statehood. Still, as a slaveholder with a reputation for drinking and dueling, Clay did put off some northerners who fashioned themselves as pious reformers. To woo those potential voters, the Whigs selected Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey as Clay’s running mate. Antislavery and an evangelical Christian, Frelinghuysen could keep religious northern Whigs in the fold even as his belief in colonization and his distaste for abolitionists made him relatively inoffensive to Whigs from the South.
The Democrats too held their convention in Baltimore but their path to picking a nominee was as chaotic as the Whig path was clear. Former president Martin Van Buren arrived at the convention with a majority of pledged delegates but he opposed the annexation of Texas because he believed that political battles over slavery would surely ensue and split the party along sectional lines. That position weakened him. So did the facts that he had already lost the election of 1840, that he was widely believed sympathetic to abolitionism, and that younger Democrats thought him too much an establishment candidate. So a group of southern and expansionist party members thwarted him by reinstituting an old rule requiring a two-thirds majority for the nomination. Nine ballots and a great deal of infighting finally produced a winner in James K. Polk, a Tennessean and former Speaker of the House who almost no one had ever imagined would emerge as the nominee. A protégé of Andrew Jackson, Polk and his running mate, Pennsylvanian George Dallas, were not only plainly proslavery and in favor of Texas annexation. They also trumpeted the need for broader American territorial growth and appealed to northern expansionists with bluster about going to war with England to take the Oregon Territory, which stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Continental Divide and ran from the northern boundary of California all the way up to Alaska.
Even as—or perhaps because—the Texas issue seemed to provide a clear divide between the parties and their candidates, the campaign itself quickly turned personal and nasty. Whigs mocked “Polk the Plodder” as simultaneously a radical and a nobody whose affection for slavery was so great that he regularly sold people to slave traders for no reason other than greed. Democrats blasted Clay as unprincipled, a drunk, a gambler, and a man who visited prostitutes in the brothels of the capital—someone whose “debaucheries and midnight revelries” were “too disgusting to appear in public print.”
In the South, Democrats even tried attacking Clay as an abolitionist. This was an unlikely accusation and it contained a particular irony given that Clay also faced criticism from the uncompromisingly antislavery Liberty Party. Founded just prior to the 1840 election, the Liberty Party attracted politically oriented abolitionists with a platform demanding “the absolute and unqualified divorce of the general government from slavery.” Clay and the Whigs had initially ignored the threat of the Liberty Party, which had received fewer than 7,000 votes nationally in 1840. But the Liberty Party candidate, James Birney, disliked Clay personally and he pounced during the summer when Clay released a campaign letter that suggested he was waffling on the Texas issue. The more the abolitionists lambasted Clay as secretly a tool of the “Slave Power” and the more they denounced him as a slave dealer, the more the Kentuckian and his party began to worry that the election could turn on the third party pulling away northern antislavery voters in critical states.
The returns bore out those worries. Polk won handily in the Electoral College, 170-105, but he pulled out the narrowest of victories in the popular vote, beating Clay by just 38,000 votes nationally. Most important, Polk won the state of New York, which had 36 electoral votes and was by far the biggest prize, with a majority of just over 5,000 votes. James Birney, meanwhile, showed strength in upstate New York counties with significant numbers of antislavery voters. The nearly 16,000 votes for Birney in New York was roughly one-quarter of all the votes he received in the election of 1844, and it was more than enough to deny Henry Clay and the Whigs the presidency. Most Liberty Party voters were defectors from the Whigs, and had even half of them stuck with the Whig Party they would have given Clay an electoral college total of 141 votes and a slim victory over Polk and the Democrats.
James Birney and Liberty Party voters rejoiced in having denied Henry Clay the election. They also increased their national vote totals nearly tenfold and demonstrated that political abolitionism had to be taken seriously by the major parties and their candidates. But their joy was short-lived. If abolitionists had tried, they likely could not have found a chief executive who did more to advance the spread of slavery across the continent than James K. Polk. Polk not only finalized the admission of Texas into the Union but he went on to provoke a war with Mexico that was a naked land grab, that served the interests of the very “slaveocracy” abolitionists despised, and that inflamed sectional tensions to the point where they became irresolvable.
There were abolitionists, of course, who believed that civil war had to come and that the political system had become so corrupted by slavery that blowing it up was the only way to fix it. And perhaps that was so. Worth considering too, however, were the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who predicted even before the Mexican War began that “the United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man swallows the arsenic, which brings him down in turn.” Political principles are vital things, but sometimes other people pay for our principles with their lives.