Campaign of 1844

by R.D. Monroe, PhD.


John Tyler had replaced Harrison as president upon the latter's death in 1841. Never comfortable with Whig economic policy, which called for a national bank and protective tariff, Tyler vetoed Whig legislation to revive both and found himself politically ostracized. The campaign to replace him in 1844 was supposed to be a contest of political titans Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren. However, both men drastically misjudged the public temper on Texas annexation. Tyler negotiated a treaty annexing Texas, which had declared itself a republic in 1836, and presented it to the Senate in April 1844. Both Van Buren and Clay published public letters that same month condemning annexation, which they feared would result in war with Mexico. Public opinion, though, was solidly behind expansion as many American regarded virgin territory as a path to greater prosperity and upward social mobility. Democrats embraced the expansionist fever, and Van Buren was subsequently defeated at the Democratic national convention, with TennesseanJames K. Polk winning the nomination for president and George M. Dallas for vice president.

Clay was duly nominated by the Whigs, with Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey for vice president. Whig ideology called for developing the nation's existing territory rather than acquiring more, so Clay's opposition to annexation was not a bar to his nomination. Whigs hoped that antislavery-minded voters would supportClay as the only alternative to the rabidly pro-annexation Polk. However, Clay was a slaveholder, and he had strongly denounced the abolition movement in 1839 while angling for the 1840 nomination. James G. Birney was again in the race as the nominee of the Liberty party, providing a third party alternative to those of antislavery convictions.

Clay began to worry that his opposition to annexation was damaging his prospects in the South. In July he wrote two public letters in which he argued that annexation might indeed be acceptable if it could be done without the risk of war with Mexico or an increase in sectional tensions. He later wrote another letter condemning the antislavery activities of his cousin Cassius M. Clay. The letters damaged Clay in the North; he appeared to be waffling on annexation while again condemning the antislavery movement. He did not do enough to reassure those who favored annexation—they could support the Polk ticket which had made annexation a rallying cry. He alienated those who were uneasy with annexation and suspicious because of Clay's ownership of slaves. Clay had managed annoy everyone.

The prospect of additional slave territory entering the Union sparked an increase in the Liberty party's vote totals. Clay should have had many of those voters as he was the only candidate with a chance of winning who had expressed reservations about annexation. His intemperate and ill-timed letters dimmed those prospects.Polk rolled up a solid majority of 170 electoral votes to Clay's 105. Support for the Liberty party may have cost Clay New York's electoral votes (36 votes). The Liberty party polled more than fifteen thousand votes in New York with Polkwinning the state by a mere five thousand vote margin.