William Henry Harrison and John Tyler - Election of 1844

It was against this exciting background that preparations for the 1844 presidential election were reaching their climax. Early in the spring of 1844, there appeared to be little doubt that Van Buren would be the Democratic nominee and that Clay would get the nomination denied him by the Whigs in 1840. Tyler, recklessly utilizing the presidential patronage to weld together a small coterie of supporters, was keeping his options open. He might somehow induce the Democrats to adopt him, run as a third-party candidate, or use the threat of his candidacy to force acceptance of Texas annexation.

When the rumored treaty became a reality, it had a profound impact on the political scene. On 27 April both Clay and Van Buren released letters to the press stating their views on Texas. Both were opposed to "immediate annexation." Both emphasized the dangers to the Union that would result from sharp sectional division over the issue and both predicted that annexation would lead to an unjustifiable war with Mexico. Van Buren, in his usual cautious and intricate language, conceded that if the people and Congress favored annexation, he would yield his own reservations, but this device did not satisfy his opponents among the southern Democrats.

Clay had no rivals for the Whig nomination, and so he was chosen by acclamation at the party's convention early in May. In their enthusiasm for Clay, the Whigs adopted no formal platform. By the time the Democratic National Convention met on 27 May, several southern delegations had withdrawn their support from Van Buren, citing his stand against annexation. It soon became apparent that although he could command a majority of the convention votes, he could not secure the necessary two-thirds. With a deadlock threatening, the convention managers turned to a "dark horse" who was acceptable to the Van Buren forces but who had previously declared himself in favor of immediate annexation—James K. Polk of Tennessee. Polk was nominated on the ninth ballot. News of this unlikely event was transmitted by telegraph over the line between Baltimore and Washington, which had been financed by a federal appropriation. In its closing hours, the convention adopted a platform that included a plank calling for the "re-occupation of Oregon and the re-annexation of Texas at the earliest practicable period." The expansionist issues brought forth by Tyler were now taken up by the Democratic party and would figure prominently in the ensuing campaign.

Tyler's political course reflected his anomalous position. In 1842, having been disowned by the Whigs, he had sought to create a base of support among moderate Whigs and conservative Democrats. When this strategy failed, he turned toward the Democrats, appointing several from that party to his cabinet, but these overtures were rebuffed. Finally he created his own party, built on a core of office-holders. Tyler's obedient partisans held a convention at the same time as the Democrats. A loosely organized affair, it dutifully nominated Tyler for president, neglecting even to select a vice presidential running mate or to frame a platform. With no prospect of success and with the Democrats committed to annexation, Tyler was soon in negotiation with Polk's emissaries, who were seeking his withdrawal from the contest. With assurances that his followers would be welcomed into the Democratic ranks, Tyler announced the end of his candidacy on 20 August and threw his meager support to Polk. He remained convinced thereafter that his action was responsible for Polk's narrow victory, which he saw as a vindication of his own policies.

How much actual influence the Texas issue had on the outcome of the election remains debatable. For the most part, voters held firm to their established party loyalties. Concerned about possible Whig defections in the South, Clay wrote two letters for publication to correspondents in Alabama in which he seemed to modify his opposition to annexation, but in another public letter in September, he insisted that his views on this controversial issue had not changed. His apparent equivocation may have injured him in the North. Polk remained silent throughout the campaign, except for one vague statement on the tariff. Clay lost New York by 5,106 votes, and the vote of that state gave Polk his electoral majority. In the nation as a whole, Clay ran only about 38,000 votes behind Polk and carried eleven of twenty-six states.

Despite the narrowness of the Democratic victory and the uncertainty of the effect of the annexation issue on the outcome, Tyler told Congress when it met in December 1844 that "a controlling majority of the people and a large majority of the states have declared in favor of immediate annexation." Accordingly, he recommended annexation by joint resolution, which would require only a majority vote in each house. Two weeks later he reported that Mexico had engaged in so many unjust and unfriendly acts against the United States as to justify a declaration of war, but he urged instead prompt action on the joint resolution. After intense controversy, a resolution was prepared that left to the president the choice between two courses of action: he could offer Texas prompt admission as a state with certain stated conditions attached, or he could negotiate with the Texas authorities the terms and conditions under which it might be admitted to the Union. In this equivocal form the joint resolution passed the Senate (twenty-seven to twenty-five) on 27 February 1845, with only two Whigs siding with the majority, and gained approval by a substantial margin in the House in a vote that followed closely party lines. The resolution went to Tyler on 1 March 1845.

It had generally been anticipated that Tyler would leave action on the resolution to Polk, who was expected to exercise the second option. But Tyler was not to be deprived of his triumph. On 3 March he sent an agent to Texas offering statehood under the first option. When Polk came to office on 4 March, he did not recall Tyler's emissary. In due course, Congress formally admitted Texas as a state in January 1846.

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