Below, one of my favorite little known elections, in 1844, between Democrat James Polk and Whig Henry Clay. Can any of us imagine this contest taking place today, beginning with the glee the Democrats took in the fact that William Henry Harrison died in office?
One month into his term as president, William Henry Harrison was dead of a pneumonia supposedly brought on by speaking for such a for over 100 minutes without hat or coat as he made his inaugural address on a blustery March day.
The Whigs were bereft, the Democrats joyous. So strong still were the ill-feelings lingering from 1840 that most of Democrats did not even pause for a hypocritical moment of silence for the fallen President. Poet William Cullen Bryant said he regretted Harrison’s death “only because he did not live long enough to prove his incapacity in the office of President.” And former President Andrew Jackson turned his eyes heavenward, calling Harrison’s death: “the deed of a kind and overruling Providence.”
The Whigs hopes were now on John Tyler, the first vice-president ever to replace a sitting President, the man whom John Quincy Adams tartly dubbed “His Accidency.” What transpired proved to future political generations that choosing a vice-presidential candidate is a lot like picking a spouse—after the honeymoon, things are open to change.
Once in power, Tyler started acting far more like a Democrat than the “firm and decided” Whig he had declared he was. He vetoed the Whig’s bill for a new Bank of the United States, to replace the one Jackson had gutted, and went head to head with Whig leader Henry Clay, who resigned his Senate seat in protest. Actually, all but one member of Tyler’s cabinet quit; essentially, the party disowned its own President, declaring in an extraordinary statement: “those who bought the President into power can no longer, in any manner or degree, be justly held responsible or blamed for [his actions]…”
Naturally, Tyler’s chances of being Whig candidate for President in 1844 were less than zero. He made overtures to the Democrats, but they didn’t trust him, either, and so he was left out in the cold. But he did have one surprise up his sleeve, which would seriously affect the coming election. In 1843, he negotiated a treaty to annex the slaveholding Republic of Texas (heretofore, because of the volatile slavery issue, the Texas issue had been sidestepped by both parties). But Tyler put a patriotic spin on the whole thing—if we don’t grab Texas, he proclaimed, Mexico will. Although his treaty was vetoed by the Senate in 1844, the issue of annexation was the pivot around which the election revolved.
The Whigs got together in Baltimore on May 1, 1844, and nominated Henry Clay for President. They picked New Jersey politician Theodore Frelinghuysen for vice-president, a so-called “Christian gentleman” who was supposed to balance Clay’s reputation for living, boozing, and cards.
The Democrats met a month later, also in Baltimore. Their convention was stormy, to say the least. Martin Van Buren was considered the front running candidate, but his nomination was blocked by forces which opposed his opposition to the Texas annexation. Finally, after eight rounds of balloting, James K. Polk, former Speaker of the House and Andrew Jackson protégé, was picked as a compromise candidate. The vice-presidential nod went to Pennsylvania lawyer George M. Dallas.
Democrat: James Polk
James who? That’s what most people in the country went around saying after the Democratic pick was announced. But Polk, former governor of Tennessee as well as House Speaker, was admired by many Democrats as a solid and loyal party member. The Whigs hated Polk. On Polk’s last day as Speaker of the House, Henry Clay had made a special trip over from the Senate to shout from the visitor’s gallery: “Go home, God damn you. Go home where you belong!”
Whig: Henry Clay
Clay had influenced American politics for 25 years as House Speaker, Senator and party leader. This was his third try for the Presidency, after 1824 and 1832, and he wanted it badly.
The Whigs thought gleefully went after Polk’s obscurity. Staying “on-message,” they made derisive comments to newspaper editors all over the country: “Who is James K. Polk?” they cried. “Good God, what a nomination.” They claimed that the very raccoons in the forests of Tennessee were now singing:
“Ha, ha, ha, what a nominee
Is Jimmy Polk of Tennessee!”
You couldn’t call Henry Clay obscure, but the Democrats fired back at something else—the candidate’s supposed baggage train of gambling, dueling, womanizing and, by the Eternal!, swearing. An alleged Protestant minister wrote a letter published in numerous Democratic papers claiming to have heard Clay curse extensively during a steamboat trip. A pamphlet entitled “Henry Clay’s Moral Fitness for President” claimed that Clay had violated each of the Ten Commandments with malice and lasciviousness aforethought: “The history of Mr. Clay’s debaucheries and midnight revelries in Washington is too shocking, too disgusting, to appear in public print.” Another popular leaflet “Twenty-one Reasons Why Clay Should Not Be Elected”—listed as Reason Two that “Clay spends his days at the gambling table and his nights in a brothel.”
Clay was also accused of being a white slaver (“If we cannot have black slaves we must have white ones,” he is most improbably quoted as saying). And the Democrats hammered again and again at the “corrupt bargain,” he and John Quincy Adams supposedly made to steal the Presidency from Jack in 1828.
Not a great deal of this was true about Clay, of course, but he played enough cards, drank enough liquor, and had participated in at least one duel, so some of the mud stuck. It was much harder to slander James K. Polk, a man so thoroughly colorless that his nickname was “Polk the Plodder.”
The Whigs tried to brand Polk as a man who owned slaves, in order to elicit votes from abolitionists, but this was a little tricky, since both Polk and Clay were slave-owners. The Whigs got around this by claiming it was all a matter of degree—that Polk was really “an ultra slaveholder,” in slavery “up to his ears.” In other words, much more pregnant than Clay. One Whig newspaper carried a story claiming that Polk had branded the initials J.K.P onto the shoulders of a group of forty of his slaves. This was so patently untrue that the paper was forced to print a retraction.
The term “manifest destiny” was not coined by New York journalist John L. O’Sullivan until 1845, but that’s what the 1844 election was all about. Polk was firmly in favor of annexation—not only of Texas, but of Oregon Territory, as well—hence his famous campaign slogan, “Fifty-four-Forty or Fight!” which referred to the northernmost latitude to which America should extend. Clay waffled on annexation, which cost Southern votes and annoyed Northerners. And there was one other factor, an effective third party outing by the Liberty Party of New York—a group of Abolitionists and radicals—who garnered 62,000 votes nationwide.
In the end, Polk beat Clay by only about 38,000 popular votes, although he bested him in the Electoral College 170 to 105.
The Nasty Personal Smear That Henry Clay Only Wished Were True.
Democrats accused Clay, an admitted lover of gambling, of having invented poker. In fact, Clay was only a superb practitioner of the newfangled bluffing card game based on the English game of brag.
Hey, Go Easy on That Stuff!
In desperation to find something to smear Polk with, Sam Houston, hero of the Texas war against Mexico, proclaimed that moderate drinker Polk was “victim of the use of water as a beverage.”
Voter Fraud, 1844 Style.
In New York City, New York bosses used their influence to naturalize thousands of Irish immigrants so that they could vote for Polk. The Whigs replied by telling the Irish that Clay’s name was really “Patrick O’Clay,” from the ould sod.
In what is probably the first floating voter fraud, a Democratic Party boss in New Orleans sent a boatload of Democrats up the Mississippi. They stopped and voted in three different places.