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James K. Polk: Election & Campaign Slogan

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The election of James K. Polk was notable in American history for a few interesting, and very different reasons. In this lesson, we'll explore this campaign and consider the legacies it left in American politics.

James K. Polk

In the world of horse racing, a ''dark horse'' is one that nobody expects to win, but does. It's the unexpected champion, the contender that came out of nowhere. This title has long been granted to American politicians who win electoral races unexpectedly, defeating better-known candidates. The first politician to ever receive this moniker was James K. Polk, 11th President of the United States. In fact, when Democrats first announced Polk as their presidential nominee, the opposing Whigs had a single response: ''Who is James Polk?'' Throughout the campaign season of 184;, however, they would soon find out.

James K. Polk
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The Democratic Nomination

As the election of 1844 approached, Democrats and Whigs each began searching for their presidential nominees. Everyone assumed that Democrats would put their faith in the former president, Martin Van Buren, who was interested in running again. Van Buren lost the presidency back in 1841, but believed he stood a chance against Whig frontrunner Henry Clay.

However, Van Buren wasn't an ideal candidate. He has lost a lot of support after losing the presidency in 1841, and Southern Democrats didn't entirely trust this New York politician. Van Buren's candidacy opposed by one man: Lewis Cass. Cass and Van Buren both delicately avoided issues of slavery and Westward expansion; however, which were divisive ideas between Northern and Southern Democrats. Finally, Van Buren announced his opposition to the annexation of Texas, which cost him his remaining popularity. Enraged at Cass for stealing his hopes of the presidency, Van Buren through his support behind an unexpected contender: James K. Polk. Polk stunned everyone with his eloquent speaking and strong stances, and unexpectedly stole the Democratic nomination from Cass, thus earning the Dark Horse title.

The Presidential Campaign

Whigs laughed at the Democrats for nominating such an unknown figure. However, like Van Buren, the Whig candidate Henry Clay largely skirted the issue of slavery and directly opposed the annexation of Texas. Polk didn't. He stressed that the federal government would not interfere in states' decisions on slavery, and started campaigning loudly for the annexation of not only Texas, but Oregon as well.

Whig cartoon showing Clay popping the balloon of James Polk, who tumbles into the water
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This was a brilliant move on Polk's part, and part of the platform that had won him the Democratic nomination. Northerners were very reluctant to see Texas annexed into the United States because it would give tip the balance of power in favor of Southern states. Polk's solution was to demand the formal annexation of the Oregon territory (then jointly occupied with Britain), up to the latitudinal line of 54-40. Everything south of this would formally become part of the United States (including what is now Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and parts of British Columbia). That opened up new land to become free states as well, preserving the balance between free and slave interests. Northern Democrats were appeased.

However, Polk's message was about more than just compromise between Northern and Southern Democrats. On the campaign trail, his message to the American people was one of manifest destiny. Manifest destiny was the idea of the time period that Americans had been divinely chosen to create a continently nation. How else could they explain their rapid movement across the West? While the term itself was not actually coined until a year later, all of the tenets of manifest destiny were apparent in Polk's rhetoric: the USA was destined to occupy Oregon, and that anybody who stood in the way (be it the British or the Whig candidate) were threatening the very future of America.

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