The 1844 presidential election led to James Polk being elected the 11th President of the United States. It was a close election where Whig candidate Henry Clay narrowly lost. It also featured a third party push by Liberty Party candidate James Birney.
Summary of 1844
In 1844, the United States was a growing nation. The presidential election that year ensured that this growth would continue with more territorial expansion. The election of James Polk as the 11th President of the United States did much to shape the future of the United States, despite Polk only having one term in office. Let's learn more about how Polk won the presidency in 1844.
The Whig Party
The years leading up to the election of 1844 saw the growth of a new political party. During the Andrew Jackson presidency, those who disagreed with the president's usage of executive power and authority banded together and formed the Whig Party. The party triumphed in the election of 1840 when William Henry Harrison was elected the 9th President of the United States. However, Harrison's untimely demise just a few weeks into his presidency meant that Vice President John Tyler took over as the 10th President of the United States. Tyler proved a poor president. He did not advance the Whig agenda, and by 1844, it was all but decided he would not be the party's nominee for the presidency.
Instead, the Whigs turned to a leading figure in their party, a man who ran for president numerous times during his life. Henry Clay was one of the most influential American politicians of the 19th century. He was a Senator from Kentucky at the time, and ran for president twice before. Clay had done much to shape the United States over the past 20 years through promoting internal improvements and proposing compromises to sectional troubles. He was an easy choice for the Whigs in 1844.
James K. Polk
Clay's opponent was an unlikely candidate. James K. Polk was a Democrat from Tennessee, much like Andrew Jackson had been. Polk had been Speaker of the House during the Jackson presidency and favored many of the same policies. In 1839, he was elected Governor of Tennessee, strengthening his political resume. He lost reelection in 1841, but continued his political career. He received the Democratic nomination for president in 1844 after first seeking the nomination for vice president. Front runner and former president Martin Van Buren opposed the annexation of Texas, a major issue at this time but Polk favored the annexation, and won the nomination because of it.
Election of 1844
The election itself was focused on Texas as well. Polk ran on annexing Texas into the country, as well as making the 54-40 line the northern boundary of the United States. Polk was a strong advocate of manifest destiny, a belief in the westward expansion and domination of the United States over other countries and cultures. Polk was also a strong proponent of slavery and he believed that westward expansion should be open to new slave states. Henry Clay opposed many of these policies, especially regarding the westward expansion of slavery and the annexation of Texas.
President John Tyler tried to run for re-election as a third-party candidate, but during the summer of 1844 he dropped out when his support was not sufficient enough to give him a chance at victory. There was a third party candidate in 1844, though. The Liberty Party nominated James Birney on an anti-slavery platform, which garnered significant support in the North.
The 1844 election was close, but Polk won a narrow victory. New York's electoral votes went to Polk and provided the difference in the election. The votes given to Birney took away enough support from Clay to give the victory to Polk. Had Clay received all of Birney's votes in New York, he would have won the presidency. It was a fateful outcome for the United States, and for Mexico as well.
The Polk Presidency
As President, James Polk led the country to war with Mexico, which led to the United States acquiring California and New Mexico from Mexico. Polk also acquired the Oregon Territory, lowered tariffs, and instituted new policies on an independent treasury system. He ran on all four of these objectives and pledged to serve one term. He held true to all his promises. Most certainly, had Henry Clay been elected president, the United States would not have gone to war with Mexico, and the future of the country would have been very different. In 1848, Whig candidate and Mexican War hero General Zachary Taylor was elected president, ending James Polk's presidency.
While not many remember it today, the 1844 presidential election was very important in the course of American history. It featured famed Whig Henry Clay running against Democrat James Polk, along with a determined third party run by the Liberty Party candidate, James Birney. Polk's narrow victory meant that the country was headed to war with Mexico and the further expansion of slavery into the western territories.