Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Alternative Elections: 1844

Guest post by Jake Schenberg.

The importance of the presidential election of 1844 is overlooked as often as the man who won it. James K. Polk, an important yet largely forgotten president [Editor's Note: Hell yeah!], oversaw the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny, expanding the United States from ‘sea to shining sea.’  But what if he had been defeated by Henry Clay, a man famous for his many compromises? Would the United States still have gone to war with Mexico, the very conflict which historically resulted in Mexico’s cession of California and the New Mexico Territory?

President John Tyler had been pushing for Texas Annexation since he took office after the death of William Henry Harrison. Clay’s Whigs, who opposed the expansion of slavery and hostilities with Mexico that Texas annexation implied, defeated a treaty of annexation which Tyler had previously negotiated with the Texas government in June of 1844. Determined for Texas to be the feather in his cap, Tyler announced the formation of a third party, the Democratic-Republicans, as a vehicle for his reelection. In actuality his goal was to force the Democratic Party to nominate a pro-annexation candidate rather than the favorite, Martin Van Buren.  The ploy worked and the hitherto unknown James K. Polk was nominated instead.

Polk went on to win the election by a very narrow margin. Had Clay managed to win over five thousand more voters in the state of New York, perhaps from the abolitionist Liberty Party which was closely aligned with northern Whigs, he would have won the Electoral College and become the nation’s 11th President at a turning point in American history. Under President Clay, no joint resolution for the annexation of Texas would have been considered by Congress, which means no Mexican War (at least not this early) and subsequently a halt to westward expansion. The consequences of such a scenario are too numerous to explore completely, but a number of interesting possibilities present themselves when imagining President Henry Clay’s administration.
Map of North America when President Clay assumes office in March 1845.
Clay ran on a platform which included his constant support of the American System, a threefold plan which pushed for a strong central bank, high tariffs, and internal improvements funded by the sale of federal lands in order to promote commerce. In 1841, Clay championed an effort to charter a Third Bank of the United States, to be called the Fiscal Bank of the United States. President Jackson destroyed the second in 1836, prompting the Panic of 1837 which led to widespread bank failures and massive unemployment; the United States did not emerge from the depression until 1843. President Tyler vetoed the 1841 bill, but a Clay administration backed by a Whig congress and with the memory of the recent depression still fresh on everyone’s mind should be able to push through the Fiscal Bank of the United States in 1845.

The existence of a regulatory agency would have prevented the subsequent Panics in the 19th and early 20th century, assuming of course it were allowed to remain in place for its chartered twenty years and renewed consistently afterwards. In reality the issue of a central bank would again be a central campaign issue in the decades to come. The Jacksonian Democrats would not abide the existence of the thing their progenitor had destroyed, an entity they viewed as unconstitutional and felt threatened by. Thus, the narrative of the 1848 campaign may have shifted away from Manifest Destiny and towards domestic policy.

Interestingly, the term “Manifest Destiny” may not have been coined in this timeline. Newspaper editor John L. Sullivan first used the phrase in an 1845 essay urging President Polk to annex the entirety of the Oregon Territory. That argument must be seen in the rhetoric of the time; expansionists proclaimed “54’ 40 or Fight!” as Polk played hardball with Britain over the Oregon boundary dispute. By contrast, President Clay by nature would have been much more ready to compromise. He likely would have used President Tyler’s original proposal, which placed the border at the 49th parallel and ceded Britain the island of Vancouver and navigation rights along the Columbia River.  Such an easy settlement would have allowed Clay to focus on implementing the other two points of his American System.

In 1842, the Whigs pressured Tyler into signing what became known as the Black Tariff, which raised tariffs on imported goods to nearly 40%.  However, Clay was not able to push his program of federal land sales to fund internal improvements through congress.  Assuming as president he succeeded in doing so, the northern states would have industrialized even quicker due to more and better canals and roads linking the western Great Lake states to Atlantic ports.  Such a trend towards a more industrialized North at an earlier time would only accelerate the divergence between northern and southern interests while increasing the North’s political clout at a faster pace.

A growing North would vocally have supported Clay in opposition to the historical Walker Tariff of 1846, which entailed immense reductions in the tariff rates. This policy of continued high tariffs, coupled with a central bank unpopular among farmers who profited on speculation and a system of internal improvements which favored the industrialized North would seem to lead to early sectionalism in American politics. Clay certainly would have fared poorly in the south in 1848 and would need to carry most of the North to win a second term.

The issue of slavery in the territories would have reared its head earlier without expansion below the 36’ 30 (Missouri’s southern boundary). In our timeline, free Iowa and Wisconsin were admitted during what was Polk’s presidency after the slave state of Texas joined the Union.  Without Texas, any attempt by territories in what was the Louisiana Purchase to become states would be blocked by Southern legislators, unless a new compromise could be made. Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser, may have allowed slavery to spread farther into the northern territories, but abolitionists were growing in strength politically during this period and would certainly raise hell over such a compromise, if they could not stop it themselves.

What is clear is that the two halves of the ostensibly United States are moving farther apart in this timeline much sooner than they actually did. A civil war in the 1850s could take on an entirely new character. Whether it would be more or less successful is difficult to ascertain; this point of divergence gives wings to so many butterflies that a determined author could produced any outcome he or she wants.  Those butterflies run amok not just within the shrunken United States, but across North American.  I hope to cover some of these possibilities in future installments.

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Jake Schenberg is a student and aspiring writer. When he isn't staring at blank pages in Word, you can usually find him out running miles or inside curled up with a good book.


  1. Wonderful article. Many of the things I knew, but there were things I added to my store of knowledge as well, and the new point of view that the analysis takes (from an alternate historical perspective than merely a historical one) is welcome.

  2. The Whigs believed a President should only serve one term and I think supported a constitutional amendment limiting the POTUS to one term(the conclusion of their 'King Andrew' attacks on Jackson) and so Clay would not have needed to worry about the South or a second term.


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