Wednesday, May 7, 2014

What If Wednesday: James K. Polk is Not Elected President

In my humble opinion, James K. Polk is the most underrated American president in history. The Tennessee Democrat was a one-term president, but in that term he accomplished all the goals he set out to achieve when he announced his candidacy. He lowered the tariff, established a treasury system that lasted until 1913, ended the Oregon boundary dispute with Britain and led the country to victory in the Mexican-American War that gave the United States its Southwest. He kept one more promise as well, to only serve one term if he achieved his goals. Thus in his one term, Polk accomplished more than most presidents do in two terms.

But what if Polk was never elected president? How would American history change without Polk? I don't think we need to do anything drastic to the timeline like having him die early, because Polk already was a "dark horse" candidate of the Democratic party. The deeply divided factions of the Democrats only chose him as a compromise because they could not come to agreement over any of the other candidates, like former president Martin Van Buren who garnered a simple majority on the first ballot of the convention but unable to gain the necessary 2/3rd majority to win the nomination. If Van Buren's supporters had campaigned harder or the 2/3rd majority rule had not been adopted, Polk may not have been needed at all.

Even if Polk had been nominated, he still could have lost the 1844 election. Many historians believe that third party candidate James G. Birney of the Liberty Party stole victory from the Whigs by getting votes that would have otherwise have gone to their candidate (more on him later). Third parties in American politics tend to have that effect in the two parties system to encourage the party they are ideologically aligned with to adopt some or all of their platform. If Birney had not run, Polk could have lost some key states and thus would lose the election.

Who would be president then? Both scenarios I feel would have ended with a Whig victory, because I think anyone the Democrats choose besides Polk would have split the Democrats after the losing faction puts up their own candidate. Thus Henry Clay, the Whig candidate for president in 1844, would have been elected president. In our timeline, Clay ran three times unsuccessfully for president, but in this timeline he would have been victorious. Although a slave-owning Southerner, Clay backed a lot of policies popular in the North. He wanted a high tariff to foster industry, federal funding put toward improving infrastructure and a strong national bank. He also was a staunch anti-expansionist and opposed annexing Texas. I didn't find much on his opinions on Oregon, but he would probably not have taken an aggressive negotiating policy as Polk did, which could lead to the United States getting a smaller share of the territory than it did in our timeline.

So President Clay would not annex Texas, thus avoiding the Mexican-American War, but his policies would have been unpopular in the South and could have potentially led to an earlier Civil War if not handled correctly. Clay may have been able to reach a compromise (like he did in 1850 of our timeline) by opening up more of the Great Plains to slavery or putting federal backing to colonization of freed slaves (something Clay's running mate, Theodore Frelinghuysen, was a proponent of), but it may not be enough. Without Texas, the balance of slave vs free may tip to early to the North and thus start an early Civil War. There is a general school of thought among alternate historians that the earlier the war, the more likely the South would win. Thus a Clay presidency could have to a rump United States with only a small strip of territory on the Pacific coast, instead of the American Southwest.

What about Texas? What would they do with a prolonged period of independence? I always found alternate historians to be overly optimistic about its future as an independent Republic. Although it did gain recognition of its independence from foreign nations like the United States and France, Texas' independence was based on a treaty signed at gun point that was never ratified by Mexico. Despite the size of the territory Texas claimed, the government only ever controlled a portion of it and were often unable to prevent Mexican incursions into the territory or stop Native American raids. On top of this there was a lot of conflict in Texan politics that sometimes led to armed conflict between factions. This all bodes poorly for Texas and will likely lead to a demise similar to its contemporary, the Republic of Yucatan. If fighting between the Texan factions becomes too intense, one group may request aide from Mexico on the condition that they rejoin Mexico.

Or could Texas side with the South if the American Civil War happens earlier? Would this bring Mexico into the war in an effort to once and for all bring the wayward province back into the fold? Or could someone else besides Clay and Polk be president? What would they do?

Regardless, I hope you guys got an idea of how American history would have been different without James K. Polk. If you would like more information about this little-known president, check out Polk by Walter R, Borneman. In the meantime, let us know your thoughts in the comments below and if want to submit your own scenario email me at ahwupdate at gmail dot com for a chance to be featured on the next What If Wednesday.

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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update and a blogger on Amazing Stories. Check out his short fiction. When not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

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