Election of 1844: The Conventions

James Knox Polk. By: George P.A. Healy.

The Election of 1844 was one of the most momentous in American history.

The Whig Party, at its convention, nominated Henry Clay as the candidate for president unanimously, and his vice president was chosen: Theodore Frelinghuysen, “president of the American Bible Society and the American Tract Society, befriender of the Cherokees, sabbatarian and temperance advocate, nicknamed ‘the Christian statesman.'” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 682 citing Robert Remini, Henry Clay (New York, 1991), 613.

In a turn of events, the incumbent president, President John Tyler, was forced out of the Whig Party and was forced to seek the presidency through a third party, the Democratic-Republican Party. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 682-83. He would secure the Party’s nomination at the convention, just steps away from the Democrats’ convention, but would withdraw from the contest by the end of the summer. Id.

While Clay expected to go against Martin Van Buren in a campaign “fought along the economic lines that had emerged during the past fifteen years.” Id. at 682.

However, the Democrats had a much less straightforward convention than the Whigs. Van Buren had a majority of the delegates going into the convention, however, he did not have the two-thirds required to secure the nomination on the first ballot. See id. Lewis Cass of Michigan, who was secretary of war under President Andrew Jackson, used the annexation of Texas and Anglophobia into a challenge to Van Buren. Id. at 682-83.

After eight ballots, Van Buren and Cass were too close to call. Supporters of slavery, led by John Calhoun, supported James Polk of Tennessee, the former Speaker of the House. Id. at 683.

The ultimate dark horse candidate, Polk won the nomination of the Democrats. Id.

This is a prime instance where the voters in the Democratic primaries were essentially deprived of those votes in that Polk became the candidate for the presidency. Perhaps contrary to popular belief, this is not disenfranchisement but rather a political party setting the rules for its primary elections that the party’s leaders feel will result in the best candidate.

Further, notably, the Democratic Party was shifting away from the Jacksonian Democrats of the 1820s and 1830s. Van Buren, Jackson’s top protege and the former president, had not been able to secure a two-thirds majority of the delegates in the convention, opening the door for a new branch of the party to come to power. The Democratic Party would not be the same going forward.

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