Election of 1844: Democratic Party Platform

Robert Walker. By: Mathew Brady.

As part of the Democratic platform for the Election of 1844, the Democrats incorporated their positions on “strict construction, banking, and congressional noninterference with slavery.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 683. However, the Democrats took things one step further.

There was also a plank in the Democratic platform that stated:

Resolved, That our title to the whole of the Territory of Oregon is clear and unquestionable; that no portion of the same ought to be ceded to England or any other power, and that the re-occupation of Oregon and the re-annexation of Texas at the earliest practicable period are great American measures, which this Convention recommends to the cordial support of the Democracy of the Union.” National Party Platforms, comp. Kirk Porter and Donald Johnson (Urbana, Ill., 1970), 4.

This plank led Francis Pickens of South Carolina to gloat: “We have triumphed. [James] Polk is nearer to us than any public man who was named. He is a large Slave holder & plants cotton—free trade—Texas—States right out & out.” Francis Pickens to Henry Conner, May 29, 1844, quoted in William J. Cooper, The South and the Politics of Slavery (Baton Rouge, 1978), 176-89.

Robert Walker, an influential leader of the South, designed the above-quoted plank to appeal to folks all over the country. To woo northerners, he included mention of Oregon, which America had allowed the British to occupy since 1818. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 684. For southerners, he included the annexation of Texas, which was a sensitive subject as Texas had been surrendered in the Florida treaty of 1819. See id.

To appeal to northerners on the subject of Texas, Walker made the argument that expanding the borders of America would make slavery more sparse, which would make emancipation more likely, beginning in the upper South. Id. at 685. He also acknowledged that eventually, the economic advantage of slavery would fade away, and slavery would come to an end. Id. However, not annexing Texas would encourage slaves to flee northward, which would only depress wages and plague the North with slaves’ “pauperism, insanity, and crime.” Id. citing Letter of Mr. Walker of Mississippi Relative to the Annexation of Texas (Washington, 1844), rpt. in Frederick Merk, Fruits of Propaganda in the Tyler Administration (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), 221-52.

The Democrats were mustering their best arguments to reconcile the failing institution of slavery and the collective improvement of American society. This cobbling together of often contradictory policies resulted in a fragile status quo. Even the most shrewd Democrats, like Walker, were expending their political capital to put forth the best arguments they could in advancing the Democratic platform in the Election of 1844.

This platform, while a clever amalgamation of policies, was a set of policies that would doom the Democrats in future elections. In 1844, however, it was just effective enough to put James Polk into the White House.

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