Election of 1844: Polk Prevails

Campaign Banner for James Polk and George Dallas.

Throughout the first  twelve days of November of 1844, the population voted for the next president. Voters had to pick between the Democrat, James Polk, the Whig, Henry Clay, and the Liberty Party’s candidate, James Birney. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 688.

Polk was the victor, with the electoral college scoring Polk with 170 and Clay with 105. Id. However, the popular vote was much closer. Polk earned 49.5% of the popular vote while Clay had a substantial 48.1%, and Birney stole 2.3% away from the major candidates. Id. This would have a significant impact on Clay, as Birney took anti-annexation votes away from Clay, which ensured Clay would not win New York and Michigan. Id. If Clay had won New York, he would have been the victor.

Nicknamed Young Hickory as homage to Old Hickory, Andrew Jackson, Polk must have been overjoyed to learn that he won the election and could carry on the Jacksonian legacy for the Democratic Party. When Jackson, living in Nashville, heard the results, he claimed: “I thank my god that the Republic is safe, & that he had permitted me to live to see it. . . . I can say in the language of Simeon of old ‘Now let thy servant depart in peace.'” Jackson to Andrew Donelson, Nov. 18, 1844, Correspondence of AJ, VI, 329. Cf. Luke 2:29.

Just three months after Polk’s inauguration, on June 8, 1845, Old Hickory died. George Bancroft, who Polk appointed as secretary of the navy, eulogized Jackson, stating that Jackson was “one of the mightiest forest trees of his own land, vigorous and colossal, sending its summit to the skies, and growing on its native soil in wild and inimitable magnificence.” Russel Nye, George Bancroft (New York, 1944), 150. Bancroft continued, stating that Jackson’s resistance to nullification meant “that the Union, which was constituted by consent, must be preserved by love.” Id.

While Young Hickory surely hoped to hold the Union together with love, just as Old Hickory apparently had, the Democratic Party was going to continue its divisive policies and bring the nation toward Civil War.

Many have speculated what would have happened had Henry Clay won the election. Being that he was a Whig who could create consensus, historians have supposed that the Civil War could have been avoided altogether. While it is impossible to know what would have actually happened had Clay been president, it is fair to speculate that it could have at least lessened tensions between the North and the South.

There is one last point to unpack from the Election of 1844. Birney’s candidacy created a different outcome in the election, and as a candidate with virtually no chance of outshining Polk or Clay, many inevitably argued that he should not have run for president. In reality, third party candidates can have massive impacts on elections, and this is one prime instance of that. If Birney had not run and taken votes away from Clay, the course of American history may have been different. Perhaps the Civil War could have been avoided altogether and millions of American lives could have been saved.

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