The Constitution was, and is, emphatic on one matter, at least: only Congress possesses the power to declare war. In the 1840s, an era of legislative preeminence, even the high-risk Tyler blanched, aware that the agreement exceeded his authority. He quickly abrogated it, but the damage was done. Texas was at a point of no return, the U.S. government appeared treacherous, and Mexico subsequently amassed troops along the border. By election season, annexation seemed more a matter of when and how, not if.
Still, the establishment leadership in both parties stalled and battled the current. Tyler had clearly squandered any remaining chance for the Whig nomination, and Henry Clay stepped up, once again, to run on the party’s ticket. He was the first to weigh in. In a letter published in D.C. papers, which engendered regrettable political backlash, Clay outlined his many reasons for opposing Texas’s accession and warned readers that “annexation and war with Mexico are identical.” The Democratic frontrunner essentially agreed. Former President Martin Van Buren seemed to be the anointed candidate for 1844, and he also opposed annexation. For Washington to unilaterally absorb Texas would, he claimed, alienate every other country in the world, and “do us more real lasting injury as a nation … [since] we have a character among the nations of the earth to maintain.”
Clay and Van Buren alike would prove correct. The only problem: rational calculus rarely prevails in the emotive realm of American politics. Both men underestimated the substantial popularity of Texas annexation among the populace. That Van Buren’s stance torpedoed his nomination became abundantly clear when the Democratic Party’s founder, Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson, his health failing at an advanced age, turned on his one-time successor, and declared, “Obtain [Texas] the United States must, peaceably if we can, but forcibly if we must.” Jackson’s words carried enormous weight west of the Appalachian Mountains and south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Van Buren was cooked, but many wondered who would replace him. Jackson had just the man in mind: his own protégé, who, though obscure, bore the nickname “Young Hickory.” His name was James K. Polk.
Polk and the election of 1844
It was an outsiders’ election year, a cyclical phenomenon throughout U.S. history. The experience, contrary to common assumption, wasn’t unique to 2016. There are, however, distinct similarities between the ascensions of Polk and Donald Trump. Both were long-shot candidates who had initially been dismissed. Each ran against both Washington and his own party. Both defeated highly qualified — in traditional terms — candidates who had previously sought the presidency. The nominations of Trump and Polk before him were widely predicted to portend the end of their respective political parties. The main, and profound, difference was that Polk was a true ideological believer. It’s unclear which sort — idealist or opportunist — is more dangerous.
In 1844, Jackson summoned his lifelong admirer Polk to his Hermitage mansion before the Democratic National Convention and expressed his support for Young Hickory’s nomination. Jackson, like Polk, had himself run against the Washington establishment. In fact, Jackson was the original outsider in American politics, and — despite owning a mansion, plantation, and a slew of slaves — the country’s first, self-styled “common man” president. Indeed, Old Hickory had himself twice before run against Polk’s Whig opponent, Henry Clay — a man he had dubbed “corrupt” (as Trump had dubbed Hillary Clinton as “crooked”).
Polk loved Jackson, and the feeling was reciprocated.
Polk loved Jackson, and the feeling was reciprocated. Unlike other Jackson protégés — such as Davy Crockett (who split with Old Hickory over Indian removal) — Polk had never betrayed the old man. Like Jackson, Polk was a wealthy man with a large home and numerous slaves, and also hailed from Tennessee. Unlike his mentor, however, Polk had scant military experience and had never heard a shot fired in anger. The insecurity this engendered was to remain with him, haunt his career, and, it seems, contribute to his self-conscious expansionist bellicosity as president. Yet make no mistake, Polk was a genuine zealot, and believed that not only Texas, but more important Mexican California, was destined by God to join the United States by any means necessary.
Expansion, in 1844, and cyclically throughout American history, was a winning political issue. Polk had the pulse of the considerable populist strand in the country, which also felt that the United States was truly exceptional among nations. Such language continues to pervade national politics, as U.S. presidential candidates are still essentially required to publicly pray at the altar of American exceptionalism. After frontrunner Van Buren’s support waned, Polk — although he had been a long shot when he strode into the party convention in Baltimore — stepped in (with Jackson’s distant blessing) as a compromise nominee. Historian Amy Greenberg has labeled Polk America’s “first dark-horse presidential candidate.”
Buoyed by what he saw as the foolish nomination of Polk, Henry Clay joked, “Are our Democratic friends serious?” Though he’d been Speaker of the House, Polk hadn’t cut much of a national figure and remained publicly obscure. After all, reporters across the country had been publishing querulous headlines such as, “Who Is James K. Polk?” Many Whig papers predicted that the Democratic nominee would spell the effective end of that party. They couldn’t have been more wrong, but that was the conventional thinking at the time — just as it was in mid 2016.
The two candidates couldn’t have been more different.
The two candidates couldn’t have been more different. Clay was the ultimate insider, a three-time presidential contender, lion of the Senate, and one of the more qualified — though polarizing — political figures of his generation. He also drank, gambled, unleashed angry tirades, and had a weakness for the ladies. The Democrats, in round three of their battle with Clay, again unleashed vicious character attacks. His main sin was that he’d been in the public eye too long, had a vast record to critique — including helping deny Andrew Jackson the White House in 1824 in an undemocratic “corrupt bargain” — and inevitably carried the inherent baggage of lifelong fame. Polk, on the other hand, was actually aided by his outsider status and general obscurity. Furthermore, Young Hickory’s habits didn’t lend themselves to slander. He didn’t drink, gamble, or fight duels. His reputation for unvarnished integrity was also bolstered by his bold, yet shrewd, announcement of his intent to serve just a single four-year term.
Furthermore, his wife’s extraordinary piety burnished his credentials with religious Americans. Both Polks were essentially workaholics. And, in an odd divergence with Polk’s otherwise conservative values, he treated his wife, Sarah — an astute analyst herself — as almost a complete equal. Unlike nearly any other contemporary politician’s wife, she remained in the room during James’s key meetings. A true believer in her husband and Manifest Destiny alike, she may have been the better, more pragmatic, political strategist. By the middle of Polk’s term, Washington elites began to whisper that the true road to James’s attention ran through Sarah. For the times, the husband and wife pair were remarkably progressive in their relations and would seem so even in today’s Washington.
Polk also ran a surprisingly effective campaign. He enlisted the very ill Old Hickory in the fight. Furthermore, while the technocratic Clay focused on his party’s pet domestic issues of tariffs, infrastructure, and industry, Polk played to populist enthusiasm for expansion, annexation, and “free” land out West. And, while he was certain to lose northeastern elites to Clay, Polk masterfully won over recent urban (mostly Irish) immigrants by portraying (somewhat accurately) their Protestant social betters — and thus the Whigs they favored — as xenophobic nativists.
Both Polks were essentially workaholics.
Young Hickory also beat the rather popular drum — then and now — of lower taxes and a smaller federal government. Most persuasive, perhaps, was his delivery of resonant slogans such as “Polk and Texas, that’s the thing,” and calls for the dawn of a “Young America.” Bearing striking resemblance to Ronald Reagan’s promises and Trump’s promises to “Make America Great Again,” the sentiment redounded with the prevalent enthusiasm of the common people for expansion, for Manifest Destiny. The question, as Polk presented it, was a stark binary: would America grow or stand still? The only alternative to Polk’s grand, sweeping vision, as Democrats — and even many Southern and Western Whigs — saw it, was Henry Clay, product of the D.C. “swamp” and a policy wonk’s wonk.
For all that, Clay had a dedicated following, was highly experienced, and had an established, lucid platform, which — while not exactly titillating — was coherent and pragmatic. So when the ballots poured in, Polk won by just 38,000 votes out of 2.7 million cast. The Democrats, like today’s Republicans over the last 50 years, carried the South and West. Every state west of the Ohio River, went for Polk. He also won the always — then and now — essential state of Pennsylvania.
As the question of Texas had sunk Van Buren’s party nomination, Clay’s unpopular position (in some quarters) on it very likely cost him his best chance at the presidency itself. The two prominent politicians’ stance on Texas — like Hillary Clinton’s foolish Iraq War vote in 2002 — probably cost both their hopes for the White House. Clay’s foreign-policy positions, unlike Clinton’s, proved to have been correct. However, hindsight couldn’t possibly save him. Henry Clay had once announced, and often repeated, the trope that he would “rather be right than be president.” The slogan ought to have been engraved on his tombstone.
Politics is a nasty, corrupt business. Nonetheless, elections matter in U.S. history. In 1844, Polk’s victory was a near-run thing with sweeping consequences for the nation. If Henry Clay had won, there almost certainly would have been no Mexican-American War, therefore less cause for the free–slave state sectional balance to shatter, and it might even have avoided (or at least delayed) the American Civil War. Clay, who had years before foretold the consequences of Texas annexation — though he’d then misread the power of the subject — recognized what historians concluded soon after the invasion of Mexico kicked off. “This unhappy war never would have occurred,” he opined, “if there had been a different issue of the presidential contest of 1844.”
Polk’s crusade: Drumming up a war
Polk, as full of self-righteousness as ever, interpreted his slim margin of victory as a mandate. Congress, apparently, meekly agreed. In February 1845, after some joint maneuvering with the lame duck Tyler, and just before Polk’s inauguration, Congress admitted Texas as a state in a joint resolution. Owing to the complicated legislative rules on Capitol Hill, this controversial tactic ensured that only a simple majority was necessary, rather than the constitutionally mandated two-thirds of the Senate required to adopt a treaty. If any further proof was needed that Texas accession was in part driven by slavery, or that it was a boon to it, the price of field hands on the New Orleans slave market jumped 21 percent within a year.
The new president hadn’t run only on southwesterly expansion. In fact, he had also promised the annexation of the vast Oregon Territory — an ill-defined region running from the northern border of present-day California deep into western Canada — which was then contested and jointly occupied by the British and Americans. On the campaign trail, Polk had promised accession of the entirety of Oregon, up to the northernmost line of latitude, shouting the catchy slogan “54º40ˈ” or fight!” In reality, because of a combination of prudent estimation of British military (especially naval) strength, and prevailing tendencies to see Hispanics as a lesser race, Polk never seriously considered war over Oregon. Ditching one of his two main campaign pledges, Young Hickory promptly (if secretly) compromised, and accepted a territorial split significantly south of 54º40ˈ. The compromise line coheres with the current border between Washington State and Western Canada.
Polk never seriously considered war over Oregon.
Rather than slam Polk’s flip-flopping, the Democratic press seamlessly pivoted southward right along with the new president. As the Democratic-leaning New York Herald bluntly concluded, in the wake of the Oregon settlement, “We can now thrash Mexico into decency at our leisure.” Polk, and his Southern and Western rural base, knew full well that Texas annexation — now statute law, for better or worse — nearly ensured an eventual war with Mexico, and they welcomed it. Polk and company’s ineluctable confidence in victory only magnified their zeal.
To predict any war’s outcome is always a tricky matter. Still, just before combat broke out in 1846, the “tale of the tape” indicated that war between the United States and Mexico would hardly be a fair fight. The odds were long for the Mexican Republic, which had been an independent entity for only 25 years and was laden with some inherent weaknesses. The first was demographic. As of the 1840 census, the United States counted 17 million people and a rapidly growing population. Mexico had just 7 million citizens. Economically, the disparity was even wider. In 1845, Mexico’s per capita income was less than half what it had been in 1800. The war for independence from Spain had resulted in 600,000 Mexican deaths, most from starvation and disease, and crippled the domestic economy.
Mexicans also lacked a coherent sense of national unity. More than half were Indians, and almost all Mexican communities adhered to a sense of localism far more powerful than allegiance to the rather new nation-state. Furthermore, hostile, separatist Indian tribes, such as the Apache and Comanche, had long raided — and veritably devastated — the northern provinces of Mexico, the very areas the U.S. Army would eventually invade. Politically, the capital, Mexico City, was a mess. Elite factions warred incessantly, and between 1821 and 1857, the presidency changed hands some fifty times, almost always by coup d’état.
“In addition to the obvious empirical advantages of the United States — demographic, economic, and political — many Americans boasted a racial superiority over their southern neighbors. As Hispanic Catholics, Mexicans — from the viewpoint of Protestant Anglos — were both racially and religiously inferior. As Polk’s longtime friend and past president of the Texas Republic, Sam Houston, put it, “Mexicans are no better than Indians.” For Southern and Western American citizens, who had recently — and in some cases still — battled with Indians, such language was resonant and motivational.
This article was originally published in the May 2020 edition of Future of Freedom.