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1844–Campaign Rhetoric–Zachary Lowe

In the days following the election, the outcome was unknown. Votes for a Third Party candidate had benefited the nominee of one major party at the expense of another, and the White House doors were hinged upon the votes of a large state where the results were remarkably close. 

Even if the modern American lacks a long term political memory (voters and candidates alike), the circumstances surrounding the 1844 election of President James K. Polk (Democrat) are likely to trigger images of a surprisingly popular Green Party candidate, a former President’s son, and the then current Vice President on the morning the country awoke from its electoral hangover on November 5th, 2000. In 1844, the Third Party candidate, James G. Birney of the Liberty Party, received 15,000 votes that historians believe would have gone to Whig nominee Henry Clay had Birney not been on the ticket (Zarefsky). The result led to one of the first elections in which a candidate, who had won the Presidency by a marginal number of votes, proceeded to run the country as if the election were a mandate for dramatic national changes. 

The election took place at a time in our nation’s history when the country was relatively half the size it is today. In fact, the election largely rested on issues of how large the country was, and whether or not it should expand towards the south and westward. Looming heavily upon the country’s collective shoulders were heated debates surrounding the annexation of Texas, the mantra of manifest destiny, and further expansion towards the westward territories as proposed in the Jacksonian era. Soon after Polk was elected, a political slogan appeared: “Fifty-four Forty or Fight,” a reference to the Northwest Territory; the land between the latitude of 42° south and 54°40’ north—modern day Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and a large portion of British Columbia (Miles, “The Campaign”). 

Growing concerns over expansion were sparked by fears that the annexation of Texas might lead to war with Mexico and mark the country as an imperialist nation (Rathbun). Opponents like Whig Senator Daniel Webster warned that a true Republic should be self sustaining and that the United States should be set upon strengthening its institutions and cultivating its internal resources rather than building an empire (Rathbun). Many of Webster’s opinion felt that expansion would inevitably corrupt the “civic foundations of the republic” (Rathbun). Not surprisingly, the grim reality of the nation’s economic life force—slavery—fueled fires on both sides of the annexation and expansion debates (“The Campaign”). Oppositionists expressed concerns that increasing the slave territories would give rise to the already strained relationship between North and South (“The Campaign”). 

When examining the rhetoric of the time period, it is crucial to note that this was one of the first elections to take place along strict party lines. The Whigs aligned with the abolitionist movement (in name only—nominee Henry Clay was a slave owner) and set out to define themselves against the increasingly volatile rhetoric of the expansionist touting leaders of the Democratic Party. Finding itself caught between the growing powers of the two ruling parties in a two party system, the new anti-slavery Liberty Party formed around the anti-expansion and pro-abolitionist movements—and boasted a nominee without slaves to prove it. 

Increasing the divide between parties was the determined stance each candidate took on the annexation of Texas. Whig nominee Henry Clay was as adamantly against annexation as Democrat James K. Polk was for it. The decisive clash signaled a clear, albeit ominous, dividing line to the average American voter—a decision in policy, defined by platform, that would drastically change the course of country depending on who was elected. 

Despite the inaccurate, though historically frequent, attribution of “Fifty-four Forty or Fight” to Polk’s campaign slogan, the actual mudslinging banter was far more personal and less policy driven (Edwin). Henry Clay was portrayed by the Democrats as a man “notorious for his fiendish and vindictive spirit, for his disregard of the most important moral obligations, for his blasphemy, for his gambling propensities, and for his frequent blood thirsty attempts upon the lives of his fellow men” (“The Campaign”). The Polk political machine claimed Henry Clay had violated each of the Ten Commandments. Yet claimed he did so with gusto: with the same enthused dallying presently achieved by a twelve step program zealot (minus two). And lowering him to the ravenous masses discontented by the small size of their country, the Democrats accused Clay of being—beyond a mere force against expansion—an abolitionist against annexation for the fear of expanding the slave economy. Fire from the third party candidate James G. Birney even suggested that Clay was secretly in favor of annexation (“The Campaign”). 

Perhaps anticipating the days of a candidate “outside of our comprehension,” the Clay team sought to dismantle the all American image of the Democratic nominee James K. Polk. Despite his previous work as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the governor of Tennessee, and as a confidant to President Andrew Jackson, the Whigs were determined to paint him as a relative unknown in the American political landscape, asking “Who is James K. Polk?” (“The Campaign”). Polk was characterized as a radical supporter of the annexation, who would sacrifice the whole country for the sake of expansion, a puppet of the “slaveocracy” and a product of racist southern self interest (“The Campaign”). 

Not surprisingly, a survey of the campaign rhetoric from the election of 1844 reveals a country trying to define itself in the face of one of its most dominant institutions—slavery. The rhetoric of annexation marks an appeal to voters’ increasingly complex feelings towards slavery and the slave driven economy, with annexation itself an example of coded language for the expansion of the slave state into Texas and the expansive western territories. Whigs and abolitionists pointed to the “fraying bonds between north and south,” identifying the rise in divisive and dividing sentiments within the republic as the country continued to expand (Rathbun). However, the narrow election went to Polk and with his nomination came a promise to “reannex Texas and reoccupy Oregon” (Rathbun). With this goal, one of many set forth and achieved by “Young Hickory”, there came a renewed faith in manifest destiny as a central statement of national character and a pillar of American identity (Rathbun). Rhetorically, it proved to be a profound source of solidarity across antebellum America. A source and statement of faith in the days before the tethers stretching north to south had finally stretched too thin.

Work Cited 

Miles, Edwin A. “”Fifty-four Forty or Fight”–An American Political Legend.” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Sep., 1957), pp. 291-309. 

“The Campaign and Election of 1844.” Campaigns and Elections.  http://millercenter.org/president/polk

Rathbun, Lyon. “The Debate over Annexing Texas and the Emergence of Manifest Destiny.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Vol. 4 No. 3, Fall 2001, pp. 459 -493. 

Turner, George A. “Election James K. Polk: A Bloomberg Inauguration Celebration.” The Columbia County Historical and Genealogical Society. http://www.colcohist- gensoc.org 

Zarefsky, David. “Henry Clay and the Election of 1844: The Limits of a Rhetoric of Compromise.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring 2003 pp. 79-96.

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