May 1844: The Telegraph and the Democratic Convention

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James K. Polk

Two events merged in May 1844 that would be key to American expansion – the introduction of the telegraph and the Presidential nomination of James K. Polk.

In March 1843, Congress passed a $30,000 appropriation for a electromagnetic telegraphic line between Washington D.C. and Baltimore developed by Professor Samuel Finley Breese Morse. The Whig-controlled House narrowly passed the measure 89-83 (the Senate passed it unopposed). Morse was ecstatic, “six votes is as good as a thousand.”

Internal Improvements

Morse had reason to be ecstatic. He believed his invention would help acheive his vision of an American empire spreading across the continent. But his request for an appropriation had been rejected in the past by Democratic majorities in Congress. Despite support from Secretary of the Treasury Levi Woodbury of the Democratic Martin Van Buren administration and Democratic House Commerce Committee chairman Francis Smith, the Democrat Morse still couldn’t get his appropriation.

Most Democrats viewed Morse’s project as an internal improvement. The party believed that federal aid to internal improvements or infrastrucure was unconstitutional and was susceptible to corruption by the wealthy to the detriment of the people. The Whigs believed that federal support of internal improvements was vital to national economic development.

After attempting to bury the telegraphic wire encased in pipes, which proved problematic, Morse and his crew started over in the Spring of 1844 by constructing the line in the air. Thirty-foot high posts made from chestnut trees, with cross-arms to hold two lines of wire, were placed every 200 feet northeastward to Baltimore.

“What Hath God Wrought?”

On May 1, Morse decided to test the unfinished line. He placed assistant Alfred Vail at Annapolis Junction, twenty-two miles from Washington, with a telegraphic key. A Washington-bound train arrived in Annapolis Junction from Baltimore with news from the Whig national convention. Vail transmitted in code to Morse that the Whigs had nominated Henry Clay for President and Theodore Frelinghuysen for Vice President. The telegraphed news arrived an hour and fifteen minutes ahead of the train. Morse’s device created a sensation and he was mobbed by visitors at the Capital building.

The telegraph line was completed on May 24, with Morse tapping out the biblical verse “What hath God wrought?” and Vail repeating it in response. Just a few days later, the Democrats began their convention in Baltimore, and Vail was ready to communicate news of the convention from a railroad warehouse in the city.

Coming into the convention, Ex-President Van Buren was the frontrunner with a simple majority of delegates in his pocket. But southerners were not pleased with him. They favored Texas annexation but Van Buren opposed it. Therefore, the southerners managed to get approval of the two-thirds rule, which required a candidate to have two-thirds (177) of the delegates. This essentially blocked Van Buren from the nomination.

James K. Polk

Van Buren’s top challenger, Michigan’s Lewis Cass, favored annexation but southerners were not enthusiastic about any northerner. After seven ballots, Van Buren and Cass were nowhere near two-thirds. Then supporters of Tennessean James K. Polk, who was pro-Texas, a staunch expansionist, and a protege of the party’s patriarch Andrew Jackson, managed to convert the New Hampshire and Massachusetts delegations for Polk on the eighth ballot. On the ninth ballot, it snowballed for Polk and he was eventually nominated unanimously.

Receiving the news at the warehouse, Vail was mobbed by hundreds of people who wanted to witness the telegraph in operation. He transmitted the ninth ballot proceedings to Morse, who was at the Capital building and also inundated with observers. Here’s a snippet:

Vail: “Wait till the ballot comes…Illinois goes for Polk…Mich goes for Polk. Penn. asks leave to correct her error so as give her vote for Polk…”

Morse: “Intense anxiety prevails to hear the result of last balloting.”

Vail: “Polk is unanimously nom..”

Morse: “3 cheers have been given here for Polk and 3 for the telegraph.”

The next day, the telegraph had a direct role in the convention proceedings. The Democrats nominated New Yorker Silas Wright for Vice President. A message was sent via telegraph to Washington to notify Wright. Wright then had Morse send his rejection. The convention responded by asking Wright to reconsider. Again Wright declined the offer. Eventually Wright refused the nomination four times. The National Register reported that the long-distanced political negotiating went on “with lightning speed.”

Two forces of American expansion meshed in May 1844: the introduction of the telegraph and the Presidential nomination of Polk. The telegraph would aid in the expansion of the U.S. geographically and economically. “The old universe was thrown into the ash-heap and a new one created,” commented historian Henry Adams on that first telegraphic message. Polk, as President, acquired the Southwest, California, and Oregon territory through war and negotiation.

Sources

  1. Borneman, Walter R., Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America, New York: Random House, 2008.
  2. Howe, Daniel Walker, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, Oxford: Oxford U Press, 2007.
  3. Silverman, Kenneth, Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F.B. Morse, New York: Random House, 2003.