As the election of 1844 approached, it seemed obvious to everyone that the candidates would be Henry Clay for the Whigs and former President Martin Van Buren for the Democrats. The main issue of the election would be territorial expansion and, more immediately, the annexation of Texas. Both candidates, seeking to compromise the opposing positions of the northern and southern wings of their parties, wanted to avoid the Texas issue. The two men met at Ashland, Clay’s Kentucky estate, and agreed not to bring up the Texas issue during the campaign.
Southerners talked about the “re-annexation of Texas” which they claimed had been part of the Louisiana Purchase, and had been foolishly traded away for Florida in 1819. They wanted Texas “restored” to its proper place in the Union as soon as possible. Texas had become an independent republic in 1836 after winning its struggle against Mexico. Although Texas was eager to join the Union, Mexico still claimed Texas, and any move to annex Texas would probably lead to war. Also, many in the North were not all that anxious to add a large slave territory to the United States.
Both Clay and Van Buren announced their opposition to any immediate annexation of Texas. This might have avoided the Texas issue, and the slavery issue it was bound to raise, but for President John Tyler’s “Texas bombshell.” Tyler, an ardent expansionist, submitted to the Senate a treaty of annexation, accompanied by Secretary of State John Calhoun’s vigorous defense of slavery, making the Texas issue the center of the campaign.
Clay won the Whig nomination by acclamation. Van Buren, however, was defeated for the Democratic nomination by James K. Polk. Van Buren’s refusal to support Texas had cost him important southern support, including that of former President Andrew Jackson, still a power in the party. Jackson and others threw their support to Polk, a former Congressman, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and former Governor of Tennessee, who strongly favored expansion. This made the Ashland agreement meaningless.
Polk came out strongly for annexation. He also tied Texas to the Oregon issue. The Oregon Territory had been jointly occupied by Great Britain and the United States. The United States had announced its intention to end the treaty and to divide the territory. Great Britain had announced that it intended to keep the entire territory. The Democratic platform included a plank which stated: “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 reoccupation of Oregon and the reannexation 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.”
Linking the Texas and Oregon questions tended to defuse the tension over slavery. It was made into a national rather than sectional issue. The Democrats had inspiring slogans such as “Fifty-four Forty or Fight!” (the northern boundary of the Oregon Territory was fifty-four degrees forty minutes north latitude) and “All of Texas, All of Oregon.” The Democrats ran a truly nationalistic campaign based on the great issue of Manifest Destiny, the notion that it was our nation’s obvious destiny to control all the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Clay immediately began modifying his position, hoping to attract southern support while holding on to his northern support. Trying to straddle the fence, Clay said that although he personally favored annexation, he would push for it only if it could be accomplished without war, without national dishonor, and on fair terms. He outlined his position in two letters to a supporter in Alabama. The “Alabama letters” outraged northern abolitionists who wanted no more slave states admitted to the Union. Abolitionists in the general election voted in large numbers for James Birney, the abolitionist candidate. Birney’s vote in New York took enough away from Clay to give the state, and with it the election, to Polk. Clay’s attempt to win southern support by pleasing both sides of the issue probably won him no southern support while costing him northern votes. Clay, by trying to please both groups, pleased neither. Although there were other issues, this one overshadowed them and determined the outcome of the election.
During the campaign, Clay finally took a stand and came out against the annexation of Texas, which of course infuriated his southern supporters. One southern editor published his opinion of Clay’s position:
He wires in and wires out And leaves the people still in doubt, Whether the snake that made the track Was going South or coming back.
According to one story, never denied by Clay, Clay was at his home in Ashland waiting to hear who the Democrats nominated to oppose him in the 1844 election. Clay’s son arrived with the news and when Clay asked whom his opponent would be, told his father to guess. Clay guess “Matty” (Martin Van Buren) and his son said it was not. Clay then guessed in turn Cass, Buchanan, Calhoun, and Johnson. Each time his son said no, Clay’s spirits rose. Finally, his son told him the Democratic nominee was James Polk, thinking his father would be delighted at the unknown opponent. Clay, who knew Polk well, got up, it is said, walked quietly over to the liquor cabinet, filled his glass, and sighed, “Beat again, by God.”
Clay made public statements about dropping out of politics and retiring to his home in Ashland. But his own political inclination and the Mexican War soon brought him back to Washington. He was opposed to the Mexican War, which he felt the United States provoked in order to annex further Mexican territory, a fear that proved well founded.
Clay wanted to run for President again in 1848, and announced his candidacy in April of that year. But after so many losses, even his old friends supported other candidates. The Whig nomination that year went to another war hero general, Zachary Taylor. This was the second time Clay was passed over by his party for a war hero general. He never endorsed his party’s nominee that year. After the election, Clay watched his fears come true as the slavery issue exploded again as the Congress debated the organization of the territory annexed from Mexico as a result of the war.
Both sides exchanged heated warnings and accusations. Civil war became a very real possibility. Clay engineered one last great compromise to prevent war and disunion. The Compromise of 1850 called for the admission of California as a free state and the division of the remainder of the new territory into the Utah and New Mexico Territories, each of which would decide the slavery issue for themselves. For the North, the slave trade (but not slavery itself) would be abolished in the District of Columbia. For the South, a stronger fugitive slave law was passed. This calmed things down, and for the time being settled the situation. Civil war was averted, and when it came ten years later, the North was considerably stronger in relation to the South, and eventually won the conflict. Had the conflict begun ten years earlier, the outcome might well have been very different.
Clay’s health failed during this last political struggle, and he died two years later. He never became President. But his leadership in times of crisis, his compromise bills in 1820, 1833 and 1850 averted violence and civil war at times when the nation could not have survived such conflicts. Without Clay and the compromises he forged, our nation might not have survived. That we are today “one nation . . . indivisible . . “ is, in large part, his legacy.