Part 3: An International Matter
Texas Finds a Champion
John Tyler was passionate about expanding the nation's borders. He believed the common goal would bring North and South closer together. But Texas annexation was seen by Northerners as a move to shore up the slave system.
Courtesy Library of Congress.
It was John Tyler’s fate to find himself the most unpopular president in the young history of the United States. In 1840, the Virginia Democrat had switched parties to run as vice-president on the Whig ticket with retired general William Henry Harrison. Their campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” is still one of the most famous in political campaign history. But after only a few weeks in office, Harrison died. Tyler became the first vice-president to assume office after the death of a president.
Despised by the Democrats as a turncoat and distrusted by the Whigs, Tyler seemed doomed to failure. After a political falling-out with powerful Kentucky senator Henry Clay, Tyler was expelled from the Whig party and weathered the resignation of almost his entire cabinet. Later, he barely dodged impeachment in another dispute with Congress. By 1843, with the next presidential election coming up, his prospects for another term in the White House looked bleak.
Tyler knew he needed to do something brilliant to regain his popularity. A southerner and slaveholder, he was deeply committed to states’ rights, planter interests, and the institution of slavery. Like other southern sectionalists, Tyler knew that the South was falling behind the North in both population and prosperity. The annexation of Texas would be a tremendous shot in the arm for the South and a political masterstroke that could revive his prospects to remain in the White House.
Tyler’s first attempt to get involved in the Texas issue came in 1843, when the president offered his services to Mexico as a mediator in the ongoing dispute over Texas. Under Tyler’s tripartite plan, Mexico would acknowledge Texas independence and cede the port of San Francisco to the United States. Great Britain would pay Mexico for the cession and receive the Oregon Territory from the United States in return. But like most of Tyler’s plans, the tripartite agreement never went anywhere. Neither Britain nor Texas was impressed, and Mexico openly threatened to go to war with the United States if Tyler pursued the matter.
If Great Britain, as her philanthropists and blustering presses intimate, entertains a design to possess Mexico or Texas, or to interfere in any manner with the slaves of the Southern States, but a few weeks we fancy, at any time, will suffice to rouse the whole American People to arms like one vast nest of hornets. The great Western States, at the call of ‘Captain Tyler,’ would pour their noble sons down the Mississippi Valley by MILLIONS.
—editorial in the Madisonian newspaper, Washington, D.C., June 24, 1843
Tyler was forced to back off— temporarily. He still believed that annexation was the key to invigorating both the future of the South and his own political career. For most of the year, Tyler and his supporters waged an underground campaign to sway public opinion in favor of Texas annexation. Even as Sam Houston gave up on the United States in despair and opened serious negotiations with Great Britain, Tyler and other southern conservatives were arguing in editorials and privately circulated letters that Texas annexation would protect Southern interests by balancing the population of North and South, increasing Southern representation in Congress, and saving slavery in Texas from certain abolition by the British.
As 1843 drew to a close, Tyler and his secretary of state, Abel Upshur, realized that the hour was growing late on the Texas issue. Upshur, a brilliant jurist and staunch southern conservative, was even more alarmed than Tyler by the prospects of losing Texas to the British. In the short run, Upshur warned, a free Texas would attract runaway slaves, resulting in a constant border war with the South. In the long term, Britain would develop Texas into a cotton kingdom. The Southern economy would be wrecked, and the North would be severely affected by the loss of markets for its goods and the end of the cotton trade for its ships.
But the dire consequences didn’t stop there. Under Upshur’s doomsday scenario, bankrupt Southern planters would be forced to free their slaves. The Southern planter society so beloved by himself, Tyler, and like-minded allies would crumble. The North, too, would never be the same. Impoverished blacks would stream to northern cities in search of work, with inevitable riots and death.
With Tyler’s blessing, Upshur approached Isaac Van Zandt, the Texas chargé d'affaires in Washington, to reopen the topic of annexation. Van Zandt told him that he been instructed by President Houston to drop the matter while Texas pursued an alliance with Britain. But Upshur was insistent. President Tyler wanted to open talks with Texas. The aim: a treaty to annex Texas to the United States as a territory.
|Was the annexation treaty the result of a conspiracy between the governments of Texas and the United States?|