Hard Road to Texas: Texas Annexation 1836-1845

Part 4: A Treaty of Annexation

Tyler's Failed Gamble

Martin Van Buren

As president, Martin Van Buren blocked consideration of Texas annexation because it would expand slave territory and risk war with Mexico. As the leading Democratic candidate heading into the election of 1844, Van Buren didn't dream that the Texas issue would be his undoing. Courtesy Library of Congress

Months before, the two leading presidential candidates, Martin Van Buren of New York for the Democrats and Henry Clay of Kentucky for the Whigs, had agreed privately that Texas annexation would tear the country apart. A cool, elegant political trickster, Van Buren was a former president who opposed the expansion of slavery. Clay was a senior statesman and the architect of the landmark Missouri Compromise. Both men were certain of getting their party’s nominations and wanted to conduct a high-minded and intellectual campaign. They had decided to take the ugly and divisive Texas issue off the table as a campaign issue.

The treaty for the annexation of Texas to this Union was this day sent in to the Senate; and with it went the freedom of the human race.

—John Quincy Adams, former president and Representative from Massachusetts

John Tyler had no such compunctions. On April 22, 1844, the president sent the annexation treaty to the United States Senate for ratification. Although he claimed to want a reasoned debate free from partisanship, Tyler’s own machinations made that impossible from the beginning. Tyler had engineered the treaty specifically to boost his own long-shot hopes for another term. Now, the Texas issue exploded into election-year politics with consequences that neither Tyler nor anyone else could control.

Hoping to deny Van Buren and win the Democratic nomination for himself, Tyler tried to sell annexation in terms of its benefits to the nation as a whole. Tyler pointed out that under British auspices Texas could become a serious rival to the United States, endangering American prosperity. Better to grab Texas now than to sit back and let Britain have a free hand.

Opponents of annexation countered that any benefits would be outweighed by the likelihood of war with Mexico. Texas claimed the territory all the way to the Rio Grande and much of present-day New Mexico, including a 2000-mile border and more than 30,000 Mexican nationals. In an attempt to neutralize this line of opposition, Tyler offered to forgive six million dollars in Mexican debt in exchange for Texas and the port of San Francisco.

In terms of international relations, this was a mistake on Tyler’s part. By implying that Texas was Mexico’s to take or give, he undermined Texas’s position as an independent republic. In any case, the Mexican chargé d’affaires in Washington, Juan Almonte, swiftly rejected the offer. He pressed Secretary of State Calhoun for nothing less than a cash indemnity and a guarantee of the border at the Nueces River.

Tyler also played with the fire of sectionalism. He knew that fears of British abolitionist influence made the Texas issue a powerful one in the South. In private gatherings, campaign operatives like Duff Green showed prominent Southerners how “Tyler and Texas” would add a huge new slave territory to the United States, in effect making the American South a world power in its own right.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun centered his political career around the defense of slavery and the Southern planter way of life. For Calhoun, the specter of a cotton-producing free Texas under British control was an intolerable threat to all that he cherished. Courtesy United States Senate.

John C. Calhoun went much further. Once he had dreamed of becoming president himself, but he knew that his many controversies had probably ended his prospects. Still, Calhoun wanted to shape the 1844 campaign his own way with a popular issue that would unite the South and marginalize Van Buren or any other contenders who might tamper with slavery. Without regard for Tyler’s hopes, he made public a lengthy letter he had written to Lord Aberdeen, the British Foreign Secretary, in which he wrote passionately of Texas annexation in terms of the preservation of slavery and the extension of Southern power.

In the letter, Calhoun brought his powerful intellect to bear in an argument that was later summarized in the campaign slogan, “Texas or Disunion.” As far back as 1831, Southern radicals like Calhoun had spoken of seizing Texas and making it part of the great cotton kingdom. Now, Calhoun wrote, it was going to happen—one way or the other. If Texas annexation were rejected, the South would not stand by and allow Texas to come under the domain of Great Britain. Rather than let that happen, the Southern states would secede and join with Texas in a new Confederacy.

Question Did the annexation of Texas lead to the Civil War?

Calhoun intended to scare off the opposition by threatening to wreck the country if Texas annexation was defeated. (He would not live to see the Confederacy become a reality 17 years later.) Instead, he ignited a firestorm. Texas annexation was no longer a mere question of expansion, something the United States had been doing since the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Nor was it only a partisan issue involving the election hopes of an unpopular president. Now it was a dispute about the very permanence of the American Union itself.

Thomas Hart Benton

Though he was known as a supporter of both slavery and of westward expanision, Thomas Hart Benton believed southern politicians like Tyler and Calhoun were recklessly provoking sectional conflict in pushing for Texas annexation. Putting his concern for the Union above other considerations, he led the fight on the Senate floor against the measure. Courtesy United States Senate.

Debate began in May on the Senate floor. Opposition to annexation was led not by a Yankee abolitionist like John Quincy Adams, but by Thomas Hart Benton, the Missouri senator who was a well-known expansionist. As a westerner from a slave state, Benton might have been expected to support annexation. Instead, the brawny, verbose Benton was so offended by the cynical maneuvering of Tyler and Calhoun that he marshaled the arguments against the measure. The Texas debt, high risk of war with Mexico, the threat of disunion, and distaste for imperialism all came into play.

Supporters countered with a sensational letter from the beloved and ailing former president Andrew Jackson. With the fervor of a holy warrior, Jackson wrote from the Hermitage that “men who would endanger, by a postponement, such great benefits for our country, for political objects, have no patriotism or love of country, and ought to be publicly exposed—the people of the South and West will withdraw all confidence from them, and send them to their own native dunghills, there to rest forever."

As debate raged on, the Democratic convention was held in Baltimore. Forced to take some kind of stand on Texas, Van Buren tried to straddle the fence, saying he believed that annexation would come “some day,” but that it was not worth a war. This equivocal stance was unacceptable to a large percentage of the delegates, particularly those from the South. What was to have been a coronation for the former president became a circus of confusion and hostility. James K. Polk, the governor of Tennessee who had been considered the leading candidate for vice-president on a Van Buren ticket, noted that “Fortune is a frolic and there is no telling what may happen.”

Polk’s words were more prophetic than he knew. A thousand Tyler supporters converged on the city and held their own rival convention, convinced that the deadlocked Democrats would turn to the president to unite the party. They were dreaming—the bitterness against Tyler ran too deep for that. Eventually, it was Polk himself who emerged as a compromise candidate.

The hard-working and dedicated Polk lacked the personal charm of Van Buren or Clay, but he was known as a cool and competent politician with close ties to Andrew Jackson. Many historians believe that the nomination of James K. Polk saved the Democratic Party from complete destruction in 1844. (Like Calhoun, Polk would not live to see the party and the nation dissolve in the cauldron of the Civil War.) On sectional issues, there was still room for compromise: to please the southern wing, the convention adopted a plank favoring Texas annexation along with that of the Oregon country, a move calculated to please western voters. As for John Tyler, he was on the outside looking in.

In the wake of this political maelstrom, it came as no surprise on June 8, 1844, when the Senate rejected the annexation treaty 35-16. The needs and desires of the people of Texas never even entered into the debate. It must have been hard for Sam Houston not to say, “I told you so.”

On to Part 5: Starting Over--Again>>

Click on Images Below to View Larger Versions

Opinions of Andrew Jackson, February 1844

Former president Andrew Jackson was still the most popular man in the country. Supporters of annexation persuaded the ailing Jackson to write several public letters calling for the ratification of the treaty.

Van Zandt and Henderson to Anson Jones, April 1844

Van Zandt and Henderson sounded almost apologetic instead of triumphant when they notified Secretary of State Anson Jones that a treaty had been signed.

James Pinckney Henderson to Sam Houston, May 1844

In this letter, Henderson reported on the uproar in the Senate during the annexation debate.

Excerpts of speechs during the Senate debate on annexation, May 1844

From the beginning of the annexation debate on the Senate floor, no one — not Tyler, not Calhoun, not Mississippi Senator Walker — could control the highly charged political atmosphere.

Letter of James K. Polk, April 1844

The Democratic party was torn apart over the annexation question. Eventually, Governor James K. Polk of Tennessee, a strong supporter of annexation and western expansion, began to emerge as the man who could save the party's presidential chances.

James Pinckney Henderson to Sam Houston, May 1844

The breakneck political developments in the presidential campaign threw the fate of annexation completely up in the air.

Isaac Van Zandt to Sam Houston, June 1844

The morning after the treaty's defeat, Isaac Van Zandt reported that the growing excitement over Polk's nomination meant annexation hopes were still alive.

Ashbel Smith to Anson Jones, June 1844

Unaware of the failure of the annexation treaty, British Foreign Secretary Lord Aberdeen tried to convince the Texans that Britain could still broker peace with Mexico.

Page last modified: December 2, 2014