Part 5: The Final Showdown
The Election of 1844
Though a reserved and frail man, Polk ran a campaign of mass appeal. He promised to annex Texas and the Oregon territory. In a close and vicious race, the Democrats claimed that Henry Clay had broken every one of the Ten Commandments. Courtesy Library of Congress.
Selfish, charismatic, and possessed of a marvelous flair for oratory, Henry Clay had devoted his political career to compromises that preserved the delicate balance between North and South. Clay was deeply disturbed by the sectional passions engendered by the Texas crisis. Courtesy United States Senate.
The fate of Texas was the leading issue in the presidential campaign of 1844. The Whig candidate, Henry Clay, was best known for devotion to the Union and for his “American System,” a plan that would foster industrialization through a system of tariffs, internal improvements, and banking. For “Harry of the West,” Texas was nothing but a distraction. Clay said that he had no personal objections to Texas, but that annexation smacked of imperialism and carried too many risks. It would lead to war with Mexico, dangerous sectional discord, and too much debt. Clay said that the United States should concentrate on improving the territory we already had. He tried to focus the campaign debate on the long-standing economic issues facing the nation.
James Polk, on the other hand, played the emotional side of the Texas issue for all it was worth. The Polk campaign told the story of the Lone Star standing alone, battling dastardly Mexicans while menaced by rapacious British. A rich province could be had for the taking, if only Americans were bold enough.
Though it appeared decisive in the Electoral College, in the popular vote the election of 1844 was one of the closest in American history. In the end, the novelty and picturesque appeal of Polk’s message simply won over more voters than Clay’s intellectualism. (It was sometimes said of Clay, five times an unsuccessful candidate for president, that he lost by making himself too clear on the issues.) While the concept of a mandate was a relatively new one in American politics, there was no doubt in Texas or the United States that the election of Polk meant Texas annexation was back on the front burner.
Texas also had changed presidents. Sam Houston was forbidden by law from seeking another term in office and was succeeded by his Secretary of State, Anson Jones. Houston and Jones had worked closely together on the negotiations with Great Britain, and Andrew Jackson Donelson believed Jones to be decidedly in favor of a British alliance over U.S. annexation.
The Americans did little to help their cause with the new president when Tyler and Calhoun, hoping to secure annexation before Tyler’s term expired, sent the eccentric political operative Duff Green to join Donelson as U.S. consul in Texas. In a meeting with President Jones, Green proposed a scheme to combine the Texas army with Indian allies to seize northern Mexico. He tried to bribe Jones with stock to give the go-ahead for the plan. Jones later wrote that he felt like shooting Green on the spot. After Green published an acid letter trashing Jones as an anti-annexationist and British puppet, Jones kicked him out of the country. It took all of Donelson’s diplomatic skill to smooth over the fracas.
Meanwhile, Mexico experienced its own changing of the guard. Santa Anna’s dictatorial policies had led to unrest in several Mexican states. In December 1844, with the country teetering on the brink of civil war, Santa Anna resigned as president. After being held for several months in the notorious Perote prison, he went into exile in Venezuela (he found his way back in 1846 when the U.S.-Mexican War broke out).