U.S. Election of 1844

March, 1845 - April 26, 1846

The U.S. election of 1844 was the closest in U.S. history up to that time, and the first in which U.S. foreign policy played a major role.

In the spring of 1844 it was widely assumed that the upcoming presidential election would be a contest between Henry Clay, long time standard bearer of the Whig party, and former president Martin Van Buren, a Democrat. The Whigs nominated Clay by acclamation, but for the Democrats events took a dramatic turn as a result of the Texas annexation issue. Van Buren’s refusal to endorse annexation infuriated slave owners as well as northern Democrats who favored a policy of vigorous territorial growth. As a result, despite a strong delegate majority, Van Buren’s supporters were outmaneuvered in the party’s convention, held in Baltimore in May, by expansionist Democrats led by Robert J. Walker. By lobbying successfully for a rules change requiring a two-thirds majority for nomination, Walker managed to deny Van Buren the nomination on the first ballot. The party eventually turned to a compromise candidate, James K. Polk, on the ninth ballot. A former speaker of the House of Representatives from Tennessee and a protégé of Andrew Jackson, Polk is considered to be the first “dark horse” presidential candidate.

Although the Democratic party remained badly split over annexation, Whig opposition to the measure cost Clay in the general election. Polk swept the Deep South states, as well as western states where support for expansion was strong. Although Polk won a solid 107-105 victory in the electoral college, his margin of victory was much smaller in terms of popular votes, receiving approximately 40,000 more votes than Clay out of 2.7 million votes cast.

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