ADVANCE PLACEMENT
AMERICAN HISTORY

MANIFEST DESTINY AND JAMES K POLK

*The Republic of Texas, still an independent nation, was in danger from Mexico, who did not fully recognise her independence, signed under duress at San Jacinto.  Texas turned to Britain and France for aid, testing the Monroe Doctrine at a time the US could not afford to do so.  Britain in particular wanted an independent Texas to thwart American expansion to the Southwest, as a market for British goods, and as a source of cotton.  The French had their own interests in the region.  By 1840, Texas had concluded treaties with France, the Netherlands, and Belgium.

*Many Americans (and many Texans) wanted Texas to become part of the Union.

*In the election of 1844, the Whigs opposed the annexation of Texas on the grounds that it might start a war with Mexico and because of the dispute over slavery.  According to the Missouri Compromise, Texas, located south of the 36o30’ line, would be a slave state, or perhaps more than one.

*In addition to Texas, many Americans had their eyes upon the Oregon Territory.  Spain had given up her claims to the region in 1819 with the Florida Treaty, and Russia had done the same in 1825.  The United States and Great Britain (through the Hudson’s Bay Company, which still exists as Canada’s oldest corporation) both still retained claims to the land, the US through Lewis and Clark, Robert Grey, and John Jacob Astor, and the British through Sir Francis Drake, Captain James Cooke, and Captain George Vancouver, and they had agreed to share it jointly in 1818.

*Starting in 1818, American missionaries began to settle in the Oregon Country.  Word got back to the east of the rich soil in the Pacific Northwest, especially in the fertile Willamette Valley, and pioneers began to move into the area, especially in the 1840s.  By 1846, over 5,000 Americans had moved into the Willamette Valley along the dangerous Oregon Trail (which supposedly averaged about 17 deaths per mile).  The British could only claim about 700 subjects north of the Columbia River.  With such disparity of numbers, many Americans felt they ought to take control of some or all of the Oregon Country outright.  The British were willing to reach a settlement, the dispute was simply over how much land each side would receive in the end.  Some Americans would later adopt the slogan of ‘54o40’ or Fight!’ in reference to the northernmost border of the Oregon Country, which some Americans wanted to seize from Great Britain.

*The great issue of the election of 1844 was Manifest Destiny—the idea that God had obviously ordained that the American people spread from sea to shining sea, starting by annexing Texas or Oregon or both.

*The Whigs opposed annexation of anything, for several reasons.  The possibility of war was very real if either Texas or Oregon was annexed.  The money spent subduing and settling the new territory would be money that would be better spent on internal improvements or possibly returned to the states.  New western territories would serve to further spread and dilute the American population, which Clay’s followers hoped to unite into one nation through the improvements of the American System.  Finally, any expansion would further the sectional disputes highlighted by the Missouri Compromise—Northerners would be offended at the annexation of Texas below the 36o30’ line, and Southerners would be concerned by the acquisition of Oregon.

*The Democrats had also expected to take annexation out of the election as a political issue, as most national politicians saw it for the divisive issue that it was.  The Democratic leadership intended to nominate Martin van Buren again.  Van Buren by this point was a Free-Soil man, opposed to the expansion of slavery, and he would not support the annexation of Texas on moral grounds or the annexation of Oregon for political reasons.

*Although van Buren had a great deal of support in the nominating convention, it was not enough to secure the nomination, and on succeeding ballots it declined each time as more and more competitors arose.  Eventually van Buren’s anti-Texas attitudes became well known, which sealed his fate.  He was opposed by, among others, Lewis Cass, a brigadier general in the War of 1812, former governor of Michigan (and a Mason), James Buchanan, a career politician and pro-Southern Pennsylvanian (and a future President and a Mason), John C Calhoun of South Carolina, a former Vice-President (but not a Mason), and James K Polk, former Governor of Tennessee, Speaker of the House of Representatives (and a Mason).

*Ultimately Polk was chosen, in part because, although very well known in Tennessee, he, like Harrison four years before, had few enemies on the national level.  Because he was a relative unknown and something of a surprise nomination, Polk was called a ‘dark horse’ candidate, a term that still exists.

*Polk was also a friend and neighbour of Andrew Jackson, still alive and offering direction to the Democratic Party, and so Polk was presented as ‘Young Hickory,’ the natural successor to Jackson.

*The Whigs, on the other hand, jeered at this dark horse, and asked ‘Who is James K Polk?’

*Polk ran on an expansionist campaign, calling for the reannexation of Texas and the reoccupation of Orgegon, while the Whigs said that the choices were ‘Polk, Slavery, and Texas’ or ‘Clay, Liberty, and Union.’

*Polk won with 170 electoral votes to 105, but it was a close election in the popular vote; New York was lost to Clay when about 16,000 voters chose to vote for the strongly anti-slavery Liberty Party, ironically splitting the vote of the anti-Texas party and contributing significantly to its defeat.  Had Clay had even 5,000 of their votes, he would have won New York, the most populous state, and thus the nation.

*Tyler, who had wanted an excuse to annex Texas, announced that the victory of Polk was a mandate from the people to do so, and he convinced Congress to do so through a join resolution during the last days of his presidency in 1845.  He retired to Virginia, a political outcaste who renamed his plantation ‘Sherwood Forest.’  He would later vote for secession from the Union in 1861, and his plantation would be burned by the US Army.

*Polk was a short, thin man, supposedly a great orator and known as the ‘Napoleon of the stump,’ a successful politician and loyal party man in Tennessee, but in private not very interesting.  He was a serious man who took his job seriously and worked himself to death.  During his campaign and presidency, he created and pursued a four-point plan, and promised to retire and not seek a second term if he accomplished it all.  He said 'there are four great measures which are to be the measures of my administration one, a reduction of the tariff; another the independent treasury; a third, the settlement of the Oregon boundary question; and lastly, the acquisition of California.’
1. A revenue tariff:  Robert J. Walker, Polk’s Secretary of the Treasury, lowered the tariff from 32% to 25%.  New Englanders and the Middle States opposed it but could not stop it, and were surprised to see that it was successful, thanks in large part to a concomitant economic boom period.
2. An independent treasury:  This revived van Buren’s old plan for treasuries and subtreasuries that were essentially strongboxes for the government’s gold, and had no business affiliations or direct influence on the economy.
3. Settle the Oregon dispute:  With all of Texas to digest, the clamour of ‘54o40’ or Fight!’ died away, although some Northerners asked why the South got all of Texas while the North only got as much of Oregon as lay south of an extension of the old US-Canadian border, the 49th parallel, over 5 degrees short of what some wanted.  However, most were satisfied to have gotten so much, including land occupied by British forts, without a war.
4. Acquire California:  Like Texas, California had seen an influx of American immigrants, and some of them wanted to rejoin the US, and many Americans, including Polk, wanted to help them.

*Although the Oregon dispute was settled without a war, the annexation of Texas and the desire for California would not be.
 

*Play the James K Polk song.

*Introduce Northwest Territory Settlement Game.  Although, as the class will recognise, it is based on the Land Ordinance of 1785, the same, or similar, Township and Range systems were used throughout the west in its settlement and, of course, although we speak of places as exotic as Oregon, we ought not forget that the Wisconsin Territory, part of the Old Northwest, would not become a state until 1848, so even the Land Ordinance itself is still in effect.

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This page last updated 19 October, 2003.