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Friday, April 20, 2018

A Deal Gone Sour: How A Henry Clay – Nativist Alliance Nearly Stopped the Civil War

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The Election of 1844 pitted Democrat James K. Polk against Whig elder statesman Henry Clay. Polk triumphed, but by the slimmest of margins. In an election that saw over 2.7 million people vote, merely 38,000 votes separated the candidates. While the 170-105 margin in the Electoral College seems a comfortable one, minor shifts of voters in several states (New York most notable among them) erase Clay’s deficit. The closeness of this election has justifiably attracted the attention of historians who, for over one hundred years, have speculated the reasons for Polk’s victory. Almost exclusively, historians tend to steer the conversation towards a discussion of issues, such as Texas annexation, that caused Clay to lose the election. The semantics are important; claiming Clay lostthe electionimplies that absent any mishandling of issues, Clay stood to win. This assumption is not supported by the historical record. Mid-nineteenth century voters held intense partisan attachments, perhaps even more so than today and the independent swing vote so critical to modern elections had yet to crystalize. Also, in 1844 slavery had yet begun ripping apart partisan alliances as it would in the 1850’s — this election boiled down to raw voter numbers and what party could more successfully rally their rank and file to the polls. The pool of unattached voters was extremely limited so issues served the purpose of arousing already partisan voters, not attracting unaffiliated ones. In other words, the large majority of people who voted in 1844 did so according to deep rooted partisan identification regardless of where the candidates stood on the issues. Charles Sellers illustrated this point when assessing the role of Texas on the outcome of the election, claiming that “more voters favored annexation because they were Democrats than voted Democratic because they favored annexation.” Due to surges in the heavily Democratic immigrant vote, Polk held the advantage in 1844 despite the benefit of his opponent’s name recognition. Therefore, Clay’s only chance of victory rested on his ability to attract the votes of the admittedly small number of those not already attached to Polk through party affiliation. By focusing on issues that cost Clay votes that were not his to lose, historians have often overlooked a key bloc of generally unaffiliated voters that Clay nearly rode to the presidency — the American Republican Nativist voters of New York City. Contrary to historians who have criticized the Whigs for courting the Nativist vote in New York as well as some Whig contemporaries who did so in their lamentations over the 1844 defeat, the Whigs had no choice but to forge an alliance with Nativist voters in New York City and had the Nativists fully adhered to the promise of alliance, Henry Clay would have won the election of 1844. Before exploring the basis of such a claim however, a discussion of how a Clay presidency could have changed the course of American history is in order, for if no marked change would have occurred under Clay’s administration, an examination of his defeat is far less compelling.[1]