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Friday, April 20, 2018

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

©2018 All rights reserved by the author.

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]

Civil War causation has served as fodder for intellectual debates amongst historians since the final shots fired at Appomattox. Historian Gary Kornblith divides the debating parties into two general groups — those who believe in the inevitably of the Civil War given the social and political sectional dynamics of the mid-nineteenth century and those who believe that had events played out differently within those dynamics, war could have been avoided. The former group, who Kornblith refers to as fundamentalists, have dominated the Civil War causation debate since the 1960s while the latter, who he refers to as revisionists, still thrive within certain pockets of academia. Imagining a counterfactual scenario plausible to members of both camps that eliminates the Civil War from history poses quite a challenge. Revisionists view the advent of the Civil War as a culmination of events resulting from the decisions of fallible politicians and try to determine which events, if removed produce a new reality that does not conclude with war. For fundamentalists, those events are ancillary to the sole factor that caused the Civil War — the sectional feud that erupted between the North and South over slavery. One development, had it occurred however, removes the events revisionists attribute to the war’s genesis and eliminates the sectional tension brought on by slavery that fundamentalists deem solely responsible its outbreak — a Henry Clay victory in the election of 1844.[2]

For fundamentalists who view sectional animosity between the North and South as thedetermining factor that ultimately produced Civil War, the America that might have developed under a Clay presidency would be free of such tension. Clay’s letters during the 1844 campaign clearly indicate that he abhorred the prospect of war with Mexico and had he been elected, the Mexican American War and the subsequent Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ceded much of Mexico’s northern territory to the United States would not have occurred. Without the acquisition of the western territories resulting from American victory in the war, sectional strife, eased for nearly thirty years by the Missouri Compromise would have continued to lie dormant. The inflammatory Wilmot Proviso calling for the banning of slavery in newly acquired territories would not have been suggested, neither a need arisen for the Compromise of 1850. This is not to say that the debate over slavery would have died out under a Clay presidency. However, by 1844 the embers of the slavery issue had cooled and required a spark to reignite them. Without a spark, the issue would be confined within the regular workings of the government as it had been since 1820, perhaps until the institution naturally collapsed into itself (although historians debate if and when the natural collapse would have occurred). The acquisition of the western territories provided the spark and once lit, the firestorm over slavery engulfed the nation. The events that coalesced to enflame the sectional tension fundamentalists blame for the Civil War would not have fallen into place had Clay won in 1844.[3]

For revisionist historians, the path leading from a Clay victory to the absence of the Civil War is a bit more complicated. Prominent Whig historian, Michael F. Holt questions that if one accepts slavery as the fundamental cause of the Civil War, why did war not erupt sooner, such as in 1820 when sectional tensions escalated over the admission of Missouri? Or why did not all fifteen slave states secede from the Union at once if war was truly rooted in sectional differences over slavery? Instead, Holt attributes the outbreak of the Civil War to a fight over the survival of republicanism, a cherished American value held together by the Second Party political system. As long as both the Whigs and Democrats existed to counter one another, party allegiance trumped sectional allegiance and citizens maintained faith in the republican virtues of their government. When the Whig Party collapsed in 1856, the system disintegrated allowing radical sectional political sects to fill the void of opposition to the Democrats. The ascendancy of the northern anti-slavery Republican Party provided the impetus necessary for the secessionist wing of the southern Democrats to supplant the already divided mainstream wing of the party. Distinct sectional parties replaced the national parties that had so long kept the slavery issue in check. Secessionists viewed Lincoln’s election in 1860 as a direct assault on the republican liberties of the South just as Parliament’s taxes had assaulted the rights of the colonists almost one hundred years prior. Secessionists, now in a power position since the collapse of the Second Party system, deemed separation the only choice. Had Clay been elected in 1844, the series of events that contributed to the collapse of the Whig Party and the Second Party system could have been avoided. Holt contends, “[a]lmost from the moment of Zachary Taylor’s election in November 1848…interparty conflict between Whigs and Democrats diminished and intraparty divisions among Whigs dangerously escalated.” In other words, the Taylor presidency began the slow process of Whig dissolution. It is impossible to know who would have won the presidency in 1848 had Clay triumphed in 1844, but undoubtedly, it would not have been Zachary Taylor. Taylor’s nomination stemmed from his heroics in the Mexican American War and he rode his military glory to electoral victory. Without the Mexican American War, not only would Taylor not achieve the fame necessary for victory but the political climate that provoked his nomination would not have materialized. Clay’s presidency instead would have strengthened the Whigs thus ensuring the survival of the Second Party system, suppressed the ascent of the Republican Party, and prevented the political crisis that characterized the 1850’s that many revisionists believe led to the Civil War.[4]

Clearly, a Clay presidency would have radically changed American history. This fact alone is compelling enough to invite historical scrutiny into the election’s inner workings — the closeness of the election requires it. As noted above, voters cast their lot according to established party lines and prominent issues such as Texas annexation probably did not influence the vote as much as those close to the candidates predicted. With the impressive turnout rates of the mid-nineteenth century ensuring a high floor for partisan participation and the distinct lack of non-affiliated voters, parties that held the numerical edge in raw voters enjoyed a significant advantage. Holt calculates that between the 1840 and 1844 presidential elections, the Democratic vote soared by 210,683, an astounding increase of 72.2 percent compared to a meager 8.7 percent for the Whigs, more than enough to offset the margin of William Henry Harrison’s victory over Martin Van Buren four years prior. Simply put, by 1844, more people identified themselves as Democrats than Whigs so therefore; Clay’s prospects did not rest on his ability to hold on to votes but rather in his ability to attract the votes of the small percentage of those not already committed to Polk. One need not look beyond New York to find the pocket of voters available to Clay to secure the presidency.[5]

It may seem foolish in an election with nearly three million votes cast to place emphasis on just a few thousand from only one state. Kornblith calls efforts to decipher the cause for Clay’s defeat in New York “futile.” Another historian calls it “unwise” to focus just on New York when so many other states produced close results. However, given the strong partisan attachments of the time, it is hard to find parts of country where Clay could have realistically picked up the additional votes he needed to win. Therefore, downplaying the New York vote, specifically in New York City (perhaps the one place in the country where potential Clay votes resided), is a missed opportunity. For those historians who have ascribed weight to the New York results, far too many have focused their attention on the wrong group of voters; those of the anti-slavery Liberty Party.[6]

The traditional analysis of New York’s voting returns espoused by many historians follows a simple mathematical and logical course. James Polk won the state by 5,106 votes. Liberty candidate James G. Birney garnered just over 15,000 New York votes. The assumption held by many contemporary Whigs and later adopted by historians is that most of those Liberty votes should have gone to Clay. Had Clay received just a third of the Liberty vote, he would have carried New York, its thirty-six electoral votes, and won the election. Historians who follow this course generally blame Clay’s handling of Texas for his loss of the Liberty vote. Analysis of voter returns from state and local elections between the presidential elections of 1840 and 1844 and consideration of Liberty voters’ beliefs and behavior reveals, however, that this is a flawed assumption for two reasons. 

First, to believe that Clay’s stance on Texas cost him Liberty votes in New York, particularly following the publication of his Alabama letters in the summer of 1844, one would expect to see a spike in the Liberty vote in November, 1844. Proponents of this theory often cite the increase of nearly 13,000 Liberty votes between 1840 and 1844 as confirmation that Liberty voters defected from the Whigs and cost Clay the election. However, examination of the 1843 New York state elections, the last statewide election prior to the presidential contest, exposes the dubious nature of such reasoning. Liberty candidates captured 16,097 votes in the 1843 elections while Birney received just 15,136 votes, a reduction of 1.4 percent of the total vote and a drop of nearly 1,000 raw votes. The surge in the Liberty vote occurred well before the Clay nomination and certainly before his thoughts on annexation leaked out. That the Liberty vote droppedbetween November 1843 and 1844 renders illogical the notion that Clay lost Liberty voters because of his handling of the Texas issue.[7]

Second, historians have argued that had the Liberty party not existed (or at least had they not run a candidate in the presidential contest) those votes would have gone overwhelmingly to Clay. Vernon L. Volpe calls this assumption “[p]robably the most dubious” of all explanations given for why the Liberty vote lost Clay the election. Instead, Volpe argues, “most Liberty voters had no intention of voting for slaveholding candidates, Democratic or Whig.” While it is safe to reason that a majority of the Liberty vote had once voted Whig, as explained above, the Liberty voters abandoned the Whigs long before the 1844 election. Many of these voters had shunned traditional politics altogether and viewed the casting of their vote a “religious duty” to eradicate the sin of slavery. Indeed, Liberty voters withheld support from other Whigs with far stronger anti-slavery credentials than Clay such as Joshua Giddings of Ohio and former president and anti-slavery crusader John Quincy Adams. If Liberty voters would reject such men, it is inconceivable that they would have supported the slaveholding Clay under any circumstance. The Liberty vote, therefore, was not Clay’s to lose. Those voters defected from the Whigs long before Henry Clay became their nominee and certainly before any of his vacillations on the Texas question. To believe those voters would flock back to the Whigs and Clay ignores the steadfast nature of the abolitionist movement in its refusal to support any politician connected to slavery. Potential Clay voters resided instead in New York City as members of a party with no national candidate to swallow up their votes, with no intention of sitting out the presidential election, and with no issue to disqualify either Clay or Polk from winning their support.[8]

The Nativist American Republican party formed in New York City during the summer of 1843. Deriving primarily out of angst among New Yorkers over the preponderance of Irish-Catholic appointments to city patronage positions, the party quickly developed into an outlet for those frustrated with both Whig and Democratic leaders’ handling of city politics. Although Nativist, anti-foreign sentiment underscored the party’sfoundation, many non-nativist Whigs and Democrats joined the party due to “gross corruption and folly of both old parties” and hoped for true government reform. True Nativists within the party chiefly advocated the extension of the naturalization period for immigrants from five years to twenty-one. The party made a distinct splash in city politics in the 1843 November local elections. American Republican candidates amassed nearly 8,600 votes, good for about 23 percent of the city-wide total. Just as staggering, Whigs saw their share of the vote fall from the April 1843 mayoral election by nearly 6 percent while Democratic vote dropped by an astounding 18 percent. The party continued to broaden its base of support by appealing to women who exercised great political influence despite their inability to vote. In addition, American Republicans elected in November began replacing those old guard politicians with relatively unknown political entities, untarnished by the stain of corruption. The party also made clear its commitment to reform by advocating “police and street cleaning reform, reduction in local expenses, and a lowering of the tax rate.” The strategy worked and by April, Nativists had positioned themselves for a run at city hall. Clearly, the American Republican party had established a strong footing in the city and Democrats appeared most damaged by their emergence.[9]

As the mayoral election of April, 1844 drew near, the American Republicans made the careful selection of James Harper as their candidate. Harper carried a glowing reputation in the city coming from a Protestant family and achieved success as a publisher. Involvement in the temperance movement and a charitable spirit bolstered his wholesome credentials. For New Yorkers looking for a fresh face unblemished by corruption many felt plagued local government, Harper appeared a viable choice. More importantly, Harper was a Whig and for the American Republicans to carry the election, they needed to capture a substantial block of the Whig vote. As the Nativist groundswell increased in the weeks leading up to the election, many Whigs determined that throwing their support to Harper was their only hope for defeating the Democratic candidate. This proved a wise decision. In the largest turnout to that point in New York City election history, New Yorkers cast over 50,000 votes in April, 1844. Harper emerged victorious, capturing 24,570 votes accounting for just below 49 percent of the total. Democrats came up 4,000 votes shy of the victor but saw their percentage from November rise from 38 to 41 percent. Whigs, running a perfunctory candidate, secured only 5,300 votes, just over 10 percent of the vote cast.[10]

Analysis of voting statistics since the formation of the American Republican party provides crucial insight into the party dynamics of New York City as the presidential election of 1844 approached. While the party initially provided a landing spot for both Whigs and Democrats disillusioned with city politics (as well as those harboring true Nativist ideations), the core of American Republican voters in their first election in November, 1843 came from the ranks of disgruntled Democrats as shown above. New Yorkers cast roughly 13,000 more votes in April than in November. Nativists increased their vote by 16,000, with 9,000 coming from Whigs who had defected to Harper meaning the American Republicans received roughly 7,000 additional new votes. While presumably any number of these votes could have come from the Democracy, their 3 percent increase in voter share from November to April indicates that between new voters, voters who abstained in previous elections, or those who defected back from the nativists, Democrats suffered no additional damage from Nativists beyond their initial hit in November, 1843 (Table 1). The implications of these developments are vital to understanding the city vote in the November presidential election and the position Whigs found themselves in as the summer of 1844 took hold. With no American Republican candidate in the field and no thought yet of another Whig-Nativist coalition, Democrats held a distinct advantage in New York City.   

Table 1 – New York City Election Returns November 1843-April 1844

November 1843                                      April 1844                                 Vote Differential              
Whig Total         14,291                           Whig Total         5,297                -8,994 (-29.5%)
Dem. Total         14,327                           Dem. Total         20,538               +6,211(+2.7%)   
Nativist Total      8,550                            Nativist Total      24,570               +16,020 (+26%)
Total Vote          37,612                           Total Vote          50,405               

*This table is based on election returns reported in Whig Almanac 1844and Whig Almanac 1845.

Despite the obvious numeric benefit both major parties stood to gain from Nativist support; neither party had embraced the movement since its inception. Nativism carried the same negative connotation it carries today and both Whig and Democratic news organs exercised considerable efforts to pin the American Republican party’s emergence on the opposition. In April, following Harper’s mayoral victory, the Democratic St. Lawrence Republicanremarked, “[t]he democracy have stood nobly by their principles and their candidates, and are defeated by the natural allies of whiggery and performers of ‘coon’ antics, the proscriptive and exclusive ‘Nativist Party.’” William Tyack wrote to Polk that Whigs were “ashamed of their own business” in joining with the Nativists to carry New York City. Unable to refute the obvious mergerbetween Whigs and Nativists that propelled the latter to victory in April, Whigs countered by claiming to be “pained” over the victory of such a “proscriptive” party such as the American Republicans but placed blame for the party’s formation squarely on Democrats for efforts “to buy up the foreign votes by a too free distribution of offices among adopted citizens.” This caused angry Democratsto construct the new party and Whigs merely voted with them to remove the Democrats from power. In April, 1844, neither major party appeared willing to court Nativist support for its large bloc of voters in November. The Philadelphia Nativist riots in May and July further reinforced both party’s public repudiation of the movement.[11]

Although publically opposed to Nativist principles and although no discussions of Nativism took place during the Whig convention in Baltimore in May, 1844, the likelihood is high that convention goers were aware of the Nativist surge in New York City and cognizant of its potential impact on the election. The curious choice of the rabidly Protestant Theodore Frelinghuysen as Clay’s running mate suggests at minimum, the Whigs worried little about agitating the anti-Native vote. Frelinghuysen, a former New Jersey senator residing in New York, carried a reputation for clean living to help offset Clay’s reputation for drinking, dueling, and carousing. Holt has suggested that Southerners, seeking a northern candidate to balance the ticket against the slaveholding Clay but not one who would agitate the southern vote against the ticket, were primarily responsible for the choice of Frelinghuysen. The selection of the devout Frelinghuysen and his membership in anti-Catholic religious organizations though ensured an angry reaction among the growing Catholic vote. That no major objections to Frelinghuysen arose among the convention goers despite this fact suggests that either Whigs were unconcerned with the Catholic vote (a group unlikely to vote Whig regardless) or that Whigs recognized Frelinghuysen’s attractiveness among anti-Catholic voters to offset any potential losses among Catholics. Clay, in a lukewarm endorsement of Frelinghuysen remarked to Thurlow Weed, “[i]f he does not add any strength which however I think he will do he will take away none from the ticket.” Clay’s ambivalence towards Frelinghuysen indicates courting Nativists had yet to factor into his or the Whig strategy, but also shows that he harbored little fear that association with Nativists would harm him.[12]

Historians who have studied the link between Nativism and Clay conclude that he had no intention of seeking out the Nativist vote until just before the election. Letters written by Clay in the early summer appear to refute this analysis and indicate that while he would give no full-throated Nativist endorsement, he had at least contemplated releasing a statement that would undeniably attract their support. Clay wrote to Frelinghuysen in May expressing his support for extending the naturalization period from five to twenty-one years for new immigrants entering the United States. He then inquired as to the political expediency of publically releasing his position on the matter He informed Frelinghuysen that he sent the same inquiry to Millard Fillmore for his opinion. In June, Clay, in a letter penned to Peter Sken Smith, remarked that Nativism “[a]t the bottom, it has a right spirit; and, if conducted with discretion and prudence, it cannot fail ultimately to do good.” He also expressed concern though over the benefit of adding the issue to the campaign. In a letter dated two days later, Clay again inquired to the political expedience of releasing his stance on naturalization, this time to Thomas Ewing of Ohio. Clay’s friends responded overwhelmingly in favor of remaining silent on the matter. It stands to reason that had Clay’s confidants encouraged him to declare his views on naturalization, Clay would have done so much earlier than historians have previously noted and Nativist support for the Whig ticket all but ensured.[13]

Democrats shared Whig reluctance to introducing the Native issue into the campaign. A friend of Polk wrote him that he thought the Native issue “a very delicate one, not to be touched if to be avoided by you.” He later adds that the Catholic vote is safe and nothing should be done to jeopardize that. Polk’s running mate, George Dallas, echoed these sentiments in late June when in a letter to Polk warned that “[p]rudence would suggest that this controversy is as yet too young and undefined to warrant a judgment on its merits.” Some Democrats though believed the Nativist vote more concerning than historians have previously noted. Of particular note is a letter from New York’s William L. Marcy, dated June 28, 1844. Towards the end of the letter Marcy appeared quite sanguine of Polk’s chances in the state, but cautioned that the Whig ticket “as to the Vice President [Frelinghuysen] is very acceptable to […]. In this event our chances of success will be somewhat lessened.” The omitted section is almost certainly a reference to Nativists and illustrates that although Democrats felt relatively secure in capturing the state, the Nativist issue concerned them. Still, like their Whig counterparts, most Democrats were perfectly comfortable with Polk ignoring anything to do with Nativists and naturalization laws. This would change for both parties in September when the nomination of Silas Wright for governor of New York served up for Democrats perhaps their biggest advantage of the election.[14]

The immensely popular Silas Wright had more effect on the outcome of the election of 1844 than any individual outside of the Clay or Polk. Originally a top choice for Polk’s running mate, Wright refused the billing out of respect for his long-time friend and colleague, 1844 presidential hopeful Martin Van Buren. Anti-Van Buren elements of the party conspired to block the former President from his third nomination by instituting a two-thirds rule that Van Buren’s baggage made impossible to achieve. From the chaos that ensued, James Polk emerged the nominee with the loyal Wright unwilling to run on the ticket that had scorned his friend. Wright would still impact the race enormously, however, by accepting New York’s gubernatorial nomination in early September. Wright’s presence on the November ticket all but assured Polk’s victory in the state. Albert Gallup wrote to Polk just after the nomination that “[t]he State of N.Y. is safe beyond the reach of a contingency…The Whigs are aghast at the nomination.” Similar letters to Polk poured in throughout early September assuring him that Wright’s nomination “settles the question as to N. York” and another claiming Whigs in New York would not even bet on Clay’s victory in the state getting a 10,000 vote handicap. Wright’s nomination left the disheartened New York Whigs with just one choice; forging an alliance with New York City Nativists.[15]

No commentary better sums up the Whig predicament following Wright’s nomination than that offered by Nicholas Carroll to North Carolina Whig Willie P. Mangum. Using an analogy comparing war with the election, Carroll proclaimed, “[i]n the dread pause before the battle — we survey the field — know every point of defence — and strengthen every breach or weakness in our entrenchments.” Carroll, writing only days after Wright’s nomination, went on to openly advocate an alliance with the Nativists and claimed, “withoutit [a Nativist alliance] we may go out of New York in an overwhelming minority.” Carroll even alleviated anticipated Whig concerns over uniting with a group carrying such a reputation as the Nativists by asserting, “[i]f in Union with this Party there was even a temporary yielding of principle — the emergency & the occasion, would more than justify the momentary forgetfulness.” Clearly, the Whigs understood the precariousness of their situation and determined aligning with the Nativists their only chance for victory. The independent New York Herald put it most bluntly: “The whig and ‘native’ tickets must merge into each other…otherwise they will both be defeated.”[16]

Democrats viewed a compact between Whigs and Nativists with a degree of concern, especially after the Philadelphia city election in early October showed the potential strength of a Whig-Nativist coalition. The American Republican party had spread to Philadelphia by October and through a level of cooperation with Whigs, elected nine to the state legislature, two congressmen, and took a healthy chunk out of popular Democratic gubernatorial candidate Francis Shunk’s majority. That a similar coalition would take shape in New York became one Democrat’s “greatest fear” and Silas Wright hinted to Polk that New York City could be in danger but as long as Clay did not run up more than 5,000 votes there, the state should be safe. On the same day in October, Democratic and Whig news organs attacked one another on the Nativist issue; Democrats castigated Whigs for rebuking Nativist ideology in the past only to coalesce with them now while Whig papers, perhaps in an attempt to rally Nativist support, accused Democrats of illegally naturalizing immigrants by the hundreds ahead of the vote. New York Whigs had indeed formed an alliance with the Nativists. Whigs would throw their support to Nativist local candidates while Nativists would cast their ballots for Clay. The outcome of the election would come down to the Nativists’ loyalty to this alliance.[17]

Unlike the Liberty vote, Clay could have reasonably expected support from the Nativists. Although the party formed due to anger with both parties, the formal organization of the American Republicans occurred during a Democratic administration and drew its initial strength from Democratic defections. There was no guarantee these voters would flock back to the Democracy, especially considering that the majority of those defections were conservative Democrats; New Yorkers whose political leanings fell more in line with Whigs than more traditional Democrats (especially those of the South). Clay needed every Nativist vote he could scrape together to carry the state and signs pointed to the possibility that he would.

It is worth noting here the irony of Nativism and its role in the outcome of the election. Nativism held no political clout outside its small enclaves in major northern cities. Nativist principles were abhorred by the general public and adherents to those principles tended to stay in the shadows. Even when the movement picked up steam in the early 1850’s through the Know Nothing Party, Nativists maintained utmost secrecy and preferred maneuvering for political prominence covertly. Viewed in this light, it is quite ironic to think that this group could have affected American history in such a profound manner by catapulting Henry Clay into the presidency and halting the chain of events that led to war.

As the New York returns poured in, however, it revealed Nativist loyalty a bit wanting. Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, in reaction to the New York returns summarized that the deal “has not had the expected effect of bringing ‘Natives’ themselves to vote for Mr. Clay.” Clay lost the city by roughly 2,000 votes, the state by just over 5,000, and thus, the election. Whigs helped elect three of the four Nativist candidates to whom they pledged their support, leading the Tribuneto suggest that Clay and the Whigs had been used by the Nativists. Almost immediately, Whigs cried foul over illegal voting practices perpetrated by Democrats including violent attacks on Whigs as they arrived at polls and immigrant voters illegally casting multiple ballots for Polk. The veracity of such claims is probably somewhat true, but analysis of the city vote reveals that despite such illegal measures, Clay stillcould have won New York City, the state, and the election had the Nativists fully adhered to the deal.[18]

Examination of city elections since the advent of the American Republican party illustrates beyond doubt that forging an alliance with the Nativists provided Clay with his best chance to win the state but also the inability of Nativists to convince their full contingent to fully get on board. In November, 1843, the first New York City election featuring Nativist candidates, Whigs received 14,291 votes. In the presidential election the following year, Clay collected 26,385 city votes. Accepting the great likelihood that all 1843 Whig votes went for Clay, he picked up an additional 12,094 more votes than Whig candidates the previous year. Nativist mayoral candidate James Harper received 24,570 votes in April and with roughly 9,000 of those votes coming from Whig defections certain to go for Clay in November, leaves 15,576 Nativist votes available. If the additional 12,094 votes the Whigs received in November came entirely from the Nativists, that still leaves 3,482 Nativist votes unaccounted for.

Where those Nativist votes went becomes clear after examining the Democratic vote. Democrats saw an increase of about 7,800 votes between April’s mayoral contest and the presidential election. The total vote increased in the city by 4,393 between the two elections, the overwhelming majority of those voters being naturalized immigrants casting their vote for Polk. Even assigning the entirety of the new vote to Polk leaves an additional 3,400 Democratic votes unaccounted for — nearly the exact amount of outstanding Nativist votes (Table 2). Any new voters who voted for Clay only increase the number of Nativists who reneged on the alliance.

Table 2 – Breakdown of New York City Voters November, 1844

Whig Voters November, 1844                                            Democratic Voters November, 1844           
Voted Whig in April 1844             5,297                            Voted Democrat in April 1844       20,538
Voted Nativist in April 1844          ≈21,088                         New Voters in November 1844      ≈4,393
Total Whig Vote                         26,385                           Voted Nativist in April 1844        ≈3,365
                                                                                    Total Democratic Vote                 28,296
*This table is based on returns reported in Whig Almanac 1845.

Simply put, a large contingent of Nativist voters siphoned originally from the Democrats refused to fall in line with their brethren and instead returned to the Democrats and voted for Polk. Had they stayed true to the deal, the nearly 7,000 vote swing would have propelled Clay into the White House.

The assessment shared by Whig contemporaries such as William Seward and Millard Fillmore and later co-opted by historians that the Whig alliance with the Nativists cost Clay the election by driving the immigrant vote into Polk’s arms is therefore not an accurate one. The immigrant vote, like the Liberty vote, was not Clay’s to lose. Immigrants would fall overwhelmingly to Polk due solely to his being a Democrat. Despite voter fraud, violence against Whigs at the polls, and a possible uptick in immigrant turnout due to the Whig’s late alliance with the Nativists, the numbers still indicate that the full strength of the Native vote in New York City was enough to win the election for Clay had they fully honored the alliance. With Nativism having little resonance outside of major northern cities, taking an earlier and firmer stand with the Nativists could only have helped Clay and it seems from his letters that he at least considered doing so until talked out of it by his friends. As it turned out, Clay lost, two years later the United States went to war with Mexico, ten years after that the Whig party collapsed at the hands of the new Republican Party and just five years after that, the United States and the Confederate States of America engaged in the bloodiest war in American history. How much Henry Clay would have adhered to Nativist principles had he won is impossible to know but his political record suggests more likely than not, Nativists would have been disappointed with his administration. With that in mind, it seems unfortunate that for all the torment Nativism has heaped upon the United States, the one opportunity to manipulate its forces for something good fell by the wayside.

About the author: Michael Trapani is a middle school history teacher in Bridgewater, New Jersey. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Fairleigh Dickinson University and is currently completing his master’s in North American history from Arizona State University.

[1]Charles Sellers, “Election of 1844,” in History of American Presidential Elections Volume I, ed. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Fred L Israel, and William P Hansen (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1971), 797; Richard Johnson, “Party Identification Measures in the Anglo-American Democracies: A National Survey Experiment,” American Journal of Political Science36 no. 2 (May, 1992), 542; Justin H. Smith, The Annexation of Texas(New York: Macmillan, 1911), 315; For proponents of Texas’s importance, see William J. Cooper, South and the Politics of Slavery, 1826-1852(Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1978), 115-121; Clement Eaton, Henry Clay and the Art of American Politics(Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1957), 170-178; Michael A. Morrison, “Westward the Curse of Empire: Texas Annexation and the American Whig Party,” Journal of the Early Republic10 no. 2 (Summer 1990), 221-249; Frederick Merk, Slavery and the Annexation of Texas(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), 83-100.
[2]For a complete discussion on the fundamentalist and revisionist views of Civil War causation, see Gary Kornblith, “Rethinking the Coming of the Civil War: A Counterfactual Exercise,” The Journal of American History90 no. 1 (June, 2003), 77-80.
[3]Henry Clay to the editors of the Washington Daily National Intelligencer Joseph Gales & William W. Seaton, April 17, 1844, in Papers of Henry Clay Volume 10: Candidate, Compromiser, Elder Statesman, January 1, 1844 – June 29, 1852, ed. Melba Porter Hay and Carol Reardon (Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1991), 41-45.
[4]Michael F. Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War(New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 954; Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978), 2.
[5]Sellers, “The Election of 1844,” 797; Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party, 196.
[6]Kornblith, “Rethinking the Coming of the Civil War,” 84; Vernon L. Volpe, “The Liberty Party and Polk’s Election, 1844,” The Historian 53 (Summer 1991), 698.
[7]Lee Benson, The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy; New York as a Test Case(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961), 135.
[8]For a detailed deconstruction of the Liberty Party’s harm to Clay, see Volpe, “The Liberty Party and Polk’s Election,” 691-710.
[9]Originally quoted in New York Herald, November 10, 1843, in “The Rise and Fall of the American Republican Party in New York City,” by Ira M. Leonard. The New-York Historical Society QuarterlyL no. 2 (April, 1966), 165; Ibid., 166-167;The Whig Almanac and Politicians’ Register For 1844. (New York: Greeley & McElrath, 1844), 56, American Almanac Collection (Library of Congress),
[10]Leonard, “Rise and Fall of the American Republican Party,” 167; The Whig Almanac and Politicians’ Register For 1846. (New York: Greeley & McElrath, 1846), 57, American Almanac Collection (Library of Congress),
[11]St. Lawerence Republican (NY), April 16, 1844,; William Tyack to James K. Polk, April 13, 1844, in Correspondence of James K. Polk: Volume VII, January-August 1844, ed. Wayne Cutler & James P. Cooper Jr. (Nashville, Tennessee: Vanderbilt University Press, 1989), 101-102; Auburn Journal and Advertiser (NY), April 17, 1844,
[12]Henry Clay to Thurlow Weed, May 6. 1844, Papers of Henry Clay, 53-54; Holt, Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party, 189-190.
[13]Clay to Frelinghuysen, May 22, 1844, Papers of Henry Clay, 63; Clay to Peter Sken Smith, June 17, 1844, Papers of Henry Clay, 70-71; Clay to Ewing, June 19, 1844, Papers of Henry Clay, 71; Clay to George M.Davis, August 31, 1844, Papers of Henry Clay, 107.
[14]John Catron to Polk, June 8, 1844, Correspondence of James K. Polk VII, 213-215; George Dallas to Polk, June 26, 1844, Correspondence of James K. Polk VII, 283-285; William L. Marcy to Polk, June 28, 1844, Correspondence of James K. Polk VII, 296-298.
[15]Albert Gallup to Polk, September 6, 1844 in Correspondence of James K. Polk: Volume VIII, September-December 1844, ed. Wayne Cutler, Robert G. Hall II, & Jayne C. DeFiore (Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press, 1993), 23-24; Andrew T. Judson to Polk, September 14, 1844, Correspondence of James K. Polk VIII, 60-61; John T. Andrews to Polk, September 16, 1844, Correspondence of James K. Polk VIII, 67-68; For a complete breakdown of the 1844 Democratic National Convention, see Sellers, “The Election of 1844,” 749-773.
[16]Nicholas Carroll to Willie P. Mangum, September 8, 1844 in The Papers of Willie Person Mangum Volume IV, 1844-1846, ed. Henry Thomas Shanks (Raleigh, North Carolina: State Department of Archives and History, 1955), 180-184; The New York Herald, October 6, 1844,
[17]Sellers, “The Election of 1844,” 793; Holt, Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party 205; William Taylor to Polk, October 17, 1844, Correspondence of James K. Polk VIII, 201-203; Silas Wright to Polk, October 31, 1844, Correspondence of James K. Polk VIII, 250-252; The Spirit of the Times(NY), October 22, 1844,; Frontier Sentinel (NY), October 22, 1844,; Nov., 2, 1844 Niles Registerclaimed that 5,000 immigrants were naturalized in the three months leading up to the election.
[18]The New York Tribune, November 6, 1844,; Gregory A. Borchard, “The New York Tribuneand the 1844 Election: Horace Greeley, Gangs, and the Wise Men of Gotham,” Journalism History33 no. 1 (Spring 2007), 56.

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