December 3rd, 2019


The Democratic Party's 1844 Presidential Nomination

In 1844, the Democrats were split
The three candidates for the presidential candidate
Were Martin Van Buren, a former President and an abolitionist,
James Buchanan, a moderate,
Lewis Cass, a general and expansionist,
From Nashville came a dark horse riding up
He was James K. Polk, Napoleon of the Stump


So go the lyrics of the song by the alternative group They Might Be Giants. They're not entirely accurate however. Van Buren would not run as an abolitionist for another four years, and in 1844 he was still hoping to attract the support of his former mentor Andrew Jackson, someone who was definitely not an abolitionist. It also seems wrong to describe a "doughface" like James Buchanan as a moderate, though I suppose that he was for his time, as he sought to hold the divergent interests of northern and southern Democrats together. But as the 1844 Democratic Convention approached, if there had been such a thing as Las Vegas odds in those days, a bet that James K. Polk would emerge as the party's nominee for President would have paid off handsomely.

In 1840, the Jacksonian era came to an end with the defeat of Martin Van Buren in his bid for re-election. Van Buren had been done in by the Panic of 1837, an economic depression that many blamed on Jackson's policy of refusing to recharter the national bank. That and a slick campaign had put General William Henry Harrison in the White House - for just 31 days. When Harrison died on April 4, 1841, his successor John Tyler proceeded to alienate his Whig Party. Tyler had flirted with the idea of running as a Democrat and also as an independent, but neither proved a viable option.

The 1844 Democratic National Convention was a presidential nominating convention was held in Baltimore, Maryland for four days from May 27 to May 30. As the convention approached, Van Buren was considered to be the front runner. That all changed with a plan by President Tyler to annex the independent Republic of Texas. This proved to be a divisive issue, as northerners saw the move as one that would allow for the expansion of slavery into territory south of the line delineated by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Southern slaveholders liked the move for the same reason. Among those in support of the move were former President Andrew Jackson and his protege, fellow Tennessean James K. Polk.

Martin Van Buren made his opposition to the annexation of Texas known publicly. This cost him support with expansionists and Southerners. Van Buren entered the convention with the backing of a majority of the delegates. Before presidential balloting began, the convention voted to reinstate a rule requiring the presidential nominee to win two-thirds of the vote. This was a blow to the Van Buren forces. On the first ballot for the Presidential nominee, Van Buren won a simple majority of the vote, but fell short of a two-thirds majority. As the balloting continued, Van Buren continually lost support to former Governor Lewis Cass of Michigan, former Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky, and Senator James Buchanan of Pennsylvania.

James K. Polk had attended the convention only hoping to be nominated for vice president. Polk had the strong support of Andrew Jackson and was acceptable to the different factions of the party. He had once been Speaker of the House, and was also a former Governor of his state. But he had lost the last two elections as the Democratic candidate for Governor, and he was not considered to be very electable for anything other than possibly as Vice-President.

At the outset of the convention, the leading contenders had a much better political pedigree than Polk. Van Buren of New York was a former President who had been defeated in the 1840 election. Lewis Cass of Michigan had served as United States Secretary of War under President Andrew Jackson. Richard Johnson had been Van Buren's Vice-President, but was controversial within his party because of his open relationship with a mulatto woman.

Van Buren publicly opposed the immediate annexation of Texas because he believed that it might lead to a sectional crisis over the status of slavery in the West. This position cost Van Buren the support of Southern and expansionist Democrats, but he held to this position because he believed that backing annexation would cost him the support of his fellow New Yorkers and other Northeasterners. He found himself in a difficult position, but he still believed he could win the nomination because he had the support of a majority of the delegates pledged to him on the first ballot. Cass had support from a handful of Southern states, but had far fewer delegates pledged to him than Van Buren.

At the previous convention in 1840, the winning candidate needed only a majority of votes to secure the nomination, but this had been a departure from the traditional practice of requiring a two-thirds vote to win the nomination. Early in the proceedings, Senator Robert J. Walker of Mississippi brought a motion for the reinstatement of the traditional 1832 and 1835 convention rule requiring the nominee to win two-thirds of the votes. In this he had the support of James Buchanan, who imagined that he might emerge as the compromise candidate from a deadlocked convention. Van Buren's supporters split over this issue. One-third of the pro-Van Buren delegates (52 of 154) voted to reinstate the two-thirds rule, along with 90 of 104 anti-Van Buren delegates, and the motion passed by a vote of 148 to 116. The rule would remain in place until the 1936 Democratic National Convention, when it was revoked by supporters of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Van Buren still had hopes of winning the nomination, despite the two-thirds rule. He received 146 votes on the first ballot, a 55% simple majority, but 31 votes short of the now required 177 votes. Support for Van Buren decreased in subsequent ballots from 146 to 99. Van Buren's supporters refused to support numerous other candidates, such as Buchanan, Cass, former Vice-President John C. Calhoun, or Levi Woodbury of New Hampshire. Incumbent President John Tyler, a former Democrat who was elected to the Vice Presidency on the 1840 Whig Party ticket, also hoped to win the support of delegates, but he was unable to find any support.

It became clear that Van Buren could not win the nomination because of his stand on Texas annexation. The Democratic Party was in need of an acceptable nominee committed to immediate annexation, but also capable of unifying the party in the general election.

On the eighth ballot, the historian George Bancroft, a delegate from Massachusetts, proposed former Speaker of the House James K. Polk as a compromise candidate. Polk came to the convention in hopes of becoming the vice presidential nominee. Former President Andrew Jackson, who remained popular in the party, believed Polk was, in the words of They Might Be Giants, "just the man we need to bring about victory". Although he was a slaveholder himself, Polk had never been as vocal about a slavery expansionist position with respect to Texas annexation as John C. Calhoun or other southern extremists. Polk had also carefully avoided being openly critical of Van Buren and so anti-annexationist Van Buren supporters found Polk the least offensive among their choices. Many of them had already agreed to support Polk as their vice-presidential choice to compliment a Van Buren ticket. Southern Democrats had no difficulty in supporting the pro-annexation nationalist Polk.

On the ninth ballot, Van Buren instructed his delegates to support Polk, beginning a stampede that ended with Polk winning the nomination unanimously. Polk became the known as the first "dark horse" presidential nominee, a term that became coined for a surprise winner in a political contest. Van Buren supported his party's decision to unite under a pro-annexation candidate, and worked to win New York state for Polk in the general election that followed.


In the election of 1844, the Whigs tried to cast Polk as an unknown. They campaigned on the slogan "Who is James K. Polk?" But Polk proved to be an effective political operator. He gained the nickname "Young Hickory", a dual reference, one to his mentor Andrew Jackson ("Old Hickory") and one to the term Young America, a reference to an international movements struggling to establish republican forms of government. With Van Buren's help, Polk narrowly won the state of New York, which proved decisive in his election victory over the better-known Whig candidate Henry Clay. Ironically, Polk won the election, while losing his (and Jackson's) home state of Tennessee.