Political Change Fueled America’s Expansion West

By Keli Holt,

Who is James K. Polk? So asked Henry Clay in the presidential election of 1844. Few outside of Tennessee had heard of Polk even though he had served as governor of that state and the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. However, everyone knew the Kentuckian Henry Clay – a perpetual presidential nominee, the man who became speaker of the house on his first day in office, as well as a U.S. senator, and secretary of state. So assured of his victory over Polk, Clay’s campaign derisively queried who this adversary was for the presidential bid in 1844.

Despite the best efforts of the Founding Fathers to avoid favoring political parties, different visions for America’s future created competing political camps. The split occurred during George Washington’s two terms as president, with the emergence of the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties. Federalists like Washington and Alexander Hamilton argued for a stronger federal government, since they had seen first-hand during the Revolutionary War the dangers of a weak central government that could neither pay nor equip its soldiers. The Federalist platform also included a national bank, a standing army, and friendly relations with America’s largest trading partner, Britain.

The Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, argued for a weaker federal government. Only the powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution belonged to the federal government; all other powers remained with the states. They did not support a national bank, a large standing army, or the federal government paying for roads and canals (“internal improvements”). The Democratic-Republicans also despised Britain and backed the ideas, but not the bloodshed, of the French Revolution.

In 1800, Jefferson took over the President’s House (as the White House was then called) from Washington’s Federalist successor, John Adams. As America expanded westward during this period (1800-1828), it also democratized as the western states phased out all barriers for universal white male suffrage. The elitist Federalists seemed out of touch with an increasingly democratic nation, and their base of power narrowed to the more industrial New England. The Federalists also did not support the War of 1812, as the economic disruptions of the war, as well as the British Navy operating with impunity along its coast, impacted New England the most. When Gen. Andrew Jackson defeated the British at New Orleans in 1815 (the only large American victory of the entire war), the Federalists appeared almost treasonous in their lack of support. They would never again win the presidency.

Jackson, the hero of New Orleans, changed everything. After a succession of Democratic-Republicans, Jackson ran as a new kind of candidate in 1828. He was a man of the people, and crowds of working-class men and women flooded into Washington, D.C., for his inauguration. The President’s House itself became so crowded that Jackson was forced to jump out a window to escape the crush of humanity. (Much of the china and silverware managed to escape as well through sticky hands.)

Jackson’s strong will, however, split the Democratic-Republican Party, with Clay leading the charge against him. Clay argued for his “American System,” which had three pillars: a national bank, federal funding for internal improvements, and a protective tariff to spur manufacturing. Jackson and his presidential successor in 1836, Martin Van Buren, stood squarely against all three. Jackson’s and Van Buren’s followers began to call themselves “Democrats,” and the anti-Jackson group of former Democratic-Republicans coalesced into the Whig Party behind Clay.

The election of 1844, however, did not turn on banks or tariffs (the main issues of the last 20 years) but on westward expansion. Clay’s Missouri Compromise had succeeded in downplaying the issue of slavery for 24 years, but the impending annexation of Texas thrust it back into the spotlight. Most political observers believed that the Democrats would nominate Van Buren again. However, when he came out staunchly against Texas annexation, Jackson stepped into the fray once more. Jackson, like most westerners and southerners, wanted to see America expand westward. So, Jackson threw his support behind the first dark-horse candidate in American history, Polk, who vigorously backed the annexation.

“Who is James K. Polk?” sneered the Whigs. Well, Polk became the 11th president on the popular platform of American expansion. In his one term, Polk added California; the Territory of New Mexico; which included Arizona; New Mexico; most of Nevada, as well as the Oregon Territory. By the end of his term, America stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Would the new states carved out of the defeat of Mexico upset the precarious balance between the North and South?

Polk kept his promise to serve only one presidential term, thus leaving the fate of the greatly expanded union in the hands of his rivals. Men like Clay and an unknown representative from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln would try and solve the problems created by an expanding America.

To be continued…

For further reading, consider “Blood and Thunder” by Hampton Sides and “Heirs of the Founders” by H.W. Brands.

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