Select Page
The Odd Fellows Hall in Baltimore, Maryland. Constructed in 1831.

The Odd Fellows’ Hall in Baltimore, where the 1844 Democratic National Convention Took Place

By 1844, the political career of James K. Polk was in ruins. He sat at his plantation in central Tennessee, not licking his wounds, but rather planning how to get ahead again. 

Polk’s prospects of holding public office had come to a standstill since his failed reelection attempt to the office of the Governor of Tennessee in 1841, being defeated by the showboating James C. Jones. Polk tried again in 1843, but to no avail. 

Then, on the 27th of May, 1844, members of the Democratic Party from every corner of the United States of America assembled at the Odd Fellows Hall in Baltimore, Maryland. Their business was deciding who they would put up against Henry Clay, who had been chosen unanimously as the Whigs’ candidate at the beginning of the month.

It took two days and nine ballots, but eventually the delegates emerged with the answer to Clay’s threats of federalism: Polk.

In 1844, it was a perfect storm of diligence and connections on Polk’s part, along with Martin Van Buren’s political suicide, that allowed Polk to represent the Democrats in the presidential election.

A little luck may have also helped.

Originally, Polk’s Ambitions only Extended to the Vice-Presidency 

Polk initially aimed to be nominated for Vice President. He managed to convince all of Tennessee’s democratic delegates to support him and not pledge themselves to a presidential candidate in the months leading up to the convention. This made delegates and their respective candidates pledge support to Polk in order to win Tennessee’s delegates to their side.

Polk also had Jackson’s support for the nomination. Jackson supported Van Buren for President, and realized that an Abolitionist Northerner must be balanced out by a Pro-Slavery Southerner.

Former Vice President John Calhoun fit the bill perfectly, but had greater aspirations: he aimed for the presidency in 1844. Unfortunately for him, the delegates were not particularly keen on nominating a man who had threatened to have his state secede from the sacred union.

Besides Calhoun’s presidential aspirations, he and Jackson were not on the friendliest of terms. Polk would suffice as a vice-presidential counterweight to Van Buren.

Democratic Candidates for the Presidency in 1844

There were several other candidates for Polk to serve under – Most famously James Buchanan, hailing from Pennsylvania. Buchanan went would win the presidency in 1856 but would go down as the worst (occasionally second worst) president in US History. He was famously apathetic. A self-proclaimed “moderate,” he supported the rights of states to choose whether or not to allow slavery. This was notably exhibited in his Kansas-Nebraska act of 1854, which was the catalyst for “Bleeding Kansas.”

Levi Woodbury of New Hampshire

 Woodbury would end up being appointed to the Supreme Court by Polk in 1845, the first Supreme Court justice to have attended law school.

The only Southerner hoping to for the nomination before Polk entered the race was Richard M. Johnson, “Colonel J,” from Kentucky. Vice President of Martin Van Buren, Johnson was considered a major liability to the party during his term, and his interracial relationship did not help further his career. Van Buren ran for reelection in 1840 with no running mate rather than have Johnson’s name tarnish the ticket.

Gideon Johnson Pillow

Gideon J. Pillow, Polk’s Political Ally and Later a General in the Confederate Army

Also hoping to be nominated was Michigan’s Lewis Cass. Cass, like Polk, was a staunch expansionist who believed in securing the nation’s place in the Western half of North America. Cass was a war hero and former governor, similar to Jackson. None of this mattered, for Cass did not have sufficient clout to be considered seriously by either Jackson or Polk. Lewis Cass would not have a place in the Polk administration.

Finally, New Hampshire’s Presidential hopeful Levi Woodbury was another candidate.  Although he had served in the administrations of Presidents Van Buren and Jackson, he was famously indecisive, similarly to Buchanan.

Texas and Expansion Come into Play

A new issue presented itself on February 28th, 1844, an issue that would land Polk in the White House.

The USS Princeton, built less than six months earlier, was considered by many, including its captain, to be the peak of American naval power. The captain decided to demonstrate this by inviting several Washington politicians board the ship for a dinner cruise along the Potomac. After dinner, the ship would show its power by firing the largest gun for all of the guests to see. This, however, did not go as planned and the cannon exploded, blowing a hole in the ship and killing several guests, including Robert Upshur, Secretary of State under then-president John Tyler. Tyler himself was on board but was not severely hurt in the explosion.

Upshur, before he was killed, was about to negotiate a treaty for the annexation of Texas. The progress there was reset upon his death, even though the new Secretary of State John Calhoun was in favor of expansion. This brought the Texas issue to the forefront of the year’s political scene, and each candidate had to clarify their position.

Henry Clay, as his party’s idol, had Whig support for his denunciation of annexing Texas. Texas would be a new slave state in the union. This would upset the balance of states that did and didn’t allow slavery, a balance maintained by Clay’s 1820 Missouri Compromise.

USS Princeton, built in 1843

The USS Princeton Was Considered to be the peak of American Naval Power

For the Democrats, the issue was more contentious. There were already differences between party members that would lead to the 1860 three-way party split that allowed Lincoln to be elected by a plurality. The Texas question embodied the issues of slavery and expansion, and opinions on these things varied wildly within the party.

Van Buren, the most prominent democratic candidate, published a letter in The Washington Globe saying that he would support annexation if it could be done without a “loss of national character” and that annexation would almost certainly result in war with Mexico.

Most of the public did not view the situation the same way as Van Buren, Jackson included. As  Polk noted in a letter to his campaign manager Cave Johnson, Mr. Van Buren was under the impression that he “had [Jackson’s] views before him when he wrote his letter.”

Jackson Shifts from Supporting Van Buren to Supporting Polk

When Jackson read Van Buren’s letter, he was outraged. Despite his failing health, he was still the puppet-master of the democratic party; his support was a major reason Van Buren was favored to win the nomination. Jackson promptly wrote a letter condemning the Dutchman’s words. Jackson’s letter was published in The Nashville Union and later in The Globe, so the bulk of readers who saw the Van Buren letter also encountered Jacksons rebuff of it.

Photograph of Andrew Jackson taken in 1845

At Age 77, Andrew Jackson Still Pulled the Strings of the Democratic Party

Jackson’s letter killed Van Buren’s chances of nomination, especially because within the Democratic National Committee, there had been talk of implementing a super-majority rule; the candidates had to have approval of two thirds of the delegates in order to be nominated. Many of the delegates, especially the Jacksonians and those from the Southwestern states, would not under any circumstances vote for a man who was against expansion.

Polk, a Jacksonian and a South-westerner, had not committed himself to a candidate and had made sure that Tennessee’s democratic delegates did likewise.

Now, the expansionist Cass seemed to be the man of the hour; however, Jackson had other plans for his party.

Old Jackson, a man of many acquaintances, had been friendly with the Polk family since James’s boyhood. He had encouraged Polk to marry Sarah Childress and coached him through his early political career. He wrote Polk, urgently requesting him to come to The Hermitage (Jackson’s plantation) for a discussion of the state of the Democratic Party with less than three weeks remaining until the convention.

Jackson confided in his nephew Andrew J. Donelson and his protege Polk that he thought Van Buren was utterly ruined, that he believed the New Yorker should withdraw from the race, and the Jacksonians should choose a new candidate. He went on to say that “the candidate for the Presidency should be an annexation man and reside in the Southwest.” Finally, Jackson told Polk that it was time for the young politician to step up and save his party as President of the United States, which Polk insisted he “had never for a moment contemplated.”

Polk Takes on the Presidential Challenge

Polk was up to the task, although he did not think that he would be successful in his bid for the nomination, and he kept his eye on the Vice Presidential seat. He revealed to his friend Cave Johnson that he thought “the much greater probability is that a new man for President if one be taken up will hail from the North, and in that event I would stand in a favorable position for the nomination for the second office {the Vice Presidency}.”

Nevertheless, a loyal Jacksonian, Polk persisted in his quest for the nomination, running on a simple platform: the Reannexation of Texas and Reoccupation of Oregon.” He employed his political allies Cave Johnson and Gideon J. Pillow to send him the business of the convention. Polk himself did not actually attend the gathering (such was customary at the time).

The Convention Begins

When the convention opened on May 27th, the remaining Van Buren supporters sought to do away with the addition of a super-majority rule, knowing that it killed their man’s chances of being nominated. Polk supporters masterfully defended the rule, arguing that the amount of delegates that some states were assigned could over-represent their populations. A delegate majority requirement of ⅔ would most likely avoid this, and also promote party unity.

The debate over whether or not to create the rule took up the whole first day of the convention, and voting on it was delayed until the next. The motion passed, approved mostly by Southern and Western states, and the voting began.

Voting for the Presidential Nomination

If the super-majority rule had not been implemented, Martin Van Buren would have been nominated on the first ballot cast by the convention. He had a majority of 146 delegates to the combined forces of everyone else only mustering 120. But Polk and his followers knew how important that rule was, and American history may have run a very different course if it had not been put in place. Over the nine ballots, the delegates gradually shifted against Van Buren, knowing that he had no hope of winning. The last ballot cast only resulted in two votes for Van Buren. Polk’s name did not even appear on the first seven ballots. The Southwestern states that Polk was targeting supported Johnson and Cass.

1844 Democratic National Convention Map

A Map Representing the First Ballot Cast – On Which Martin Van Buren Would Have Been Nominated Had the Super-Majority Rule Not Been Implemented.

The first seven ballots seemed hopeless not only for Polk, but for the whole convention. Van Buren slowly lost supporters as Cass gradually gained them, but there were those stubborn Van Burenites from New York and Ohio that would never go for Cass. One of Polk’s men on the inside, Gideon Pillow, was approached by a few Northeastern candidates asking his permission to put Polk’s name up as a compromise candidate.

On the eighth ballot cast by the convention, New Hampshire was the first to call out Polk’s name, which was met with roaring applause. It seemed as if Polk was the answer.

Young Hickory enjoyed complete support from his home state of Tennessee, as well as Alabama and Louisiana, and partial support from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. It was on the ninth ballot that every single delegate cast his vote for Polk, over two hundred more delegates than had supported him during the previous vote. The 266 he got was well over the 177 needed under the new rule. The delegates had made it clear that Polk was the only candidate agreeable to all of them.

The Aftermath

After nominating Polk for president, the convention moved to the business of nominating a Vice Presidential candidate, preferably a Northerner to ensure that one region’s interest were not completely disregarded for the next four years. Senator Silas Wright was nominated almost unanimously but refused the honor, as he was against the annexation of Texas.

George Mifflin Dallas

James K. Polk’s Running Mate George Mifflin Dallas

After two more ballots, the convention settled on George Mifflin Dallas, former senator and district attorney of Pennsylvania. He primarily served Southern and Western interests during Polk’s presidency and Dallas failed to cater to the North. He voted to lower tariffs (tariffs encouraged Southerners to sell goods to the North rather than Europe) and advocated popular sovereignty on the issue of slavery.

With the convention’s closing, the stage was set for Polk to claim the election that November from Henry Clay, whose anti-expansion stance would hurt him when the election came.

The delegates may not have known it on that hot afternoon of May 29th, 1844, but what they had just done would not only shape the future of their own country, but those of several others as well.