From VOA Learning English, welcome to The Making of a Nation, our weekly program of American history for people learning American English. I’m Steve Ember in Washington.
Last week on our program, we talked about the presidency of John Tyler.
The future of Texas was a major issue in American politics in the early 1840s. Texas had declared its independence from Mexico in 1836. Now, some Americans wanted the new Republic of Texas to become a U.S. state.
But others wanted Texas to remain independent. The Republic of Texas permitted slavery. Americans who opposed Texas statehood wanted to keep an equal balance between slave-holding and non-slave-holding states.
President Tyler wanted to make Texas a state. Tyler was a southerner. He supported slavery and wanted Texas to keep the system legal.
The president also had political reasons for wanting Texas to join the Union. He wanted to show that he increased the size and power of the United States during his presidency. He hoped Texas statehood would win him a nomination for a second term as president. So Tyler asked his new secretary of state, John C. Calhoun, to negotiate the annexation of Texas.
Britain Objects to Annexation Over Slavery Issue
On April 12, 1844, Calhoun and Texas officials agreed the territory would enter the Union. They said the new state of Texas could continue slavery. But Britain objected. A British official sent a note saying that Britain wished to end slavery wherever it existed -- including Texas.
Secretary Calhoun’s reply to Britain went public. He defended slavery in the American South. He said what was called slavery was really a political institution necessary for the peace, safety and economic strength of those states where it existed. Ending slavery in Texas, he said, would be a danger to the American South and to the Union itself.
Many people in northern states rejected Calhoun’s reasoning. They called on their senators to vote against accepting Texas.
But President Tyler continued with his effort to take control of Texas. He sent Calhoun’s agreement with Texas to the U.S. Senate for approval. Soon after, the Whig party opened its national convention to nominate a candidate for president.
As expected, the Whigs did not choose President Tyler. They nominated Senator Henry Clay instead. Clay had been working hard to win the nomination.
The Democratic Party held its nominating convention a month later. Many Democrats wanted former president Martin Van Buren to be their candidate. But the convention took a surprising turn.
Democrats Set New Rule for Winning Nomination
The Democrats approved a rule that a candidate must receive at least two-thirds of the votes to win. In the first vote, Van Buren won the most support — but not two-thirds. The convention delegates voted again, and again Van Buren fell short. The delegates kept voting, but Van Buren never earned the number of votes he needed. In fact, Van Buren began to lose votes.
Other candidates were suggested. But none of them seemed able to win the necessary two-thirds either. Finally, someone proposed a new name: James Knox Polk.
“James Polk was a very fascinating man. Very hard-working. Relentless in his pursuit of goals. He was not a particularly likable human being. He was somewhat suspicious of other people.
But he had a way of figuring out what he needed to do to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish, and he was very good at it, and that served him very well throughout his life.”
Historian Robert Merry wrote a book about James K. Polk. Mr. Merry says Polk did not come to the 1844 convention expecting to be nominated for president.
At the time, Polk’s political career was struggling. He had already served as the Speaker of the US House of Representatives and the governor of Tennessee. He was well-respected and serious. But Polk had lost in his attempts to seek re-election as governor not once, but twice.
Polk came to the Democrats’ convention hoping to re-enter national politics and perhaps win the nomination for vice-president.
When the convention delegates voted on their presidential candidate for the eighth time, Polk received only 44 votes. Then the delegates voted again. This time, Polk received all 266 votes.
Polk Is First Dark Horse in U.S. Presidential Politics
Historian Robert Merry says James K. Polk became the first real political dark horse in American history. In other words, he was someone no one thought would win.
One reason he did was Texas. Polk wanted to make Texas a state. He thought the United States could take possession of the area peacefully. The other leading Democratic candidate, Martin Van Buren, did not think so. Neither did the Whig candidate, Henry Clay.
Van Buren and Clay believed that annexation of Texas could lead to a war with Mexico. And, they were afraid that if Texas were to become a state, Americans would clash again over the issue of slavery.
So, Robert Merry says, both Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay spoke against bringing Texas into the Union.
“And that was probably the right position from the standpoint of prudence, political prudence or maybe diplomatic prudence. But it was the wrong position from the standpoint of where the American people were politically at that time.”
In the 1840s, many Americans liked the idea of expanding the country. They believed in “manifest destiny” -- the idea that God wanted America to expand west, all the way to the Pacific Ocean, and dominate the continent.
“It was a very powerful concept. And it was not just a powerful concept, but it was a powerful impulse of America at that time.”
Americans Support "Manifest Destiny"
As a result, Robert Merry says, many voters supported James K. Polk and his promise to add Texas to the United States. Polk took another unusual position in the 1844 election. He said if he won the presidency, he would serve only one term -- that is, four years.
Polk told voters he did not believe the federal government should have too much power. He said presidents and other elected officials might abuse their power if they held office too long. One term, he said, would be enough for him.
But historian Robert Merry says there was more to Polk’s one-term promise. After all, two presidents Polk admired, Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson, had each served two terms. The nation’s first president, George Washington, had also served two terms.
Robert Merry says Polk’s one-term promise was also a political bet. Polk wanted other Democratic politicians to support him. Polk thought if he said he would be president for only one term, other politicians might help him win. Then, those politicians could try again to win the presidency in four years, instead of waiting eight.
“And I suspect he was probably right. And given the closeness of the election I suspect that had he not made that one-term promise he very likely would’ve been beaten by Clay.”
As it was, the election of 1844 was extremely close. Wild campaign charges were made against both candidates.
The Whig candidate, Henry Clay, was called a gambler, a duelist, a man of dishonest deals. Stories were told about his use of strong language and love of card games.
On the other side, Whig newspapers reported that someone saw a group of slaves being sold in Tennessee. Burned into the skin of each slave, the papers said, were the letters JKP -- the initials of James K. Polk.
In the autumn of 1844, 2,700,000 Americans elected a new president. Polk defeated Clay by only about 38,000 votes nationwide. But Polk won 170 electoral votes to Clay’s 105.
President Tyler believed Polk's victory showed the American people wanted Texas to become a state. When Congress met in December, he proposed that both the House of Representatives and the Senate resolve to give Texas statehood.
In a few months, they did. President Tyler signed the resolution on March 1, 1845 — just three days before he left office.
The resolution invited Texas to join the Union as a state. It gave Texas the right to split into as many as four more states when its population was large enough. Texas could keep its public lands. But it had to pay its own debts. And Texas could enter the Union as a slave state.
The Mexican minister to the US objected to the resolution. Mexico did not recognize Texas as an independent territory. The minister said making Texas an American state was an act of aggression against his country. He demanded his passport and returned to Mexico.
Britain and France also sought to prevent Texas from becoming a state. They persuaded Mexico to agree to recognize Texas independence, but only if Texas would not join the United States.
Texas thus had two choices. It could join the United States. Or it could continue as a republic with its independence recognized by Mexico. The Texas Congress chose statehood.
But the choice would come with a cost. The war between Mexico and the United States will be our story next week.
I’m Steve Ember, inviting you to join us next time for The Making of a Nation — American history from VOA Learning English.