1844 Democratic National Convention

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1844 Democratic National Convention
1844 presidential election
JamesKnoxPolk.jpg George Mifflin Dallas 1848 crop.jpg
Polk and Dallas
Date(s)May 27–29, 1844
CityBaltimore, Maryland
VenueOdd Fellows Hall
Presidential nomineeJames K. Polk of Tennessee
Vice Presidential nomineeGeorge M. Dallas of Pennsylvania
‹ 1840  ·  1848 ›

The 1844 Democratic National Convention was held in Baltimore. At first, the Democrats were split between three candidates: Martin Van Buren, former President of the United States and leader of the dominant Jacksonian faction; James Buchanan, Senator from Pennsylvania, a so-called "moderate"; and Ambassador to France Lewis Cass, a retired general and advocate of territorial expansionism.[1]


The annexation of Texas was the chief political issue of the day. Van Buren, initially the leading candidate, opposed immediate annexation because 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; ultimately, it would cost him the nomination.


In 1840, the Democratic Party Convention had provided that a majority vote would be sufficient for nominee selection. Northern Democrat Van Burenites arrived at the convention on May 27, 1844, with the expectation that, possessing a majority of the delegates, they would quickly secure the candidacy for their man.[2][3] Early in proceedings, Senator Robert J. Walker of Mississippi, in cooperation with Senator James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, called for the reinstatement of the traditional 1832 and 1834 convention rule requiring a two-thirds vote for nomination (the rule would remain in place until it was revoked by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936).[4] Following a historical pattern in which a minority faction of Northern Democrats delivered votes to produce southern wing victories for pro-slavery legislation, the Van Burenite delegates split over the pivotal vote. Fully 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, producing a final vote of 148 to 116.[5]

Presidential nomination[edit]

Presidential candidates[edit]

James K. Polk, Democratic Party "dark horse" presidential nominee

Van Buren supporters persisted in spite of the two-thirds rule setback, garnering 146 votes for their candidate on the first ballot, a 55% simple majority, but short of the now required 177 votes. Middle and Deep South pro-annexationists opposed Van Buren 75 to 3, depriving northern anti-annexationists the 31 votes needed for victory.

Support for Van Buren dwindled in subsequent ballots from 146 to 99, at which point Van Burenites were reduced to blocking nominations of numerous candidates, among them James Buchanan, Lewis Cass of Michigan, John C. Calhoun, and Levi Woodbury of New Hampshire.[6][7] President John Tyler also hoped to win the support of delegates, but he was unable to find any backers.[8] Southern intransigence had succeeded in eliminating Van Buren and his principled stand on Texas annexation.[9] If the Democratic Party was to avoid dissolution at a national level, an acceptable nominee, fully committed to immediate annexation would be required, yet capable of unifying the party in the general election.[10][11] Van Buren was open to deferring to Senator Silas Wright of New York, but Wright was uninterested in the position.[8]

On the eighth ballot, the historian George Bancroft, a delegate from Massachusetts, proposed former House Speaker James K. Polk as a compromise candidate. Polk, a former Speaker of the House and Governor of Tennessee, had entered the convention in hopes of becoming the vice presidential nominee.[8] However, former President Andrew Jackson, who remained popular in the party, believed Polk was just the man to head the Democratic ticket.[8] Although a slaveholder himself, Polk never enunciated a slavery expansionist position with respect to Texas annexation, as had John C. Calhoun and the southern extremists.[12] Despite Polk's fervent advocacy for annexation, he had remained loyal to Van Buren throughout the Texas controversy, and anti-annexationist Van Burenites were willing to accept Polk, with reservations, having already recognized him as a suitable vice-presidential choice to have complimented a Van Buren ticket.[13][14] Southern Democrats benefited from the Tyler-Calhoun machinations in eliminating Martin Van Buren as a presidential candidate, and clearing the way for the pro-annexation nationalist Polk.[15] On the ninth ballot, Van Buren instructed his delegates to support Polk, beginning a stampede to Polk that ended with him winning the nomination unanimously.[8] Consequently, Polk, became the first dark horse, or little-known, presidential candidate. Van Buren complied with his party's decision to unite under a pro-annexation candidate, and worked to win New York state for Polk.[16][17][18]

Despite Whig efforts to cast Polk as an unknown – "Who is James K. Polk" they asked rhetorically – he was respected as an effective political operator.[19] His sobriquet "The Young Hickory" contained a dual reference, one to his mentor Andrew "Old Hickory" Jackson, and one to the term Young America, a reference to an international movements struggling to establish republican forms of government and the overthrow of monarchies and ascribed to Manifest Destiny Democrats.[20] As a national imperialist, he exhibited an unwavering support for Manifest Destiny, perceived as a non-sectional devotion to expansionism, whether slave-soil Texas or free-soil Oregon Territory.[21] Polk argued that Texas and Oregon had always belonged to the United States by right. He called for "the immediate reannexation of Texas" and for the "reoccupation" of the disputed Oregon territory. Polk's political reputation was expected to diffuse northern Democratic resentment towards the Slavepower, while delivering Texas to the Deep South.

Convention Presidential vote
Ballots 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Before shifts
After shifts
Martin Van Buren 146 127 121 111 103 101 99 104 2 0
Lewis Cass 83 94 92 105 107 116 123 114 29 0
Richard M. Johnson 24 33 38 32 29 23 21 0 0 0
James Buchanan 4 9 11 17 26 25 22 2 0 0
John C. Calhoun 6 1 2 1 1 1 1 2 2 0
Levi Woodbury 2 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Charles Stewart 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Marcus Morton 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0
James K. Polk 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 44 231 266
Blank 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0

Vice Presidential nomination[edit]

Vice Presidential candidates[edit]


Polk and Richard Mentor Johnson had both campaigned for the vice presidency prior to the convention, but with Polk's nomination for president, the party looked elsewhere for a running mate.[8] The anti-annexationist Silas Wright, US Senator from New York, was nominated but declined, partly out of a refusal to support a ticket backing the annexation of Texas, and partly because he didn't want to be accused of intriguing against Van Buren to benefit himself. The convention then settled on George M. Dallas, a conservative from Pennsylvania.[22]

Convention Vice Presidential vote
Ballots 1 2 3
Silas Wright 258 0 0
George M. Dallas 0 13 219
John Fairfield 0 93 30
Levi Woodbury 8 56 6
Lewis Cass 0 39 0
Richard M. Johnson 0 26 0
Charles Stewart 0 23 0
William L. Marcy 0 5 0
Blank 0 11 11

In popular culture[edit]

The basic events of the convention are outlined in the song James K. Polk by the rock band They Might Be Giants

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Flansburgh, J. and J. Linnell, 1996, "James K. Polk" Factory Showroom
  2. ^ Freehling, 1991, p. 429: "Van Burenites would possess a simple majority for their man on the first presidential ballot" and demanded a 50% plus one vote system. And "The Democratic Convention of 1840 had been run on that principle"
  3. ^ Widmer, 2005, p. 150: "Although they knew they were wounded [by the Hammett Letter] Van Buren's supporters still expected to prevail over a field of weaker candidates."
  4. ^ Widmer, 2005, p. 151
  5. ^ Freehling, 1991, p. 429
  6. ^ Freehling, 1991, p. 429: "...Van Buren's original 146 delegates had dropped to 99, sufficient to prevent any other candidates' two-third majority."
  7. ^ Wilentz, 2008, p. 569-570: "The Hunker-backed presidential hopefuls had stayed the course – Lewis Cass, James Buchanan, and Levi Woodbury..." as part of the efforts to enforce the two-thirds rule.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Witcover, Jules (2003). Party of the People. Random House. pp. 169–170.
  9. ^ Wilentz, 2008, p. 568: The Hammet Letter "was the most courageous act of his political career."
  10. ^ Freehling, 1991, p. 429-430: "The party, in peril of dissolution...needed a new candidate acceptable to all factions."
  11. ^ Wilentz, 2008, p. 569: When the 2/3 rule was adopted "Van Buren's chances sharply dwindled."
  12. ^ Freehling, 1991, p. 430: Polk "never linked bondage and slavery" and "was the first Southerner important in the Texas story to fit the Manifest Destiny label...He would propel democracy and enterprise forward by annexing both Texas and Oregon." and p. 437: Polk's "mentality"...enabled Democrats to claim, rightly, that their candidate was no Slavepower expansionist."
  13. ^ Freehling, 1991, p. 430: "Young Hickory, as Polk was called...stood positioned as the southern annexationist best suited to heal party wounds by becoming Van Buren's vice-presidential nominee." "Van Burenites grumpily agreed that so acceptable" a running mate "could move up the ticket"and "Polk's...version of annexation was less obnoxious to the North."
  14. ^ Wilentz, 2008, p. 570: "On the eighth ballot...announced for a candidate new to field who had personal endorsement of Andrew Jackson."
  15. ^ Wilentz, 2008, p. 571-572: [Democrats] seem to have succumbed to Calhoun's plotting and, by rejecting Van Buren, capitulated to the pro-slavery South...the outcome was actually more complicated...To Democrats it was an effort to surmount sectionalism with democratic nationalist expansionism and to achieve equilibrium after what looked like the Calhounites' coup."
  16. ^ Freehling, 1991, p.431: "...Van Buren had promised to follow public orders on annexation." p. 439: "Martin Van Buren had promised to follow the election returns in formulating annexation policy."
  17. ^ Widmer, 2005, p. 157: Van Buren "worked hard to swing New York for Polk..."
  18. ^ Holt, 2005, p. 11: "Van Buren's disappointed followers loyally supported Polk's candidacy..."
  19. ^ Wilentz, 2008, p. 571: "Less well known to the electorate that either Van Buren or Clay - prompting Whigs to chant derisively,'Who is James K. Polk?' - he was well known in Washington as one of the most capable of the younger border-state Jacksonians..."
  20. ^ Wilentz, 2008, p. 563: "The name ascribed to and embraced" by advocates of Manifest Destiny "had been borrowed from the insurgent liberals...of Italy" and "there were, in time, many others in the international movement..."
  21. ^ Freehling, 1991, p. 430: Polk promised he "would propel democracy and enterprise forward by annexing both Texas and Oregon."
  22. ^ Wilentz, 2008, p. 570: Wright declined: "To do otherwise...would have been a renumciation of both his personal loyalties and his highest principles (The convention settled on the conservative...George M. Dallas)."

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Baltimore, Maryland
Democratic National Conventions Succeeded by
Baltimore, Maryland