Student Question

What tactics did President Polk use to unite the Democrats behind westward expansion and Texas annexation in 1844?

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James K. Polk, a darkhorse candidate who emerged from complex machinations at the Democratic Party convention, made westward expansion, in particular the annexation of Texas, the centerpiece of his campaign. This issue threatened his support in Northern states, where even Democrats were troubled by the addition of another slave state and the prospect of a war with Mexico that many saw as the aim of a "slave power." In fact, former president Martin Van Buren, who sought the Democratic Party's nomination, had taken a position against the annexation of Texas. In some ways, Southerners did not have to "sell" the issue of Texas annexation to northern Democrats. Most, including Van Buren, eventually came around to supporting it. Many moderates on the issue of slavery at the time saw annexation as a way of ending the institution by diffusing enslaved populations around the country. But it was Polk's position on the disputed northern border of the Oregon Territory that allowed many to see him as a compromise candidate on the expansion of slavery. Polk argued that the territory should be entirely under American control and that its border should be at 54'40 north latitude. If Great Britain, which also claimed Oregon, refused to acknowledge American sovereignty over it, then Polk proposed war, a stance popularized in the Democrats 1844 campaign slogan "54'40 or Fight!" Annexation of Oregon promised to bring in territories, and ultimately states, where most believed that slavery would not spread. Polk's focus on Oregon in his campaign appealed to many who were uneasy about the Texas issue, which remained unsettled throughout the campaign.

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