Guest Essayist: Tony Williams


Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!

In the early 1840s, thousands of settlers from the Midwest traveled to Independence, Missouri, where they loaded hundreds of pounds of food, tools, and supplies on their oxen-drawn wagons.  They launched an epic overland trek 2,000 miles to the Oregon Territory and braved its dangers in order to participate in the fur trade in earlier decades, but now mostly for farm land.  The individual decisions of these ordinary Americans in search of opportunity in the West would have implications for international affairs and the election of 1844.

In April, 1844, most Americans were focused on Texas and whether the United States would annex the independent republic.  Secretary of State John Calhoun successfully signed a treaty of annexation with Texas, but the Senate decisively rejected it by a 35 to 16 vote.  The question of admitting Texas as a slave state was highly divisive and incensed sectional ire.  But, the Oregon issue was significant as well.

Both the Whigs and Democratic conventions met in Baltimore in May.  The Whigs convened first and nominated Henry Clay for president.  As a symbol of the innovative technology of industrial revolution, a telegraph transmitted the news to Washington, D.C.  Clay and the Whigs were primarily concerned about Texas and did not pay as much attention to the Oregon question.

Later that month, the Democratic National Convention assembled and nominated the unexpected “dark horse” candidate, James K. Polk of Tennessee and a former Speaker of the House.  Polk and the Democrats generally had much greater ambitions of territorial expansion and spreading the system of slavery.  They pursued the idea that the white race had a “manifest destiny,” or a providential mission to conquer and settle the American continent.

In particular, one of the Democratic planks read, “That our title to the whole of the Territory of Oregon is clear and unquestionable; that no portion of the same ought to be ceded to England or any other power.”

Indeed, many Democrats embraced the popular slogan “Fifty-four Forty or Fight!”  The phrase was an allusion to the fact that the United States and Great Britain both claimed disputed territory just south of the forty-ninth parallel.  The Americans owned most of the land between the 42nd and forty-ninth parallel whereas the British held clear title to the territory between the forty-ninth parallel north to the Russian-held territory at fifty-four, forty parallel.  Expansionist Democrats demanded all the territory and threatened to go to war if the United States did not receive it.

Actually, Polk was generally less bellicose and more agnostic on Oregon than other Democrats.  However, he had to preserve their congressional and sectional support for the annexation of Texas which he greatly favored.  He was willing to compromise with Great Britain over Oregon at the forty-ninth parallel for a peaceful resolution of the issue, but he quietly bided his time until after the election to make this known.

The November election was one of the closest in American history and demonstrates the importance of individual participation in voting and well as the effect of third parties in swaying elections.  Polk beat Clay by only 38,000 votes, and abolitionist James G. Birney garnered 62,000 votes as a candidate for the Liberty Party (which was primarily dedicated to the eradication of slavery).  Birney drew enough votes away from Clay to cost the Whigs New York and Michigan.  Thus, the third-party candidate cost Clay the election as he lost the Electoral College by a margin of 170 to 105.

Democrat Andrew Jackson was so happy that “Young Hickory,” as Polk was called, that he was supposed to aver, “I thank my God that the Republic is safe, & that he had permitted me to live to see it.”  The aged Jackson said, “I can say that in the language of Simeon of old ‘Now let thy servant depart in peace.’” He passed away a few months later.

Polk would settle the dispute over the Oregon Territory with Great Britain peacefully even as he went to war with Mexico over the annexation of Texas.  The president never entertained going to war over Oregon.  He assumed a tough public stance but was willing to compromise and settle the issue diplomatically with the British.  After several fits and starts, in April, 1846, a treaty was signed, and the Senate quickly ratified the treaty in which both countries agreed to the forty-ninth parallel by a wide margin.

Tony Williams is the author of five books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America, co-authored with Stephen Knott.

1 reply
  1. Barb Zakszewski
    Barb Zakszewski says:

    The importance of voting.. Every vote does indeed count!!

    Love the historical context of each of the elections. Thank you for this most educational series.


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