America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion, and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation – (November 1, 2014; Chicago Review Press) by
It’s fair to say that neither John Tyler nor James Polk rank very highly as memorable Presidents of the United States.
If he had lived slightly longer perhaps Tyler might at least have become infamous – he was elected to the Congress of the Confederate States of America but died soon after, sparing the USA the sting of seeing one of its ex-Presidents serving the secessionist South.
But as author John Bicknell makes clear in America 1844 perhaps these two largely forgotten occupants of the White should be better known because momentous events were set in train during their terms – events that would have far-reaching consequences, not just for America but much of the world.
1844 was an election year in America, and Bicknell takes this as his jumping off point. President John Tyler harboured hopes of running for a second term; his opponents manoeuvred to replace him.
Tyler was unusual in not having a party solidly behind him – he had been elected as Vice President in 1840 on the same ticket as President William Henry Harrison of the Whig party. Tyler was the first Vice President to succeed to the Presidency when Harrison died in office, just 30 days after his inauguration on 4 March 1841.
As President (His Accidency as wits dubbed him), Tyler was expelled from the Whig party for vetoing a number of its proposals. Without a dedicated following he needed nothing short of a miracle to win re-election. To Tyler’s mind, that miracle would be the annexation of Texas – bring that vast land of opportunity into the Union and he would sweep the election of 1844.
The story of that election bookends and scaffolds this volume’s central narrative. Rather than focus entirely on politics, Bicknell skilfully weaves into this tale of electoral chicanery other fascinating aspects of a rapidly changing America that would transform and convulse the new nation in years to come.
Slavery and territorial expansion were closely tied to political wrangling, intimately linked to each other and both were inextricably bound up with the future shape of America. Should the US spread beyond its existing boundaries and settle the question of slavery as it did? Or should it consolidate its achievements for a time, given it was still a young and recent creation with many internal issues to resolve?
While Congress and state politicians ponderously discussed and debated, migrants voted with their feet. Thousands of settlers journeyed into the unknown, towards what they hoped would be better lives in the West – despite not knowing much of what lay there.
Trying to change that in 1844 was John C Frémont, who had set off the previous year to explore the vast unknown areas of what today are parts of Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Nevada and California and map a reliable route westwards. His expedition included the famous ‘mountain man’ Kit Carson. Throughout much of 1844 Frémont’s wife Jessie waited anxiously for news that travelled at snail’s pace across the vast distances involved. Letters intended for the east arrived haphazardly and sporadically.
Samuel Morse’s new invention, the telegraph, was just undergoing its first practical trials in 1844 and would soon render Jessie Benton Frémont’s long agonising wait for news from her husband a thing of the past. Asa Whitney, a New York merchant had an even more radical plan to bind America together not with copper wire but iron rails – his day had not yet arrived but it was a harbinger of the railroads his advocacy and perseverance would eventually bring about.
Add in the social upheavals caused by violent riots against Catholic Irish immigrants in Philadelphia and a large group of religious Americans who were fervently convinced the end of world was nigh and 1844 truly was an eventful year in American history – with more long term importance than anyone could have known at the time.
John Bicknell writes about all of these themes with a telling eye for insightful personal stories and human interest angles that allow the reader to relate to the era. Equally many of the issues that transfixed America then have resonance today – a nation deeply divided, unsure about the impact of immigration, on the cusp of great technological promise while still beset by paralysing fears for and of the future.
A great tale well told and one that provides the reader with both enjoyment and food for thought.