America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion, and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation
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The presidential election of 1844 was one of the two or three most momentous elections in American history. Had Henry Clay won instead of James K. Polk, we’d be living in a very different country today. Polk’s victory cemented the westward expansion that brought Texas, California, and Oregon into the union. It also took place amid religious turmoil that included anti-Mormon and anti-Catholic violence, and the “Great Disappointment,” in which thousands of followers of an obscure preacher named William Miller believed Christ would return to earth in October 1844.
Author and journalist John Bicknell details even more compelling, interwoven events that occurred during this momentous year: the murder of Joseph Smith, the religious fermentation of the Second Great Awakening, John C. Frémont’s exploration of the West, Charles Goodyear’s patenting of vulcanized rubber, the near-death of President John Tyler in a freak naval explosion, and much more. All of these elements illustrate the competing visions of the American future—Democrats versus Whigs, Mormons versus Millerites, nativists versus Catholics, those who risked the venture westward versus those who stayed safely behind—and how Polk’s election cemented the vision of a continental nation.
than seventeen million adherents worldwide. Joshua Himes chose not to become affiliated with any of the Adventist churches. In 1879 he returned to the Episcopal Church in which he’d been raised, although he corresponded with and offered advice to prominent Adventists, including Ellen White, who had been swept up in the Millerite movement as a child and became a leading figure in the Seventh Day Adventists. Himes died on July 27, 1895, and was buried on a hilltop cemetery as he had requested,
states and Ireland poured into America. Almost all ended up in the North. This population influx was part of what fueled John C. Calhoun’s worries about declining Southern power. But Calhoun and his fellow slave-owning Southerners were not the only ones worried. Northern Protestant workingmen who had seen their economic well-being destroyed by the Panic of 1837 and the ensuing depression resented the newcomers for driving down wages and filling the jobs they had once held—although the ranks of
M. Dallas, a lawyer, diplomat, former mayor of Philadelphia, briefly a senator, a relative of Robert Walker, and an enemy of Buchanan. With the ticket set, delegates turned their attention to the platform. It was, for the most part, an unremarkable document that strayed not at all from Jacksonian orthodoxy—no bank, no internal improvements, a low tariff, and no messing with “the domestic institutions of the several states”—the last being code for slavery. But on the twin questions of territorial
intent, then that was agreeable to Polk: “making revenue the object, protection the incident,” as Andrew Jackson Donelson, namesake and nephew of the former president, put it. The details would be settled when the president and Congress came together to set the rates. Mississippi senator Robert Walker urged Polk to “go as far as your principles will permit for incidental protection,” and that is exactly what Polk did. Writing to Democrat John K. Kane of Pennsylvania, Polk borrowed Walker’s words
“I do not believe we can know when the world is to end,” the Methodist challenged Miller. Miller didn’t reply, so the minister continued. “God has not revealed the time,” he said. At this Miller sat up a little, looked at the man, and told him that he could “prove by the Bible that God had revealed it.” Let me ask you a few questions about the Bible, Miller suggested, and I will show you. Intrigued, the minister begged leave to retrieve his Bible. When he returned, he had not only the good