Modern history


Texas, Tyler, and the Telegraph

On July 16, 1821, Erasmo Seguín and Stephen Austin crossed the international boundary at the Sabine River and entered Texas, then part of New Spain. They headed for the Texan capital, San Antonio de Béxar (which we call San Antonio but which their contemporaries more often called Béxar or Béjar). The two companions exemplified two peoples, Hispanic and Anglo, destined to share in shaping Texan history.1 Seguín, the older of the two, was a merchant. Named for the Dutch writer and reformer Erasmus, he carried on a family tradition of liberal politics. He now accompanied the twenty-eight-year-old Austin because he believed in encouraging immigration from the United States into Texas. The sparsely populated region had suffered severely during fighting between Mexican rebels and the Spanish army, and critically needed skilled settlers. A liberal Spanish Cortes (parliament) in Madrid had decided to encourage such settlement, and Stephen’s father, Moses Austin, had won authorization to bring colonists from the United States into Texas. But Moses suddenly died, and at Seguín’s urging Stephen took up what seemed like his inherited responsibility.2

On August 12, the travelers heard the astonishing news that Mexico had suddenly achieved her long deferred independence from Spain. Seguín rejoiced. In due course the new government confirmed Austin’s role as empresario, that is, colonization agent. If he could fulfill the stipulation to bring in settlers, Austin stood to make a fortune in Texas land for himself. But he also embraced Seguín’s romantic vision of a prosperous Texas. To achieve this within a Mexican context, Austin learned Spanish, became a naturalized Mexican citizen, and, sometimes calling himself Esteban Austin, functioned as a mediator between the Anglo settlers and the authorities. Terms of settlement in his Mexican colony compared favorably with the $1.25 per acre the American government charged pioneers, and over the years Austin brought in about

1. In the usage of the southwestern United States, “Anglo” means any white English-speaker, not just those of British descent; “Hispanic,” any Spanish-speaker, regardless of race.

2. Gregg Cantrell, Stephen F. Austin (New Haven, 1999), 88–91.

1,500 families.3 Thus, the ink had scarcely dried on the ratifications of the Adams-Onís Treaty assigning Texas to Spain when events significantly transformed the situation on the ground: First, Mexico replaced Spain as sovereign over Texas, and second, American settlers began to move there.

Others from the United States also gained the status of empresario, though Austin remained the most important one. The terms the empresarios offered attracted many settlers from the southern and western states, adventuresome individuals as well as families hurt by the Panic of 1819 and looking to make a new life. Some of the immigrants didn’t locate in any properly organized colonies but simply squatted. By 1830, the Anglos in Texas outnumbered Hispanic tejanos more than two to one. When, in 1829, the Mexican government moved to emancipate the slaves that Anglo colonists brought with them, Austin, although expressing grave reservations about slavery as an institution, protected the interests of his clients. The colonists pretended their workers had long-term labor contracts. Such a “contract,” drawn up in Austin’s colony in 1833 between Marmaduke Sandifer and Clarissa, “a girl of color,” stipulated that Clarissa would “conduct & demean herself as an honest & faithful servant, renouncing and disclaiming all her right and claim to personal liberty for & during the term of ninety-nine years,” in return for food, lodging, medical care, and security against disability.4

Colonists simply ignored the rule that they should convert to the Roman Catholic faith; even Austin himself did not do so. In practice the Church left them alone, and they tactfully refrained from building Protestant meetinghouses.5 Besides economic benefits to Texas, the Anglos provided allies for the Hispanics in fighting the Comanches and other Indian tribes. Native Americans and African Americans, though excluded from political power, also played their parts in making Texan history.

The liberal Mexican Constitution of 1824 accorded much autonomy to the states within what it named the Estados Unidos Mexicanos. Texas had too few people to qualify as a Mexican state but formed a district within the state of Coahuila y Texas. The Anglo settlements enjoyed a measure of self-government and partial exemption from customs duties. In 1827,

3. The terms are described in Frederick Merk, History of the Westward Movement (New York, 1978), 267. On the motives prompting Americans to move to Texas, see Andrew Cayton, “Continental Politics,” in Beyond the Founders, ed. Jeffrey Pasley (Chapel Hill, 2004), 303–27.

4. Quoted in Quintard Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier (New York, 1998), 40.

5. Paul Lack, The Texas Revolutionary Experience (College Station, Tex., 1992), 12.

they gained the right to trial by jury in criminal cases. Yet, from the Mexican point of view, they did not make altogether responsible use of their privileges. Highly individualistic, most of these people had little community spirit and no ties to Mexico. In December 1826, a rogue empresario put himself at the head of some discontented settlers and declared the independence of the “Republic of Fredonia.” Austin supported the Mexican authorities, who put down the little rebellion with no difficulty.6

By the late 1820s, Mexican officials entertained doubts about their Texas policy. They had hoped that Texas would attract migrants from Europe and central Mexico, but although some German settlements had been established, these did not effectively counterbalance the Anglo-American settlers. Signs multiplied that the United States government and public took an unwelcome kind of interest in Texas. Spain’s experience with losing the Floridas to the United States, as well as periodic unofficial military expeditions called “filibusters,” launched from U.S. bases into Latin America, set a worrisome example. Two such filibusterings, in 1811 and 1819, had been directed into Texas, only to be repulsed.7 Worst of all, U.S. diplomats kept pressing Mexico to sell Texas.

After the Mier y Terán fact-finding commission confirmed fears about U.S. intentions toward Texas in its report of 1829, the Mexican Congress passed a law suspending immigration from the United States in April 1830. Austin got an exemption from it for his own recruits, and others too found it easy to slip through the border. Mexico suffered the problem of illegal immigration from the United States until Austin’s lobbying in Mexico City helped secure repeal of the ban in November 1833. Desire to promote the economic growth of Texas eventually outweighed fears for the Mexican national interest. By 1836, there were at least thirty-five thousand Anglos in Texas, now outnumbering Hispanics ten to one. “The old Latin mistake had been repeated,” the historian Frederick Merk wryly observed: “admitting Gauls into the empire.”8

In 1829, Spain made a belated attempt to recover her lost dominion and landed an army at Tampico on the Gulf of Mexico. Rallying to defend their independence, the Mexicans defeated the invasion under the leadership of General Antonio López de Santa Anna (pronounced as one word, “san-tah-na”), who became a national hero. Santa Anna dominated

6. David Weber, The Mexican Frontier, 1821–1846 (Albuquerque, N.M., 1982), 161–66.

7. Merk, Westward Movement, 266.

8. Nettie Lee Benson, “Texas Viewed from Mexico,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 90 (1986–87): 219–91; Weber, Mexican Frontier, 175–77; Frederick Merk, Slavery and the Annexation of Texas (New York, 1972), 180.

politics in Mexico for the next generation, somewhat as another charismatic military hero, Andrew Jackson, did in the United States; Mexico, however, lacked the long Anglo-American tradition of constitutional limitation on executive power. Bold, energetic, and patriotic in his way, Santa Anna was also an opportunistic egomaniac. He saw himself as a New World Napoleon. He affiliated at first with the liberal federalista party that admired the constitution of the United States; middle-class intellectuals like Erasmo Seguín and his son Juan supported it. When elected president of Mexico in 1833, Santa Anna enjoyed the favor of both Anglo and Hispanic Texans. Soon, however, he betrayed his followers and embraced the centralistas, a conservative, clerical, and authoritarian party. He got rid of the federalista vice president, who had been associated with a reform program, repudiated the Constitution of 1824, and set himself up as dictator. Revolts broke out in several Mexican states where federalistas did not acquiesce in the centralista coup. The Texans observed with horror Santa Anna’s bloody suppression of revolts in Zacatecas and Coahuila. Their own rebellion was triggered by conflicts over the collection of customs duties and the military presence of Mexican soldiers sent to enforce santanistaauthority. At Gonzales on 2 October 1835 Texan militia refused to return a cannon that had been lent them by the Mexican army for protection against Indians. The ensuing skirmish is considered “the Lexington of Texas,” the start of the Texan Revolution.

For all the tensions over religion, culture, and slavery in Texas, none of these actually provoked the fighting. When it materialized, the Texan (or, as contemporaries called it, “Texian”) Revolution broke out over economic and constitutional issues not very different from those that had provoked the American Revolution sixty years earlier. Like the American Revolution, the Texian Revolution reflected among its concerns the determination of the settlers to trade freely; neither group of colonists rested content with economic self-sufficiency. Like the British in 1775, the Mexicans could feel that theirs had been a tolerant imperium that had pursued a policy of “benign neglect.” Like the American Patriots of 1775, who espoused the “rights of Englishmen,” the Texian rebels of 1835 at first fought to restore the Mexican Constitution of 1824. At a gathering held in November, called the “Consultation,” they decided to declare Texas a separate state within the Mexican Republic (that is, no longer a part of Coahuila y Texas) and appointed an acting state governor, Henry Smith. Austin and his tenants, squatters, Texians and tejanos: All could and did join together on such a platform. They hoped to rally federalistas throughout Mexico to their support; and indeed there were uprisings in other states, especially peripheral ones including Alta California, Nuevo

México, and Yucatán. The Texians noticed the parallels with the American Revolution and invoked them.9

Newspapers in the United States reported events in Texas in a sensational way, calculated to boost circulation. Most of them depended heavily on reprinting stories from the New Orleans papers, which got the news first, and which were eager to make Texas safe for slavery. The accounts in the press often portrayed the issue in racial terms, as simply white Americans versus Mexicans and Indians; they drew young men by the thousand from the South and West to go to Texas looking for a fight.10 In the northern states, however, the antislavery press reported the Texan Revolution very differently. Abolitionists like Benjamin Lundy, who had spent a good deal of time in Texas, compiled evidence that the goals of the rebels included forestalling enforcement of the antislavery legislation enacted by both Mexican state and national authorities. And indeed Texan newspapers themselves warned that “the merciless soldiery” of Santa Anna came “to give liberty to our slaves, and to make slaves of ourselves.”11

Seizing what looked like an opportunity for freedom when war broke out in October 1835, some of the slaves along the Brazos River in Austin’s colony rose in rebellion, intending to redistribute the land to themselves and raise cotton for market. Anglo-Texans crushed the revolt and returned one hundred would-be free people to slavery; some were hanged or “whipd [sic] nearly to death,” a report informed the empresario. Other prospective slave uprisings were nipped in the bud. Anglo-Texan men often made their top priority the security of their own communities against slave discontent, not going off to fight the Mexican army. This helps explain why so much of the burden of waging the revolutionary war fell upon the filibusterers coming in from the United States. However, many African Americans served on the Texan side of the Revolution, either voluntarily as a few free black men did or, more commonly, as enslaved laborers impressed from their masters into helping the war effort.12

9. James Crisp, “Race, Revolution, and the Texas Republic,” in The Texas Military Experience, ed. Joseph Dawson (College Station, Tex., 1995), 32–48; Randolph Campbell, An Empire for Slavery (Baton Rouge, 1989), 48–49. For an argument that slavery was a cause of the revolution, see Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier, 39–45.

10. Merk, Westward Movement, 274–75.

11. Benjamin Lundy, The War in Texas (Philadelphia, 1836); San Felipe de Austin Telegraph and Texas Register, Oct. 17, 1835.

12. Paul Lack, “Slavery and the Texas Revolution,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 89 (1985): 181–202, quotation from 191.

The provisional government established by the Texas Consultation never worked well. Governor Smith antagonized his council; the Texan armed forces lacked effective central control; officers bickered over command; their soldiers debated whether to obey orders. Austin found that his considerable talents did not include military leadership and felt relieved to be sent off to the United States to negotiate loans and aid. The rebels captured San Antonio de Béxar in December 1835 after a siege and house-to-house combat. In terms of organizing a revolution, however, the winter of 1835–36 has been described as a descent into anarchy.13

Meanwhile, Santa Anna planned the subjugation of Texas to his authority, borrowing money at exorbitant interest to finance the campaign. He undertook a two-pronged offensive: General José Urrea advanced one army along the Gulf Coast while el presidentehimself commanded another aimed at retaking San Antonio. A small Texian force at Goliad stood in Urrea’s path; another one occupied an old mission nicknamed the Alamo, awaiting Santa Anna. It was symptomatic of the Texans’ ineffective strategic command and control that they did not respond to the invasion by combining these forces, evacuating either position, or reinforcing them. They just waited.14

Although not strategically vital, the Alamo had psychological importance for both sides. Its approximately 150 defenders consisted mostly of recent arrivals from the United States, fired with zeal for the Texan cause, and led by an eloquent twenty-six-year-old lawyer named William Travis who had been in Texas since 1831. Among them were Juan Seguín, Erasmo’s son and a captain in the Texas cavalry; Jim Bowie, co-commander with Travis until he fell ill, famous for the big knife with which he had killed a man; and the former Whig congressman from Tennessee, Davy Crockett. Crockett probably expected a prominent role in the Texas Revolution to help revive his political career, but he was also a man of principle and willing to take risks. He had defended Indian rights against Andrew Jackson though it cost him his seat in Congress; now he would defend Texan rights against Santa Anna at the cost of his life. Despite his status as a frontier celebrity, Crockett had a strong sense of dignity; he preferred to be called David rather than Davy, and he habitually dressed, a Texan commented, “like a gentleman and not a backwoodsman.”15

13. Lack, Texas Revolutionary Experience, 53.

14. Ibid, 82.

15. Quoted in Stephen Hardin, Texian Iliad (Austin, Tex., 1994), 232. Crockett’s political sophistication has been rescued from unjust condescension by Thomas Scruggs in “Davy Crockett and the Thieves of Jericho,” JER 19 (1999): 481–98.

Travis and his men were no suicidal fanatics. They defended the Alamo in the belief that they had rendered it defensible until the reinforcements they had requested could arrive. Santa Anna showed up on February 22, 1836, sooner and with a larger force than they had anticipated. Travis dispatched Seguín to urge the force at Goliad to come to his aid as soon as possible. On March 5, only a handful of reinforcements having arrived, Travis recognized the hopelessness of the situation. He convened a meeting and told the occupants of the Alamo they could leave if they thought they could escape through the Mexican siege lines. Maybe he drew a line in the sand with his sword—such a dramatic gesture would not have been out of character. Santa Anna had raised the red flag that signaled no quarter. But only one man and a few of the noncombatant women took up Travis’s offer.16

Santa Anna did not need to storm the Alamo. His biggest cannons, due to arrive soon, would readily breach its walls. His intelligence reported no reinforcements on their way to the Alamo and that the defenders, weakened by dysentery, had little food or potable water left. The dictator ordered an assault for March 6 lest a Texan surrender rob him of a glorious victory. His assault force of fifteen hundred fought their way in and killed the defenders, suffering very heavy casualties themselves. The last half dozen Texans were overpowered and taken prisoner by a chivalrous Mexican officer who intended to spare their lives. Santa Anna entered the Alamo only after the fighting had ended, when he would be safe. He ordered the prisoners killed, whereupon they were hacked to death with swords. Mexican Lieutenant José Enrique de la Peña, who admired his enemies’ courage as much as he despised his own commander, noted that the men “died without complaining and without humiliating themselves before their torturers.” De la Peña believed Crockett to be among this group, and historians now generally accept his testimony.17 The defenders of the Alamo against overwhelming odds passed into the realm of heroic epic, along with the Spartans at Thermopylae and Roland at Roncesvalles.

Not quite everyone captured in the Alamo was killed. Santa Anna spared some noncombatant tejana women, probably in a bid for Hispanic support, two black slaves of William Travis, perhaps to encourage other bondsmen to desert his enemies, and Suzanna Dickenson, widow

16. Randy Roberts and James Olson, A Line in the Sand (New York, 2001), 154–57.

17. José de la Peña, With Santa Anna in Texas, trans. Carmen Perry, expanded ed. (College Station, Tex., 1997), 53; Paul Hutton, “The Alamo As Icon,” in Dawson, Texas Military Experience, 14–31.

of a Texas officer, so she could spread the word of the horrible fate awaiting those who resisted el presidente. His unnecessary attack had cost his best battalions one-third of their strength. But the dictator cared so little for his soldiers that he did not bother to set up a field hospital and allowed, his secretary noted bitterly, over one hundred of his wounded to die from injuries that could have been successfully treated.18

At Goliad, the Texan commander James Fannin hesitated, then decided not to go to the aid of the Alamo. Goliad seemed at least as important to hold, he reasoned. But Fannin’s force wound up surrounded by a much larger Mexican army and surrendered. General Urrea left his prisoners with another officer, instructed him to treat them decently, and continued his advance. Santa Anna, upon learning of their capture, sent a message commanding the execution of Goliad’s defenders. On March 27, Fannin and 341 of his men were accordingly massacred; 28 managed to escape.19 In size and circumstances, this constituted an atrocity even worse than that at the Alamo.

Up in East Texas, where most Anglos lived, many wanted to declare full independence from Mexico, and events played into their hands. The pro-independence party enjoyed its greatest strength among the most recent arrivals and among substantial slaveholders, who feared they could not continue indefinitely to get around the Mexican laws against slavery. Stephen Austin and other Anglo-Texans who had flourished under the Mexican Constitution of 1824 were less radical; the newcomers called them “Tories.”20 The outbreak of fighting produced a sudden influx of Anglo males from the United States; to these new men, the Mexican Constitution of 1824 held no meaning, and nothing but independence made any sense as a goal. Since the newcomers provided some 40 percent of the armed force Texas could put into the field, their views carried weight. The cause of Texan independence enjoyed popularity in the United States, where many viewed it as a step toward annexation. Independence would make it easier for Texas to raise men and money in the United States, just as the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 had facilitated help from France. Besides, as Stephen Austin explained, “The Constitution of 1824 is totally overturned, the social compact totally dissolved.” On March 2, 1836, while the siege of the Alamo continued, a Texan Convention proclaimed independence from Mexico and issued a

18. Hardin, Texian Iliad, 155–57.

19. Ibid., 174.

20. Margaret Henson, “Tory Sentiment in Anglo-Texan Public Opinion,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 90 (1986–87): 7.

declaration carefully modeled on Jefferson’s.21 By the seventeenth, this body had drafted a national constitution modeled on that of the United States and sanctioning chattel slavery; a referendum ratified the constitution in September. The Convention also chose David Burnet first president of the Texan Republic and balanced the ticket with a Hispanic vice president, Lorenzo de Závala.

Before independence, political lines in Texas had not coincided with linguistic ones. Most Texans, Anglo and Hispanic alike, had been federalistas. Among the few centralistas there were even Anglos like Juan (originally John) Davis Bradburn, a former Kentuckian who rose high in the Mexican army. Texan independence disadvantaged los tejanos, putting them in the strange position of a minority group in their own land. Most of them had felt more comfortable fighting for the Constitution of 1824. Some of therancheros joined with the Mexican army as it passed through their neighborhood. Other tejanos, including the Seguíns, embraced Texan independence and fought for it. Even so, many Anglos, especially those newly arrived, distrusted the loyalty of any Hispanic. Almost all Anglo-Texans had come from the southern section of the Union and brought with them a commitment to white supremacy. Now, many waged the revolution as a race war against a mestizo nation.22

Following their victories at the Alamo and Goliad, the Mexican armies continued their advance northward, intending to complete their destruction of the insurgency and drive whatever might be left of it across the Sabine into the United States. Now commanded by Sam Houston, the Texan army withdrew before them, as did many Anglo civilians in what they called “the Runaway Scrape.” Houston continued his retreat well into East Texas, making sure that the next battle would take place on his army’s familiar home ground, where the wooded environment suited his tactics better than the open country that favored the Mexican cavalry. His undisciplined soldiers complained constantly that they should stand and fight, but the outcome vindicated their commander. Santa Anna, trying to find and fix his antagonist, divided his army so that each component could search separately. In doing so he committed a classic tactical mistake, enabling Houston to attack the detachment accompanying Santa Anna with something approaching even odds. When the Texans

21. Stephen Austin to David Burnet, March 4, 1836, in Stephen Austin, Fugitive Letters, 1829–1836, ed. Jacqueline Tomerlin (San Antonio, Tex., 1981), 40. A contemporary broadside showing the Texan Declaration of Independence is shown in David B. Davis and Sidney Mintz, eds., The Boisterous Sea of Liberty (New York, 1998), 407.

22. See Lack, Texas Revolutionary Experience, 183–207.

intercepted a Mexican courier and found Santa Anna’s troop dispositions in his saddlebags, Houston saw that his moment had arrived.

The battle occurred on 21 April 1836, inside Stephen Austin’s land grant, not far from the present-day city of Houston and near a river named San Jacinto (“hah-seen-toe” in Spanish, but Texans say “ja-sin-tah”). With a negligence that equaled his immorality, Santa Anna had failed to provide local security while his tired soldiers rested. Houston’s men charged, shouting “Remember the Alamo!” The surprised Mexicans fled, only to be slaughtered by Texans in no mood to take prisoners. General Houston, defying a broken ankle, along with Texas secretary of war Thomas Rusk, tried in vain to command their men to obey the laws of war; in the words of a judicious historian, “the bloodthirsty rebels committed atrocities at least as beastly as those the Mexicans had committed.”23 The next day, military order restored, those enemy soldiers lucky enough to have survived were rounded up as captives. All told, the Mexicans lost about 650 killed and 700 prisoners at San Jacinto—virtually all the men they had engaged.

Among the prisoners, Santa Anna himself turned up. Instead of treating him as a war criminal (a status not then defined), Houston shrewdly bargained with the captured dictator. In return for his life and a safe conduct, Santa Anna promised that the Mexican army would withdraw beyond the Rio Grande (also called the Rio Bravo and Rio del Norte), even though the Nueces River, 150 miles farther north, had always been the boundary of Texas in the past. Accordingly, Santa Anna sent his successor in command, General Vicente Filisola, an order to evacuate Texas. Filisola obeyed, despite the remonstrance of General Urrea and others; he had come far from his supply base, and his financially strapped government had warned that no more resources could be devoted to the campaign. As the Mexican armies withdrew, they were joined by fugitive slaves and those Hispanic civilians who did not choose to cast their lot with an independent Texas. The document forced upon Santa Anna included a provision for the restoration of runaway slaves to their Anglo owners, but it proved impossible to enforce this.24

The Texans considered the Velasco agreement signed by Santa Anna and Texas president David Burnet a treaty recognizing their independence; the Mexican Congress, however, refused to approve it on the

23. Hardin, Texian Iliad, 213.

24. Lack, “Slavery and the Texan Revolution,” 195–96. The agreement Santa Anna signed at Velasco, Texas, including its secret provisions, can be found in Oscar Martínez, ed., U.S.-Mexico Borderlands (Wilmington, Del., 1996), 17–19.


understandable grounds that it had been extorted from a captive who had every reason to expect death if he did not consent. Intermittent warfare between Texas and Mexico continued for years. Mexican armies twice re-occupied San Antonio (in the spring and fall of 1842) but could not retain the town. The Texans tried to make good on their extravagant claim that the Rio Grande constituted their western boundary from mouth to source. They set up their national capital at Austin, rather than more logical places like Galveston or Houston, as a symbol of their westward aspirations.25 But several expansionist Texan offensives, including attempts to capture Santa Fe in 1841 and 1843, and an expedition to Mier on the Rio Grande in 1843, all failed completely. As a result, the Nueces remained the approximate de facto limit of the independent Lone Star Republic, except for the town of Corpus Christi where the Nueces met the Gulf. (The famous Lone Star Flag of Texas, suggested by emigrants from Louisiana, derived from the flag of the 1810 Baton Rouge rebellion against Spanish West Florida, which had featured a gold star on a blue background.)26

In October 1836, Sam Houston won the Texan presidential election in a landslide. Stephen Austin, who also ran, already seemed a voice from the past; he died soon afterwards. Juan Seguín found himself betrayed by the Anglos he had once fought alongside. Persecuted, he and his family fled to Mexico; when the next war came, he fought on the Mexican side against the United States. Santa Anna, disgraced by his conduct in Texas, fell from power in Mexico, regained it after redeeming himself fighting a French invasion of his country in 1838–39 at the cost of one of his legs, then lost power again in 1844 to the liberal José Herrera.

In the United States, Sam Houston’s longtime personal friend Andrew Jackson professed official neutrality while not actually preventing the Texans from obtaining men, munitions, and money for their cause. He also dispatched U.S. troops to the Sabine—and even across it—as an implied warning to Mexico that the reconquest of Texas could lead to conflict with the United States.27 The Mexicans wrongly assumed that Jackson had fomented the rebellion; in fact, he worried that Texan independence might complicate his efforts to annex the region. They rightly perceived, however, his intention to obtain Texas for the United States. As early as

25. D. W. Meinig, Imperial Texas (Austin, Tex., 1969), 42.

26. Louisiana State Museum, the Cabildo, New Orleans.

27. Robert May, Manifest Destiny’s Underworld (Chapel Hill, 2002), 9; Leonard Richards, “The Jacksonians and Slavery,” in Antislavery Reconsidered, ed. Lewis Perry and Michael Fellman (Baton Rouge, 1979), 116.

1829, Jackson had instructed his tactless, incompetent diplomatic representative in Mexico City, Anthony Butler, to try to acquire Texas, bribing Mexican officials if necessary. Not until April 1832 did the United States and Mexico exchange ratifications of a treaty affirming that the border defined between the United States and Spain in 1819 would continue to apply.28 After the Battle of San Jacinto, Jackson actually met with the defeated Santa Anna, then eager to ingratiate himself with the Americans, and made him an offer to buy Mexico’s claim to Texas for $3.5 million, but that ultimate opportunist no longer spoke for the Mexican government.29

Jackson’s attitude toward Texas fit with his foreign policy in general, which was largely a projection of his personal experience. As a planter and land speculator, he took an interest in the expansion of cotton acreage and in securing overseas markets for agricultural staples. Indian Removal, foreign trade agreements, and Texas annexation all reflected these interests. A soldier renowned for his defense of New Orleans, he remained concerned with the strategic security of the Southwest and now wanted the border pushed far beyond the Sabine (although he had favored the boundary of Adams’s Transcontinental Treaty when President Monroe asked his opinion).30

Jackson maintained a facade of neutrality between Texas and Mexico out of regard for his vice president. Van Buren knew that northerners regarded Texas as an outpost of slavery they did not wish to acquire, and he realized that the issue could complicate his election in the fall of 1836. Once the election had safely passed, Jackson began to push hard for the settlement of debts Mexico owed U.S. citizens. Not all the claims were well founded, but they provided leverage to pressure the financially strapped Mexican government into accepting some American money in return for surrendering Texas. On his last day in office, March 3, 1837, Old Hickory officially recognized the independence of Sam Houston’s government.

Discussions regarding Texas annexation then proceeded within the Van Buren administration until cut short in 1838, when John Quincy

28. John Belohlavek, Let the Eagle Soar! The Foreign Policy of Andrew Jackson (Lincoln, Neb., 1985), 237–38; Hunter Miller, ed., Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States (Washington, 1933), III, 412–13.

29. Andreas Reichstein, Rise of the Lone Star (College Station, Tex., 1989), 94–96; Remini, Jackson, III, 365.

30. Andrew Jackson to James Monroe, June 20, 1820, ms. in Monroe Papers, New York Public Library; Remini, Jackson, I, 389–90.

Adams got wind of them. Adams brought the issue to public attention, whereupon the cautious Fox backed away from a storm of northern protest.31 Van Buren handled Texas the same way he handled the crisis across the northern border in Canada. Ontario too had attracted settlers from the United States, who also made trouble for their foreign government and talked a lot about turning over their province to their native country. But Van Buren preferred conciliation to confrontation and peace to war. He had learned the arts of regional politics in his home state, where the racist workingmen and proslavery cotton merchants of New York City had to be balanced against the antislavery sentiments upstate. Texas annexation was one concession the South did not get from Jackson’s otherwise compliant successor.


Texas remained an independent republic for ten years. Immigration from the United States soared during the recurrent hard times that began in 1837, as southwesterners sought to escape their debts and start over in a new country where slavery had now been legalized. By 1845 the population of Texas reached 125,000, representing an increase of 75,000 in a decade. Over 27,000 of these inhabitants were enslaved, most of them imported from the United States but some from Cuba or Africa. Although the law forbade export of U.S. slaves to foreign countries, no one enforced the prohibition along the Texas/Louisiana border, either before or after Texan independence. The slave population grew even faster than the free population in the Lone Star Republic. Even if slavery did not actually trigger the Texan Revolution, the revolution’s success certainly strengthened the institution in Texas.32

During this time the Texan government pursued a dual foreign policy. On the one hand, annexation by the United States constituted an obvious objective. It offered military security against reconquest by Mexico, as well as improved economic prospects. The decade of Texan independence included the depression years following 1837, and, like the Mexican Republic from which it separated, the Lone Star Republic suffered from a chronic shortage of capital, both public and private. Bondholders of the impecunious new entity hoped the United States could be persuaded to annex not only Texas but also the Texan national debt. Land

31. Robert Cole, The Presidency of Andrew Jackson (Lawrence, Kans., 1993), 266–67; William Miller, Arguing About Slavery (New York, 1996), 284–98.

32. Meinig, Continental America, 141; Campbell, Empire for Slavery, 54–55; Lack, “Slavery and the Texan Revolution,” 202.

speculators, always influential in Texan politics, rejoiced that independence had stepped up the rate of immigration and figured (correctly) that annexation would boost it further. On the other hand, however, the dream of a strong independent Texas held attraction too, particularly if the Lone Star Republic could expand to the Pacific and become a two-ocean power. In this scenario, Britain might provide economic and military aid as a substitute for help from the United States. The emphasis in Texan foreign policy goals shifted now one way, now the other. Although the two policies envisioned alternative futures, in practice they proved quite compatible, since the prospect of an independent Texas allied with Britain alarmed U.S. authorities, encouraging them to overcome northern opposition to annexation. Even now it is by no means clear when Texan statesmen like Sam Houston were courting British aid to achieve long-term Texan independence and when they were doing it to get the attention of policymakers in Washington.

The British really did have an interest in Texas, though not so strong a one as the Texans hoped or the Americans feared. British commercial interests welcomed the prospect of trade with Texas as an alternative source of cotton imports. From a geopolitical point of view, an independent Texas sharing the North American continent might make the aggressive, troublesome United States less of a threat to the underpopulated dominions of British North America. But what shaped British policy the most was the interest of British bondholders. Since British citizens had invested in Texas and to a much greater extent in Mexico, their government hoped to promote stability and solvency in both Mexico and Texas by encouraging the two countries to make peace on the basis of Texan independence. Finally, Britain’s strong antislavery movement aspired to wean the Texans away from the practice of slavery, or at least from the international slave trade, as the price of British aid.33 This prospect considerably heightened the anxiety felt by President Tyler and certain other southern politicians.

Tyler’s secretary of state, Daniel Webster, had a different perspective on Anglo-American relations. A Whig supporter of internal improvements, like most members of his party he looked upon Britain as an essential source of investment capital, particularly important in 1842 for helping the United States pull out of its depression and resume economic development.34 To negotiate outstanding difficulties between the two countries,

33. Lelia Roeckell, “Bonds over Bondage: British Opposition to the Annexation of Texas,” JER 19 (1999): 257–78.

34. See Jay Sexton, “Debtor Diplomacy: Finance and American Foreign Relations, 1837–1873” (D.Phil. thesis, Oxford University, 2003).

Prime Minister Robert Peel sent Lord Ashburton, retired head of the investment banking firm of Baring Brothers. Baring’s had extensive experience in what the British call “the States,” and Ashburton had married an American. He and Webster knew and respected each other. But the list of issues confronting them tested the resourcefulness of even these skillful and well-motivated negotiators.

The Caroline incident in Van Buren’s administration constituted the first such issue. This conflict came back into the news when the state of New York put an alleged Canadian participant in the raid on trial for arson and murder. Fortunately for all parties, the jury acquitted him. Webster and Ashburton dealt with the Caroline through an exchange of letters. Webster declared that an attack on another country’s territory is legitimate only when a government can “show a necessity of self-defence, [sic] instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.”35 Ashburton replied that he accepted this standard and thought the circumstances had met it. He added, however, that it was too bad the British had not promptly offered an explanation and apology. Webster seized upon the word “apology” and declared American honor satisfied; he filed no claim for damages. Webster’s definition of international law on the subject was cited at Nuremberg and during the Cuban Missile Crisis to define situations when preemptive strikes may or may not be justified as self-defense.36

Another international incident had arisen in 1841, resembling in some respects the case of the Amistad. This involved the American brig Creole, which sailed from Hampton Roads, Virginia, with a cargo of 135 slaves bound for the markets of New Orleans. On November 7, the slaves rebelled, killed one of their owners and wounded several crew members, then sailed the ship into the port of Nassau in the Bahamas, a British colony where slavery had been illegal since 1833. There they came ashore to the cheers of assembled black Bahamians. The local authorities pronounced the refugees free and decided against prosecuting anyone for murder. When the news reached Washington, the abolitionist Whig

35. Papers of Daniel Webster: Diplomatic Papers, ed. Kenneth Shewmaker et al. (Hanover, N.H., 1983), I, 58–68. Webster addressed the letter to Henry Fox, the British minister to the United States, but it formed the basis of his agreement with Ashburton.

36. Kenneth Stevens, Border Diplomacy (Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1989), 164–68; Claude Fuess, Daniel Webster (New York, 1930), II, 112. The present applicability of the Caroline Doctrine is debated in Timothy Kearley, “Raising the Caroline,” Wisconsin International Law Journal 17 (1999): 325–46, and John Yoo, “Sinking the Caroline,” San Diego International Law Journal 4 (2003): 467–90.

congressman Joshua Giddings declared the mutineers on the Creole had been fully justified in asserting their natural right to freedom. Formally censured for this by the House of Representatives, Giddings felt vindicated after his antislavery constituents reelected him in a landslide. Angry American slaveholders demanded their property back, and to placate them Webster had to pursue financial compensation. Ashburton agreed to refer the matter to an international commission, which in 1853 awarded the masters $110,000 from the British government.37

Ashburton wanted the United States to accept the right of the Royal Navy to board ships suspected of engaging in the outlawed Atlantic slave trade. So long as the United States withheld such authority, slave traders from other countries flew the Stars and Stripes to deter detection. But Lewis Cass, the ambitious Michigan Democrat who served both Van Buren and Tyler as minister to France, complained loudly that the British were trying to revive their old practice of impressing sailors on American ships; his demagogy prevented Webster from agreeing to the British proposal, although several other nations did consent. Instead, the United States promised to maintain a squadron of its own to patrol for slave traders, a commitment honored only halfheartedly by the Democratic administrations that controlled the federal government most of the time until the Civil War.38

The boundary dispute between the United States and Canada, stemming from the vagueness of the Treaty of 1783 and the geographical ignorance of that time, required resolution in a formal treaty. The most hotly contested portion of the boundary lay between Maine and New Brunswick. One attempt to resolve it, through Dutch mediation in 1831, had already failed. In February 1839, the militias of Maine and New Brunswick had come dangerously close to an armed clash. The intransigence of the state of Maine, which had been granted the right to veto whatever the federal government negotiated, made compromise particularly difficult. Webster worked to soften Maine’s attitude by a combination of lobbying state legislators and publishing newspaper articles favoring compromise, paying for both out of secret executive funds that Congress had authorized for foreign affairs. Expending the money to influence American public opinion was something of a stretch but not forbidden by the law. To help convince key Maine individuals to accept compromise, Webster also showed them in confidence an early map assigning the

37. The Creole’s story is told in Howard Jones and Donald Rakestraw, Prologue to Manifest Destiny (Wilmington, Del., 1997), 71–96.

38. Don Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic (New York, 2001), 165–88.

whole disputed area to New Brunswick, suggesting that the American bargaining position would not bear close examination and that compromise was the only prudent course. In fact, a number of such early maps existed, showing a variety of boundaries; indeed, back in London, the foreign secretary possessed one that seemed to substantiate the American claim. The bargain that Webster and Ashburton eventually struck awarded Maine seven thousand square miles and New Brunswick five thousand square miles of the disputed area, and the states of Maine and Massachusetts (which Maine had been part of until 1820) signed off on it in return for $125,000 each from the British government.39 The boundary as finally agreed substantially coincided with the compromise that the Dutch king had proposed back in 1831. Webster might have been able to get more territory for Maine by more diligent searching for early maps, but he judged mutual conciliation more important than any of the particular issues. As he explained to his friend, the capable U.S. minister in London, Edward Everett: “The great object is to show mutual concession and the granting of what may be regarded in the light of equivalents.” History seems to have vindicated the work of Webster and Ashburton: Their peaceful compromise of the unclear boundary has proved a durable resolution.40

The Webster-Ashburton Treaty also demarcated the northern boundary of Minnesota more clearly. The line it drew, although the subject of less controversy at the time, proved ultimately more significant. It assigned the United States the rich iron ore, discovered many years later, of the Mesabi and Vermillion Ranges. Ashburton had no way of knowing the importance of the concession he made.41

The Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 represented a temporary confluence of interest between Tyler and the Whigs. “His Accidency” had long been an ardent and consistent expansionist. At this moment, he wanted to resolve tensions with the British in order to minimize their opposition against his intended annexation of Texas. For their part, the Whigs wanted access to British capital for American economic recovery and development; this explains why the Whig-dominated Senate consented to

39. Norma Peterson, The Presidencies of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler (Lawrence, Kans., 1989), 118–22; Jones and Rakestraw, Prologue to Manifest Destiny, 112.

40. Daniel Webster to Edward Everett, June 14, 1842, quoted in Irving Bartlett, Daniel Webster (New York, 1978), 179; Francis Carroll, A Good and Wise Measure (Toronto, 2001), 305–6.

41. Thomas LeDuc, “The Webster-Ashburton Treaty and the Minnesota Iron Ranges,” JAH 51 (1964): 476–81.

Left: Maine–Canada boundary; right, Minnesota–Canada boundary.


the treaty’s ratification on August 20. While vetoing Whig plans for a third Bank of the United States, Tyler had his own project to alleviate the depression, at least for some hard-pressed southern planters. Annexing the fertile cotton lands of Texas would ensure that their slave markets stayed open and busy, bidding up the value of all slaveowners’ property. The depression had also influenced the British government in its search for an accord with the United States. Responsive as usual to the interests of their bondholders, they hoped to persuade the federal government to assume the debts of states that had defaulted on their bonds. But the hope proved vain.42

Tyler felt encouraged by the success of the Webster-Ashburton negotiations to press for a larger accomplishment in foreign policy. Although stymied on the domestic front by congressional Whigs, the president had much more scope for achievement in foreign affairs. He sensed that the American public could be aroused to enthusiasm for westward expansion, and he determined to make Texas annexation his cause. Ideally, he could ride the issue into the White House for another term, this time in his own right. Webster’s long-standing opposition to the annexation of slaveholding Texas now surfaced as a difficulty between him and Tyler, and the two parted ways. But the president had learned a lot from the somewhat devious means that Webster employed to secure approval of his treaty with Ashburton. He would resort to secrecy and government propaganda on a far more extensive scale as he manipulated public opinion regarding Texas annexation.

To succeed Webster at the State Department Tyler appointed Abel Upshur, a proslavery radical of the Calhoun school. Like many other slaveholders, John Tyler regarded Britain with deep ambivalence. The textile mills of Yorkshire and Lancashire constituted an essential customer for southern cotton. Yet Britain also headquartered the international antislavery movement. Having used Webster to resolve many of the outstanding disputes between the United States and Britain, Tyler now turned to Upshur to confront the menace of British abolitionism in Texas. Tyler hoped to win over Calhoun’s faction for his presidential bid. Promoted by the Tyler administration, the issue of Texas annexation replaced state rights as the political mantra of southerners who embraced the new doctrine of the “positive good” of slavery.

The president had already sent the Calhounite newspaperman Duff Green to Europe with a kind of roving commission to spy for the White

42. Freehling, Secessionists at Bay, 422–24; Wilbur Jones, The American Problem in British Diplomacy, 1841–1861 (London, 1974), 31.

House. Green’s cover was that of a businessman seeking British venture capital. Green found Lewis Cass a congenial Anglophobic spirit and worked with him to frustrate British efforts for international cooperation in suppressing the Atlantic slave trade. Once Webster left the administration, no one in Washington tried to counteract the reports Green sent back about British plots to “abolitionize” Texas, that is, to guarantee payment of Texan national bonds in return for compensated emancipation. Then, Green warned, Texas would become a magnet for runaway slaves much as Florida had been before 1818, and (somehow) it would all end up with emancipation and race war in the United States. The Texan diplomatic representatives in Washington felt in no hurry to deny these rumors, sensing that they enhanced the value of Texas in the eyes of Tyler’s administration. In fact, the American abolitionist Stephen Pearl Andrews was indeed in London and lobbying for British aid to Texas emancipation, but Peel’s Tory ministry was not prepared to embark on any such expensive and risky adventure in altruism. Duff Green had confused the hopes of the World Antislavery Convention (which Andrews attended) with the intentions of Her Majesty’s Government. The official U.S. minister to Britain, Edward Everett, tried to make the distinction clear. But Green’s reports fed Upshur’s preconceptions and expectations; Everett’s did not.43

Upshur took Green’s exaggerations and alarms to the American public, publishing anonymous articles in the press on the “Designs of the British Government.”44 Besides expanding the power of the United States, the annexation of Texas, they argued, would also secure southwestern slavery against the bad example of British-sponsored abolition. Arousing the latent Anglophobia of the American public was often good politics. Besides its official organ, the Washington Madisonian, the Tyler administration could also count on the largest-selling newspaper in the country, James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald, to echo Green’s warnings about Britain and support American imperialism. To some extent, at least, Tyler’s inner circle believed their own propaganda that slavery was under threat in Texas; Secretary Upshur privately warned a friend to remove his slaves from Texas lest he lose them to emancipation.45

43. David Pletcher, The Diplomacy of Annexation (Columbia, Mo., 1973), 119–25; Edward Crapol, John Tyler (Chapel Hill, 2006), 68–74.

44. Green’s reports and Upshur’s publications in the Washington Madisonian are in Frederick Merk, Slavery and the Annexation of Texas, 187–92, 204–5, 217–36, 245–64.

45. Thomas Hietala, Manifest Design: Anxious Aggrandizement in Late Jacksonian America (Ithaca, N.Y., 1985), 20–21; Abel Upshur to Beverly Tucker, March 13, 1843, printed in William Freehling, The Reintegration of American History (New York, 1994), 125–29.

In September 1843, Upshur initiated secret discussions with the Texan emissary Isaac Van Zandt regarding annexation. At first Texan president Sam Houston remained cool; he preferred to concentrate his diplomatic efforts on winning Mexican recognition of Texan independence, employing the good offices of Britain. The government of Texas gave no indication of fearing the British posed a threat to its system of labor exploitation, but it did worry about renewed warfare with Mexico. Only after the Mexicans had proposed a truce but no recognition did Houston assent to try negotiating annexation with the United States. In secrecy, Upshur and Van Zandt began drafting such a treaty. In January 1844, Upshur informally promised the Texan negotiator that if they signed a treaty of annexation, the U.S. president would dispatch troops to defend Texas against Mexico without waiting for congressional authorization or ratification of the treaty. This understanding proved key in reassuring the Texans.46

On February 28, 1844, Secretary of State Upshur, along with the secretary of the navy and several other people, were killed when a gigantic naval gun on board the USS Princeton exploded during a demonstration firing. A steam-powered warship (then the cutting edge of technology), the Princeton, with its big gun sardonically nicknamed “the Peacemaker,” was the pride of the U.S. Navy. The administration had wanted to show off new weaponry prepared for any coming showdown with Mexico over Texas annexation. By the time of the accident, negotiations for annexation had largely been completed. To carry the Texas treaty forward through ratification, President Tyler appointed as his new secretary of state the ultimate Calhounite: the master of Fort Hill plantation himself.47

On April 12, 1844, Secretary of State Calhoun and the two Texan negotiators formally signed the treaty of annexation. It provided that Texas would become a U.S. territory eligible for admission later as one or more states. Texan public lands would be ceded to the federal government, which in return would assume up to $10 million in Texan national debt. The boundaries of Texas were not specified but left to be sorted out later with Mexico.48

Ten days later the treaty went to the Senate. Along with it went Calhoun’s official statement of why Texas annexation was essential: a letter

46. Peterson, Presidencies of Harrison and Tyler, 199; Pletcher, Diplomacy of Annexation, 125–35.

47. Merk, Slavery and Annexation, 42–43; Freehling, Secessionists at Bay, 406–7.

48. “A Treaty of Annexation, Concluded between the United States of America and the Republic of Texas, at Washington, the 12th Day of April, 1844,” rpt. in Merk, Slavery and Annexation, 271–75.

from the secretary of state to Britain’s minister to the United States, Richard Pakenham, declaring that the United States acquired Texas in order to protect slavery there from British interference.49 Although the press had finally discovered the existence of annexation negotiations a month before, the treaty’s provisions remained a state secret. Tyler and Calhoun intended to make them public only after the Senate, in closed executive session, had consented to ratification.

Then the whole thing blew up in the administration’s face. Senator Benjamin Tappan of Ohio, a maverick antislavery Democrat and an opponent of annexation, leaked the treaty to the newspapers on April 27. The same day, Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren, the recognized leaders of the Whig and Democratic Parties respectively, both issued statements opposing immediate annexation of Texas. The Senate censured Tappan but decided to open up much of its deliberation to the public. When Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton publicly exposed the misinformation from Duff Green on which the administration had justified its policy, he showed that even a western Jacksonian Democrat, an expansionist under most circumstances, opposed the treaty. On June 8, the Senate defeated Texas annexation by 35 to 16. A treaty needs approval by two-thirds of the Senators; this one had not even mustered one-third. The proslavery justification for Texas offered by Calhoun’s letter to Pakenham immediately appealed only to slave-state Democrats, who backed the treaty 10 to 1 (Benton). Infuriated northern Whigs rejected the treaty 13 to 0. Southern Whigs stayed loyal to Clay by opposing it 14 to 1. Northern Democrats, with their strong tradition of placating the slave power, had more difficulty deciding; they split 7 to 5 against, with 1 abstention.50

Tyler had wanted to unite the country behind Texas annexation (and himself). What had gone wrong? Like Tyler, John C. Calhoun hoped that 1844 would be his year for the presidency. He had resigned from the Senate thinking to devote full time to campaigning. But the philosopher of state rights had not succeeded in rallying a solid South behind his candidacy and the extreme proslavery paranoia that he represented to the political community. Although some northern “doughface” Democrats came to his support, his refusal to endorse the Dorr Rebellion, popular with most northern Democratic voters, hurt him.51 Calhoun had pulled out of the race in December 1843, without waiting for the Democratic

49. Excerpts rpt. in History of U.S. Political Parties, ed. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (New York, 1973), 550–52.

50. Freehling, Secessionists at Bay, 431.

51. Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy (New York, 2005), 545.

National Convention. He then seized upon his appointment as Tyler’s secretary of state to implement the same goal he would have pursued as president: to make the federal government explicitly proslavery. When Secretary of State Calhoun avowed the protection of slavery the primary reason for annexing Texas, this was more than most American politicians at the time were willing to swallow. Both major parties had long agreed that Texas annexation seemed too hot to handle. The prolonged secrecy surrounding the treaty proved another tactical mistake, for the northern press turned alienated and hostile when shut out from the news by which it lived.

Calhoun’s presidential candidacy, which he pursued throughout 1842 and 1843, had undercut Tyler’s candidacy, because of course the race had room for only one of them. Still, the Tyler and Calhoun supporters could cooperate against those who wanted to sew the nomination up for Martin Van Buren. Sometimes the lines between the Tyler and Calhoun campaigns blurred. While Tyler thought Upshur was supporting him, in reality the secretary seems to have been working for Calhoun. Very likely Calhoun, Upshur, and their friends, including Senator Robert Walker of Mississippi, played on the president’s vanity, encouraging him to stay in the race to further purposes of their own without feeling any real loyalty to his cause.52

Having given up entirely on the Whigs, Tyler now hoped for the nomination of the Democratic Party, but that great patronage machine was not about to bestow its highest prize on an interloper. Why should the Democrats make an exception to their cherished value of party solidarity and loyalty? They benefited more by insisting that Tyler remained a Whig and that the Whigs were therefore hopelessly divided among themselves. Clinging desperately to his dream of a second term, Tyler took up the third-party option and organized a convention, consisting mostly of federal officeholders, who went through the motions of nominating him but did not provide him with a running mate.

Looking back afterwards, Tyler grumbled that his presidential bid had been hurt by the insistence of his secretary of state on making the Texas treaty an explicitly proslavery measure.53 But, if it did Tyler’s candidacy no good, Calhoun’s tactic served another purpose. By identifying Texas

52. On the subtle relationship between Tyler and Calhoun, see John Niven, John C. Calhoun (Baton Rouge, 1988), 260; William J. Cooper, The South and the Politics of Slavery (Baton Rouge, 1978), 176–89; Charles Sellers, “Election of 1844,” in History of American Presidential Elections, ed. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (New York, 1985), II, 758.

53. Tyler’s 1847 recollections quoted in Fehrenbacher, Slaveholding Republic, 125.

with slavery, Calhoun made sure that Van Buren, being a northerner, would have to oppose Texas. This, Calhoun correctly foresaw, would hurt the New Yorker’s chances for the Democratic nomination. Nor did the Carolinian’s ingenious strategy ultimately wreck the cause of Texas annexation. Indeed, in that respect it would turn out a brilliant success.54


The election of 1844 was one of the closest and most momentous in American history. The Whig Party met for its national convention in Baltimore on May 1. No one had the slightest doubt that the presidential nomination would go to Henry Clay, and so it did, unanimously. As a gesture of confidence in Whig judgment, the nominee allowed the convention freedom to choose his running mate. The southern delegates felt that, to balance the ticket, a northern evangelical should get the nod. The view prevailed, and the vice-presidential choice went to New Jersey’s former senator, Theodore Frelinghuysen, president of the American Bible Society and the American Tract Society, befriender of the Cherokees, sabbatarian and temperance advocate, nicknamed “the Christian statesman.” Clay expected his opponent to be Martin Van Buren and that the campaign would be fought along the economic lines that had emerged during the past fifteen years: the American System and a national bank versus laissez-faire and banking rules left up to the states. With Texas annexation clearly heading for defeat in the Senate, it did not seem likely to figure in the campaign. Van Buren had paid a courtesy call on Clay at Ashland in May 1842, and many people, both in their own day and since, have supposed the prospective candidates there reached an informal agreement, as Unionists and gentlemen, to leave Texas out of their contest. Very likely, however, the two reached the same conclusion independently and their simultaneous announcements were a coincidence.55

The Democratic convention, meeting later the same month, also in Baltimore, provided much more excitement and surprise. Ex-president Van Buren controlled a majority of the delegates but not the two-thirds Democratic rules customarily required. His support turned out to be soft. Senator Robert Walker persuaded some of Van Buren’s delegates to join

54. On the motive behind Calhoun’s Pakenham Letter, I accept Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution (New York, 1991), 413. See also Peterson, Presidencies of Harrison and Tyler, 213–18; William Brock, Parties and Political Conscience (Millwood, N.Y., 1979), 132–35.

55. Donald Cole, Martin Van Buren (Princeton, 1984), 393–94; Robert Remini, Henry Clay (New York, 1991), 613.

the South in backing reimposition of the two-thirds rule.56 Lewis Cass of Michigan, who as Jackson’s secretary of war had taken charge of Indian Removal, embraced Texas annexation and parlayed this and strident Anglophobia into a serious challenge to Van Buren. After eight ballots the two were running neck and neck. Calhoun and his followers sat in attendance, but ready to walk out and into the Tyler convention meeting across the street if they didn’t get an acceptable Democratic nominee. Despite Cass’s enthusiasm for Texas, the Calhounites wanted a real southern slaveholder. They opted for James Knox Polk of Tennessee, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, who had been angling for the second spot on Van Buren’s ticket and who had now replaced the New Yorker as Andrew Jackson’s protégé. A cabal consisting of Gideon Pillow, Benjamin Butler, and George Bancroft (who, improbably, was both an eminent historical scholar and a political wheeler-dealer) offered Polk to the convention as a way out, to prevent a Cass–Van Buren deadlock, and the delegates stampeded for him. Not having been regarded as a presidential candidate during the preceding months, Polk was the first “dark horse” candidate to win a nomination. Polk had remained technically loyal to Van Buren, and he supported an Independent Treasury. Yet on the expansion issue Polk represented, not a compromise, but an even more ambitious imperialism than Cass. After most of the tired delegates had gone home, the convention adopted a platform containing (along with the standard Democratic positions on strict construction, banking, and congressional noninterference with slavery) the following dramatic plank:

Resolved, 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, and that the re-occupation of Oregon and the re-annexation of Texas at the earliest practicable period are great American measures, which this Convention recommends to the cordial support of the Democracy of the Union.57

The Calhounites felt delighted with the outcome. “We have triumphed,” Francis Pickens of South Carolina gloated. “Polk is nearer to us than any public man who was named. He is a large Slave holder &

56. Michael Morrison, “Martin Van Buren, the Democracy, and the Partisan Politics of Texas Annexation,” Journal of Southern History 61 (1995): 695–722; Leonard Richards, The Slave Power (Baton Rouge, 2000), 144–45.

57. National Party Platforms, comp. Kirk Porter and Donald Johnson (Urbana, Ill., 1970), 4.

plants cotton—free trade—Texas—States rights out & out.”58 Polk even obligingly promised to serve but one term, so Calhoun could continue to nurture his own obsessive presidential ambition.59

Robert Walker, one of the most influential southern leaders at the convention, had phrased the new plank in the Democratic platform shrewdly. To appeal to the North, it seemed to place more emphasis on Oregon than on Texas. It spoke of “re-occupation” and “re-annexation.” The terms implied that the United States once enjoyed clear title to all of Oregon and Texas but had foolishly agreed to the joint occupation of the former in 1818 and surrendered the latter altogether in the Florida treaty of 1819. Expansionist Democrats claimed Texas had been included in the Louisiana Purchase and blamed John Quincy Adams for relinquishing it to Spain. Adams responded that Monroe had instructed him to do so, and that furthermore Andrew Jackson had been consulted and had consented to the boundary then drawn. Jackson indignantly denied this, and the two ex-presidents exchanged bitter recriminations. The historical record vindicates Adams’s memory rather than Jackson’s.60

By now, Jackson had removed any cloak from his aggressive imperialism. The enfeebled hero lay terminally ill at the Hermitage, but the letters he scratched out breathed his old fire against old enemies, the British and the abolitionists who stood in his way. Since Van Buren had come out against immediate annexation, Jackson wrote off his former favorite and called upon the Democratic Party to nominate someone else.61 Although Jackson could not bring himself to admit it, his stance in 1844 aligned him with, of all people, John C. Calhoun. After the convention, Old Hickory rallied his faltering energies to endorse his Tennessee friend Polk and Texas. “Obtain it the United States must, peaceably if we can, but forcibly if we must,” Jackson instructed. Polk, proud of his nickname “Young Hickory,” took the old man’s admonition to heart.62

Mississippi’s Robert Walker presented the case on behalf of Texas annexation for northern audiences. Walker may have composed this remarkable

58. Francis Pickens to Henry Conner, May 29, 1844, quoted in Cooper, Politics of Slavery, 206.

59. For a good account of the Democratic convention, see Sellers, “Election of 1844,” 747–75.

60. Michael Holt, “The Democratic Party,” in Schlesinger, History of U.S. Political Parties, 518; Lynn Parsons, “The Last Ten Years of John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson,” JER 23 (2003): 421–44, esp. 433.

61. Andrew Jackson to Francis Blair, May 11, 1844, Correspondence of AJ, VI, 286–87.

62. Andrew Jackson to William Lewis, April 8, 1844, ibid., VI, 278. See also Freehling, Secessionists at Bay, 415–17.

statement originally at John Tyler’s request, but Polk’s campaign used it most effectively. Walker had grown up in Pennsylvania and understood the mentality of the average northern Democrat well. He argued for Texas annexation primarily on economic grounds. Taking a leaf out of Henry Clay’s book, he pointed out that Texas would enlarge the home market for American products. He also made the old Jeffersonian argument that expansion would “diffuse” the slave population into the West and make emancipation more likely in the Upper South. Looking still farther into the future, Walker predicted that when the inefficient labor of slaves had finally exhausted the soil of the Southwest, the blacks, no longer profitable to their masters, would at last be freed. Then Texas would provide a convenient conduit for the mass migration of the freedpeople into Latin America, where they would find a congenial multiracial society. Were Texas not to be annexed, he warned, emancipated slaves would probably flock northward, depressing wages and burdening northern states with their pauperism, insanity, and crime. Playing as it did on working-class fears, Walker’s pamphlet, despite the perversity of its argument that Texas annexation would help get rid of slavery, had a plausible ring for northern white racists looking for reasons to believe that annexation would help the United States as a whole and not just the South. The Polk campaign distributed thousands of copies of it.63

All this left poor John Tyler with no distinctive campaign issue. His candidacy had forced southern Democrats to endorse Texas or watch their supporters flock over to him. Now, from the point of view of Democratic imperialists, his campaign had served its purpose. For him to stay in the race any longer would merely divide the expansionist vote. Flattering words from Jackson, together with assurances that his followers could rejoin the Democratic Party and not be excluded from patronage, smoothed the way for Tyler to withdraw his candidacy on August 20 and endorse Polk.64 While unsuccessful, Tyler’s long presidential campaign, of which his Texas treaty formed an integral part, had a huge impact on American history.

63. Letter of Mr. Walker of Mississippi Relative to the Annexation of Texas (Washington, 1844), rpt. in Frederick Merk, Fruits of Propaganda in the Tyler Administration (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), 221–52. Walker’s rhetorical appeal is analyzed in Stephen Hartnett, Democratic Dissent and the Cultural Fictions of Antebellum America (Urbana, Ill., 2002), 103–31.

64. Michael Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party (New York, 1999), 174–75.

The election of 1844 pitted two resolute, sharply defined, and closely matched party antagonists against each other. A majority of voters, perhaps a large majority, identified strongly with one party or the other and were not really open to persuasion. In the struggle to win over the undecided minority, the question of territorial expansion quickly dominated the campaign. Even without Texas or Oregon, the United States was larger than any European country except Russia. Democratic newspapers nevertheless portrayed national security as endangered by British interest in Texas. To this argument Henry Clay responded on behalf of the Whigs in his Raleigh Letter of April 17. He warned that annexation of Texas would bring war with Mexico, inflame sectional conflict within the United States, and encourage an insatiable lust for more and more land, a “spirit of universal dominion.” Better the United States should cultivate friendship with both Canada (whose independence from Britain Clay foresaw) and an independent Texas.65

Debate over territorial expansion was by no means confined to its impact on the slavery issue, but extended to its implications for the whole future of America. Whigs preferred for the United States to concentrate its energies internally, on economic development, education, and social reform. Democrats, however, professed to find the trends in American domestic development ominous. “Our population has become comparatively dense; our new lands are exhausted,” complained Orestes Brown-son’s Democratic Quarterly Review. “We are separating more and more, capital and labor, and have the beginnings of a constantly increasing operative class, unknown to our fathers, doomed always to be dependent on employment by the class who represent the capital of the country, for the means of subsistence.”66 Westward expansion, Democrats argued, would provide a safety valve and preserve America as a land of opportunity for white men. To Whigs, westward expansion seemed a recipe for continuing an undue reliance on agriculture and an inefficiently thin dispersion of population, perpetuating America’s neocolonial dependence on foreign manufactures and capital.67

At first the Whigs felt confident of victory. James K. Polk (who had recently run for governor of Tennessee and lost) seemed too minor a figure to challenge the well-known Harry of the West. “Who’s Polk?” Whig

65. Letter to the editors of the Washington National Intelligencer, April 17, 1844, Papers of Henry Clay, ed. Melba Hay (Lexington, Ky., 1991), X, 41–46.

66. Brownson’s Quarterly Review 1 (Jan. 1844): 85.

67. See Michael Morrison, “Texas Annexation and the American Whig Party,” JER 10 (1990): 221–49.

gatherings shouted in derision. But they changed their minds quickly as Polk mended his fences with the Van Buren loyalists, and the Texas issue displayed its effectiveness with the voting public. By July 27, Clay felt that his opposition to Texas annexation was hurting him so much in the South that he needed to publish a clarification. He declared that he “should be glad to see” Texas annexed—provided it could be accomplished “without dishonor, without war, with the common consent of the Union, and upon just and fair terms.”68 Obviously these conditions could not be met at the time of his writing, and indeed to list them was to restate his current objections to annexation. Nevertheless this statement disheartened some of Clay’s antislavery northern supporters, while doing him little good in the South. (Van Buren had hedged his own anti-Texas stand with a similar provision for possible future annexation under changed circumstances.)

Polk had to resort to some fudging of his own position on the tariff. In a heavily publicized statement to Pennsylvania industrial workers, he declared that although he believed in a tariff for revenue only, he had no objection to “reasonable incidental protection to our home industry.” Meanwhile, the Democratic nominee secretly assured southerners that he would reduce the tariff that had been raised in 1842. This behavior has been aptly characterized as “duplicitous,” but it neutralized what should have been the appeal of the American System in Pennsylvania and played a key role in Polk’s narrow victory there.69

In the South, despite the popularity of Texas, the Whig Party retained an appeal to voters in places wanting economic development and to producers of products like sugar and hemp that needed tariff protection. Townsmen and large planters continued to vote Whig because they needed a sound currency and banking system and took a dim view of the repudiation of state bonds. The extension of plantation agriculture into Texas, while it bid up the value of slaves, also had a downside from the planters’ point of view: It lowered the value of their land and opened up more competition in cotton production. On the other hand, middle-sized and small cotton producers, whether slaveholders or yeomen, found westward expansion appealing because they saw in it their own best chance for upward economic mobility. Texas annexation, pitched as providing both economic opportunity and security for white supremacy, won over

68. Henry Clay to Thomas Peters and John Jackson, July 27, 1844, Papers of Henry Clay, X, 89–91. This is called Clay’s “Second Alabama Letter.” The First Alabama Letter, dated July 1, disavowed abolitionist support (X, 78–79).

69. Holt, Rise and Fall of Whig Party, 184. See also Brock, Parties and Political Conscience, 155.

most uncommitted southerners, especially young first-time voters, enabling Polk to run better in the South than Van Buren had done four years earlier. Clay carried only five slave states, all in the Upper South, whereas Harrison had won eight, including Louisiana, Mississippi, and Georgia.70

In the North the greater ethnic diversity of the electorate manifested itself in strong patterns of voting along cultural and religious lines. In many areas hard times had largely passed by the fall of 1844, so economic issues no longer seemed so urgent as they had in 1840, and ethnocultural divisions became all the more important. Territorial expansion raised moral questions involving slavery and America’s role in the world, questions that different religious and cultural communities answered differently. Overall, Clay’s opposition to Texas annexation helped him in most of the free states, though Polk’s linkage of Texas to all of Oregon excited enthusiasm in what we now call the Midwest. The evangelical reformers rallied around Frelinghuysen as the Whig convention had intended, but his presence on the ticket also made things easier for Democratic campaign workers in Catholic neighborhoods. Relations between Catholics and Protestants had deteriorated in many places following increased Catholic immigration, Irish, German, and French-Canadian. In Philadelphia two waves of rioting, in May and July 1844, pitted the Irish Catholic and native Protestant working classes against each other and left at least twenty dead. When it came time to vote, Philadelphia Catholics went solidly for Polk. The Whigs struck a deal with the local nativist leaders but found that the Protestant workingmen, misled by Democratic claims to favor tariff protection, still cast a few votes for Polk. Although Clay won Philadelphia, it was not by a large enough margin to carry Pennsylvania.71

The outcome of the election hung in the balance as states voted throughout the first twelve days of November. The electoral college scored Polk 170 to Clay’s 105, but this masked the closeness of the popular vote. Polk’s plurality of 38,000 out of 2,700,000 votes cast gave him 49.5 percent to Clay’s 48.1. The abolitionist James G. Birney, candidate of the Liberty Party, polled 62,000 votes, 2.3 percent of the total. While a small percentage, it affected the outcome; Birney took enough anti-annexation votes away from Clay to cost him New York and Michigan. If New York had gone the other way, Clay would have won the election. Massive Democratic electoral frauds also tipped the scales. In New York they

70. Holt, Rise and Fall of Whig Party, 199–201.

71. Sellers, “Election of 1844,” 795. See also Michael Feldberg, The Philadelphia Riots of 1844 (Westport, Conn., 1975).

voted large numbers of ineligible (noncitizen) immigrants. In the last analysis, Young Hickory may well have owed his victory less to his stand on Texas, so popular in the Deep South, than to the growing Catholic immigrant vote and the inability of Whigs like Seward to make a dent in it.72

It took six days for the returns from New York to reach Nashville. “I thank my god that the Republic is safe, & that he had permitted me to live to see it,” declared Andrew Jackson after he learned that Polk had clinched the victory. “I can say in the language of Simeon of old ‘Now let thy servant depart in peace.’ ”73 Three months after Polk’s inauguration, the old soldier did just that, on June 8, 1845. His commemorative eulogy was delivered in Washington by the distinguished historian George Bancroft, whom Polk had appointed secretary of the navy. We would expect a speaker on such an occasion to mention Jackson’s patriotism, decisiveness, and capacity to inspire, his instinctive feeling for popular opinion. Bancroft employed romantic metaphor. He likened Old Hickory to “one of the mightiest forest trees of his own land, vigorous and colossal, sending its summit to the skies, and growing on its native soil in wild and inimitable magnificence.” Jackson had embodied the principle that “submission is due to the popular will, in the confidence that the people, when in error, will amend their doings.” Jackson’s successful resistance to nullification meant to Bancroft “that the Union, which was constituted by consent, must be preserved by love.”74

The chances that mutual love would preserve the Union did not look good to another learned analyst of American history and politics, John Quincy Adams. He read the election returns as evidence of the fragmentation and perversion of American republicanism. “The partial associations of Native Americans, Irish Catholics, abolition societies, liberty party, the Pope of Rome, the Democracy of the sword, and the dotage of a ruffian are sealing the fate of this nation, which nothing less than the interposition of Omnipotence can save.”75

The consequences of the election of 1844 went far beyond Texas annexation, important as that was. If Henry Clay had won the White House, almost surely there would have been no Mexican War, no Wilmot Proviso, and therefore less reason for the status of slavery in the territories to

72. Holt, Rise and Fall of Whig Party, 203–4.

73. Jackson to Andrew Donelson, Nov. 18, 1844, Correspondence of AJ, VI, 329. Cf. Luke 2:29.

74. Quoted in Russel Nye, George Bancroft (New York, 1944), 150.

75. Jackson and Adams are quoted in Sellers, “Election of 1844,” 796. By “Native Americans” Adams of course meant the nativists, not American Indians.

have inflamed sectional passions. Although he would have faced a Democratic Congress, President Clay would probably have strengthened the Whig Party through patronage and renewed its commitment to the American System. In the South, he would have encouraged moderation on the slavery issue, including the acceptance of an alternative future characterized by economic diversification and, in the long run, the gradual compensated emancipation which he advocated all his life. There might have been no reason for the Whig Party to disappear or a new Republican Party to emerge in the 1850s. After the Civil War, the great newspaper editor Horace Greeley declared that if Clay had been elected in 1844, “great and lasting public calamities would thereby have been averted.” More recently, some historians have carefully examined the likely consequences of a Clay victory in 1844 and concluded that it would probably have avoided the Civil War of the 1860s.76 We too readily assume the inevitability of everything that has happened. The decisions that electorates and politicians make have real consequences.


Communication has always been a priority for empires, including the Roman, Chinese, and Incan. The messengers of the ancient Persian empire inspired the famous encomium of Herodotus, “Neither rain, nor snow, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”77 The first postal system available for public use was created in the fifteenth century by the German Emperor Maximilian I. In the 1790s, the French Revolutionary government originated, and Napoleon subsequently expanded and perfected, the fastest and most efficient communication network the world had yet seen: a system of what we would call semaphores placed about six miles apart, capable of relaying signals whenever visibility permitted. Besides facilitating political control and military operations, it typified the Enlightenment ideal of rationality. Other countries imitated the system on a smaller scale.78

76. Horace Greeley, Recollections of a Busy Life (New York, 1868), 168; Michael Holt, Political Parties and American Political Development from the Age of Jackson to the Age of Lincoln (Baton Rouge, 1992), 17–18; Gary Kornblith, “Rethinking the Coming of the Civil War: A Counterfactual Exercise,” JAH 90 (2003): 76–105. Tom Wicker explores the related question, what if Harrison had not died in office? See his essay in What Ifs? of American History, ed. Robert Cowley (New York, 2003), 57–65.

77. Inscribed on the central U.S. Post Office in New York City.

78. See Daniel Headrick, When Information Came of Age (Oxford, 2000), 197–203.

To describe long-distance optical signaling, the word “telegraph,” meaning long-distance written communication, came into the European languages. Americans too employed optical signals of various kinds, though seldom in relays; they are commemorated in innumerable “telegraph hills” and “beacon hills.” By the 1820s, “telegraph” had become a popular name for newspapers, like the Jacksonian United States Telegraph, edited by Duff Green. The ambitious Postmaster General John McLean projected an optical telegraph relay for the United States, but capital was scarce, and a semaphore system, complete with trained operators and cryptographers to translate the signals, cost a lot. Nevertheless, by 1840, an optical telegraph line functioned between New York and Philadelphia, though only its owners were allowed to use it.79

In May 1844, politicians in Washington felt eager to learn news from the party conventions taking place in Baltimore, forty miles away. Help was at hand, for in March 1843 Congress had finally passed, after years of earnest lobbying, an appropriation of thirty thousand dollars for a Professor Samuel Finley Breese Morse (Finley to his family) to demonstrate an electromagnetic telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore. Morse and his team first tried laying the wire underground, but insulation problems forced them to string the lines on poles aboveground. When the Whig National Convention met on May first, the wire still stretched only about halfway to Baltimore. But Morse’s associate Alfred Vail got the news from the train at Annapolis Junction and telegraphed it ahead to Washington. The information that the Whig Party had nominated Henry Clay for president and Theodore Frelinghuysen for vice president arrived an hour and fifteen minutes before the train did. By the time of the formal opening of the telegraph all the way to Baltimore on May 24, no doubt existed that it would work. From the chambers of the United States Supreme Court, Morse transmitted to Vail the famous message, WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT.80 When the Democratic convention began three days later, some privileged politicians huddled around Morse receiving up-to-the-minute reports, while hundreds of others outside (many of them members of Congress) tried to gain entrance or at least view the information he posted on the door. “Little else is done here but watch Professor Morse’s Bulletin from Baltimore, to learn the progress of doings at Convention,” a reporter for the New York Herald

79. Richard John, Spreading the News: The United States Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), 86–89.

80. For the origin of the phrase, see the Introduction to this book.

told his paper.81 The Democratic convention used the telegraph to offer the second spot on its ticket to Martin Van Buren’s friend Silas Wright; he declined it via the same medium, and the party then turned to the Pennsylvania doughface George Dallas.

Professor Morse seemed an unlikely inventor. He was not a scientist, engineer, or mathematician but a professor of fine arts at New York University. A distinguished portrait painter, he had aspired to nurture American nationhood and shape public taste through painting historical panoramas and founding the National Academy of Design.82 When in 1837 Congress denied him a commission to paint a historical mural for the Capitol Rotunda, Morse felt so bitterly disappointed that he gave up painting and turned his energies instead to developing an electric telegraph, a project that had engaged his attention off and on since 1832. Morse’s surprising combination of artistic and technological creativity has caused him to be labeled (somewhat hyperbolically) “the American Leonardo.” But two important themes provide continuity between Morse’s art and telegraphy: his Calvinistic Protestantism and his American imperialism. Both of these preoccupations he had inherited from his father, Jedidiah Morse, Congregational minister and famous geographer, who prophesied that America would create “the largest Empire that ever existed.”83 If Finley Morse could not serve America’s providential destiny through painting, he would help fulfill it with electromagnetic current.

A series of international scientific advances paved the way for Morse’s demonstration. Alessandro Volta had invented the electric battery in 1800; Hans Christian Oersted and André Marie Ampère researched electromagnetic signals; William Sturgeon devised the electromagnet in 1824; and in 1831 the American physicist Joseph Henry announced his method for strengthening the intensity of an electromagnet so that the current could be transmitted across long distances. Leonard Gale, a professor of chemistry at NYU, called Henry’s work to the attention of his colleague in fine arts and became a junior partner in Morse’s enterprise. In 1837, they demonstrated the ability to send a signal through ten miles of wire. The Jackson administration, ever mindful of the Southwest, had taken an interest in the possibility of an American counterpart to the French optical telegraph to speed communication with New Orleans. The Van Buren

81. Kenneth Silverman, Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse (New York, 2003), 233–38.

82. On Morse’s career as a painter, see Paul Staiti, Samuel F. B. Morse (Cambridge, Eng., 1989).

83. Jedidiah Morse, American Geography (1789; New York, 1960), 469.

administration continued this interest. In September 1837, Morse wrote Secretary of the Treasury Levi Woodbury describing his own plan for a new kind of telegraph, based on electricity. To design the apparatus itself, Morse entered into a second partnership, one with Alfred Vail, an experienced machinist whose father owned a major ironworks and could provide some investment capital. Secretary Woodbury was impressed, but to secure financial aid from the government, Morse needed an act of Congress. When he took his project before the House Commerce Committee, chairman Francis Smith, a Maine Democrat, insisted on being made another partner in Morse’s enterprise. Morse reluctantly consented, whereupon Smith enthusiastically recommended the project to Congress, making no mention of his own interest in it.84 It proved a bad bargain. The favorable committee report did not win congressional approval for the grant, and in the years ahead Smith’s shameless self-seeking would make trouble for Morse.

Morse had grown up in a New England Federalist household and retained an elitist social outlook. Nevertheless, during his time in New York he became a Democrat in politics, like his literary friends James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, and William Cullen Bryant (and like so many in the New York trading community). But in spite of Morse’s party affiliation, the corrupt support of Smith, and the imperial vision of Woodbury, a Democratic Congress evidently found Morse’s project too much like federal aid to internal improvements to endorse. Not until the Whigs controlled Congress did the Democrat Morse get his grant approved in 1843. It carried in the House only narrowly, 89 to 83, with many abstentions.85 Very likely Morse’s vociferous anti-Catholicism, unpopular with Congress, contributed to both his failure to get the painting commission in 1837 and the later political reluctance to endorse his invention.

Morse assumed that the federal government should control the electric telegraph. “It would seem most natural,” he declared, to “connect a telegraphic system with the Post Office Department; for, although it does not carry a mail, yet it is another mode of accomplishing the principal object for which the mail is established, to wit: the rapid and regular transmission of intelligence.”86 The French optical telegraph was owned by its

84. Paul Starr, The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications (New York, 2004), 157–61.

85. The vote is analyzed in Carleton Mabee, The American Leonardo (New York, 1943), 258–59.

86. S.F.B. Morse to Levi Woodbury, Sept. 27, 1837, quoted in Richard John, “Private Enterprise, Public Good?” in Pasley, Beyond the Founders, 339–40.

government (private persons were not even allowed to use it). With the Baltimore-Washington line having demonstrated practicality, Morse tried to get the administration to buy the rights to the electric telegraph. He persuaded Tyler’s postmaster general, but not the president himself. Henry Clay wrote to Alfred Vail shortly before the election of 1844 that he believed “such an engine ought to be exclusively under the control of the government.”87 But Polk won the election, and his platform declared against aid to internal improvements. Not even Amos Kendall, Jackson’s postmaster general and kitchen-cabinet member, whom Morse named president of the Magnetic Telegraph Company, could win Polk over. The administration sold off the Washington-Baltimore link, and private enterprise strung the rest of American telegraph lines.

Meanwhile bitter fights ensued between the cantankerous Morse and his partners, Morse and scientists like Joseph Henry who felt he denied them due credit, and Morse and rival companies that he accused of infringing on his patent. Those who contested his claim to have invented the telegraph included Charles T. Jackson, the same Harvard chemistry professor who also contested William Morton’s claim to have developed anesthesia. Dr. Jackson had actually given advice on both projects but had pursued neither idea himself. As a result posterity has forgotten a man who played a part in both of the two greatest inventions of the 1840s. Morse, on the other hand, eventually became rich and famous, honored the world over. And he always got along with Kendall, who shared his Calvinism and his proslavery but pro-Union Democratic politics.88 From 1866 on, the Western Union Company, in which Morse held a large interest, dominated the American telegraph network. He had consistently believed the telegraph to be what a later generation would term a natural monopoly, and it eventually became, if not a public monopoly, virtually a private one.89

Inventors in several nations had been at work on an electric telegraph, although most European countries needed it less than the United States because distance posed less of a problem for them. The Austrian Empire, whose autocratic and Catholic regime Morse loathed, ironically led in overseas adoption of his invention. The British already had an electric telegraph of their own, developed by the distinguished scientist Charles

87. Quoted in Mabee, American Leonardo, 163.

88. Silverman, Lightning Man, 259–64; 429; Albert Moyer, Joseph Henry (New York, 1997), 239–47; Donald Cole, A Jackson Man: Amos Kendall (Baton Rouge, 2004), 246–50, 301.

89. See Richard John, “The Politics of Innovation,” Daedalus 127 (1998): 187–214.

Wheatstone, in operation since 1838 on a few lines, but Morse’s system worked better, and the British gradually converted to it. The French fell into line slowly because of their commitment to the optical telegraph. Russia, like the United States, needed the telegraph to overcome giant distances, but at first the tsar refused to string the lines for fear they would facilitate political opposition.

In the United States, decades of long-term economic expansion only temporarily reversed by downturns after 1819 and 1837 encouraged the business community to accord the electric telegraph an enthusiastic reception. Investment bankers had always prized quick news. The Rothschilds in London had used carrier pigeons to learn of Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo before anyone else did; they bought British government bonds and realized a quick profit when their value rose once the victory became widely known. Following Morse’s demonstration, telegraph lines appeared rapidly in North America, chiefly in order to transmit the prices of stocks and commodities. They helped integrate financial markets so borrowers and lenders could find each other more easily. Accordingly, they first connected commercial centers: New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Buffalo, Toronto. The Philadelphia North American welcomed the telegraph with the pronouncement: “The markets will no longer be dependent upon snail paced mails.” Remarkably, the wires reached Chicago by 1848, enabling the Chicago Commodities Exchange to open that year.90

Like the early railroads and steamboats, early telegraph lines were constructed in haste and as cheaply as possible—using “beanpoles and cornstalks,” according to the standard joke. As a result they often malfunctioned and broke down. Data collected in 1851 identified about 70 percent of their traffic as commercial in nature, such as checking credit references from distant locations or (as one telegraph operator put it) “conveying secrets of rise and fall of markets.” The wires helped validate classical economics for the Western world by making its assumption of “perfect information” among market participants more of a practical reality.91

90. See Charles Geist, Wall Street, rev. ed. (New York, 2004), 39; James Carey, Communication as Culture (Boston, 1989), 218. Quotation from the North American, Jan. 15, 1846, p. 2.

91. Richard DuBoff, “Business Demand and the Development of the Telegraph in the United States,” Business History Review 54 (1980): 459–79, quotation from 468. Technical but revealing is Kenneth Garbade and William Silber, “Technology, Communication, and the Performance of Financial Markets, 1840–1975,” Journal of Finance 33 (1978): 819–32.

Unlike the telephone, invented later in the nineteenth century, the telegraph was used much more for commercial than social purposes. But telegraph wires also carried news of sports events and lotteries for the benefit of avid gamblers. Their value to the newspapers became apparent very quickly during the war against Mexico that began in 1846. When that war started, only 146 miles of telegraph lines existed, none of them south of Richmond. With construction stimulated by the hunger for war news, the wires arrived at New Orleans in 1848, connecting it with New York sooner than the railroad did. By 1850, ten thousand miles of wire had been laid in the United States.92

In economic importance, the electric telegraph bears comparison with the railroad. In combination with the railroad, it facilitated nationwide commerce and diminished transaction costs. Whereas both railroads and canals had originally been envisioned as regional (typically, joining a commercial hub with an agricultural hinterland), the electric telegraph from the outset was a long-distance medium that linked commercial centers. Being cheaper to construct than railroad tracks, the telegraph lines generally realized their economic potential more quickly. One of the most dramatic practical benefits of the electric telegraph lay in its assistance to the railroads in scheduling trains and avoiding collisions on single-track lines. Surprisingly, it took several years for the railroads to recognize this.93 In the end, the telegraph poles often paralleled railroad tracks and used the same rights-of-way.

In a broader sense, however, the spread of the electric telegraph effectively decoupled communication from transportation, sending a message from sending a physical object. The implications of this alteration in the human condition unfolded only gradually over the next several generations. But contemporaries fully realized that they stood in the presence of a far-reaching change. They valued not only the shortening of time to receive information but also the speed with which an answer could be returned; that is, conversation was possible. To call attention to its interactive potential, early demonstrations of the telegraph included long-distance chess games.94 Of all the celebrated inventions of an age that believed in progress, Morse’s

92. For more examples of the value of information to the economy, see John McCusker, “The Demise of Distance: The Business Press and the Origins of the Information Revolution in the Early Modern Atlantic World,” AHR 110 (2005): 295–321.

93. Richard John, “Recasting the Information Infrastructure for the Industrial Age,” in A Nation Transformed by Information, ed. Alfred Chandler and James Cortada (New York, 2000), 75, 84.

94. Menahem Blondheim, News over the Wires: The Telegraph and the Flow of Public Information in America, 1844–1897 (Cambridge, Mass., 1994), 11–29.

telegraph impressed observers the most. They typically characterized it as “the greatest revolution of modern times.” A leading New Orleans journal commented, “Scarcely anything now will appear to be impossible.”95

The electric telegraph represented the first important invention based on the application of advanced scientific knowledge rather than on the know-how of skilled mechanics. The laboratory would begin to replace the machine shop as the site of technological innovation. For centuries, technological improvements had led to scientific discovery (the telescope and the microscope, for example). With the telegraph, this relationship reversed. Morse’s recruitment of several partners and his refusal to credit others whose ideas had contributed to his technology highlighted another transition. Innovation would increasingly become a collective enterprise, pooling the knowledge of experts.96 “Morse was only one of over fifty inventors who built some sort of an electromagnetic telegraphic device before 1840,” the historian Donald Cole has pointed out. “Morse’s telegraph prevailed because it was better built, less complicated, and less expensive than the others and because he was able to fight off the claims of his rivals.”97

The telegraph associated, rightly or wrongly, with Morse proved a major facilitator of American nationalism and continental ambition. Although funding for it had to come from Whig votes in Congress, Democratic publicists seized upon the significance of the telegraph for their imperial visions: John L. O’Sullivan’s Democratic Review rejoiced that the American empire now possessed “a vast skeleton framework of railroads, and an infinitely ramified nervous system of magnetic telegraphs” to knit it into an organic whole. A congressional committee agreed: “Doubt has been entertained by many patriotic minds how far the rapid, full, and thorough intercommunication of thought and intelligence, so necessary to the people living under a common representative republic, could be expected to take place throughout such immense bounds” as the North American continent. “That doubt can no longer exist.”98 James Gordon Bennett, editor of the New York Herald, was more militantly

95. “Morse’s Electro-Magnetic Telegraph,” De Bow’s Review 1 (1846): 133.

96. David Hochfelder, “Taming the Lightning: American Telegraphy in a Revolutionary Technology” (Ph.D. diss., Case Western Reserve University, 1999); Paul Israel, From Machine Shop to Industrial Laboratory (Baltimore, 1992).

97. Cole, Amos Kendall, 245.

98. Democratic Review, quoted in William Weeks, Building the Continental Empire (Chicago, 1996), 85; U.S. House of Representatives, Ways and Means Committee Report, 1845, quoted in Daniel Czitrom, Media and the American Mind (Chapel Hill, 1982), 12.

imperialist. “Steam and electricity, with the natural impulses of a free people, have made, and are making, this country the greatest, the most original, the most wonderful the sun ever shone upon,” his newspaper enthused. “Those who do not become part of this movement” of U.S. sovereignty across the continent “will be crushed into more impalpable powder than ever was attributed to the car of Juggernaut.”99 With the telegraph on America’s side, who could dare oppose the acquisition of Texas?


John Tyler and James Polk agreed that the presidential election must be interpreted as a mandate for Texas, notwithstanding all the other factors that had entered into the result, and the plain truth that the two candidates opposed to annexation had slightly outpolled the one who favored it. Tyler felt a certain understandable resentment that Polk should have stolen his annexation issue and won with it. He was not willing, therefore, to stand aside and let Polk reap the glory of annexing Texas. The lame duck session of Congress that began in December 1844 offered the outgoing president a final chance to achieve his rightful place in the history books. Tyler seized it.

The Constitution provides that “New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union.” The friends of annexation argued that through the exercise of this power, Texas could be admitted to statehood without a treaty, even though it remained a foreign country. Such an act of Congress would require only a simple majority in each house, a much more attainable goal than the two-thirds of the Senate needed to ratify a treaty. Accordingly, the annexationists set about passage of a congressional resolution that would make Texas a state of the Union despite the failure of Tyler’s treaty. Resorting to this approach had been the idea of Jackson himself, and the Democrats, under president-elect Polk’s leadership, made it a party measure.100 The substantial Democratic majority in the House of Representatives passed Texas admission handily. Passage in the Senate, with its narrow Whig majority, posed a task more difficult but not insurmountable.

Thomas Hart Benton had opposed Tyler’s Texas treaty as a Van Buren loyalist. By now, Van Buren had lost, an expansionist Democrat had won, Jackson was supporting annexation ever more strongly, and the Missouri senator was feeling a lot of heat from his constituents. He needed to come

99. Quoted in Silverman, Lightning Man, 243.

100. Andrew Jackson to William Lewis, May 3, 1844, Correspondence of AJ, VI, 282.

around to support Texas. Various concessions provided an excuse for Benton and the other Van Burenites in the Senate to switch from opposition to approval of annexation. The federal government did not assume the Texas national debt, keeping the Lone Star bondholders waiting to be sure of repayment. (Later, Uncle Sam took over the responsibility for paying off the speculators as part of the Compromise of 1850.) Texas also kept what remained of its public lands after the huge grants that Spain, Mexico, and the Lone Star Republic had all made over the years. Texas received admission as a state, not a territory, with the proviso that it might later be subdivided into as many as five states. This provision, never implemented, horrified northern Whigs. Finally, the resolution stipulated that the president could exercise executive discretion, and either act upon it to admit Texas forthwith or negotiate further with Texas (and Mexico) to resolve the still-undefined boundary between them. Polk encouraged Benton and other former Van Burenites to believe he intended to return to the negotiating table; this seemed to reassure five of them in voting for the resolution.

The annexation resolution passed the Democratic-controlled House, 120 to 98. It squeaked through the Senate, 27 to 25. All Democratic senators followed their party’s pro-Texas line, but three out of the fifteen southern Whigs put section ahead of party and voted for annexation. The way in which Tyler and Calhoun achieved their objective by a simple majority of each House, even though the treaty of annexation had been defeated in the Senate, infuriated John Quincy Adams; he thought it reduced the Constitution to “a menstruous [sic!] rag.”101

Strangely enough, no one in Congress seems to have expected that Tyler would go ahead and implement the annexation resolution during the waning days of his presidency rather than leave it to Polk. But Secretary of State Calhoun felt even more eager to consummate the marriage with Texas than Tyler. On March 1, 1845, Tyler signed the joint resolution and gave his new wife, Julia Gardiner Tyler, the golden pen he had used. Wealthy, energetic, and publicity-conscious, she had lobbied hard for Texas and deserved to share in their exultation. He dispatched an envoy to offer the Texans immediate annexation without any further international negotiations. Not that it really mattered: Polk would have done the same, and he confirmed Tyler’s action. The Van Burenites had been tricked.102

101. John Quincy Adams, Memoirs, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Philadelphia, 1874–79), XII, 171.

102. Charles Sellers, James K. Polk, Continentalist (Princeton, 1966), 215–20; Crapol, John Tyler, 220.

Calhoun’s strategy for gaining Texas had triumphed. His short-term goal in identifying Texas with slavery had been to make sure that Van Buren would have to oppose Texas and thus be denied the Democratic nomination. His longer-term goals, the election of a proslavery president and the annexation of Texas, had also been achieved. The identification of Texas with slavery won over first the southern Democrats, then (through the mechanism of party loyalty) most Northern Democrats, and finally a handful of southern Whigs provided the crucial margin.103

After four frustrating years, John Tyler left office feeling good. The first lady threw a huge party attended by three thousand at the White House, and the outgoing president laughed as he quipped, “They cannot say now that I am a President without a party.”104As Tyler and Calhoun intended, the annexation of Texas reassured slaveowners about the security of their distinctive form of investment and its potential for further expansion. Within twelve months of the Lone Star Republic’s acceptance of annexation, the price of prime field hands on the New Orleans slave market rose 21 percent. It would continue to rise through the 1850s. And the arrival of the telegraph wires at New Orleans in 1848 integrated the cotton bales and slave pens of that city all the more effectively into the flourishing international pricing network for southern staple crops and the commodified human beings who produced them.105

103. See Cooper, Politics of Slavery, 194, 205; Freehling, Secessionists at Bay, 409–10.

104. Quoted in Peterson, Presidencies of Harrison and Tyler, 259.

105. Ulrich B. Phillips, Life and Labor in the Old South (1929; Boston, 1963), graph on 177.

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