Sunday, May 16, 2010

Could Millard Fillmore Have Made Henry Clay President in 1844?

In Henry Clay: The Essential American, David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler make a claim I had never seen before: Millard Fillmore was Henry Clay's choice for his vice presidential running mate in 1844:
Clay was prudent in refraining from publicly endorsing anyone in particular [as his vice presidential running mate in 1844], but in private he obliquely inclined toward Millard Fillmore. Others agreed that the New York could best mollify abolitionists and Antimasons and, if Clay died, would not be obnoxious like [John] Tyler. “I think Mr. Fillmore deserves the high estimate in which he was held by the Whigs of the last Congress,” Clay said. “I think him able, faithful, and with uncommon business habits.” It was the closest he came to supporting anyone.
All of which got to me to thinking . . . what if the Whigs had nominated Millard for the vice presidency in 1844 instead of Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey? Could Millard have put Clay over the top and won him the presidency over James K. Polk?

I'm going to have to think about this one, but the idea strikes me as plausible. Clay lost the vote in the Electoral College by sixty-five votes, 170 to 105. New York had 36 electoral votes. If Clay had retained all of the votes he won (including the seven votes of New Jersey), plus New York, he would have prevailed 141 to 134.

Could Millard have turned the tide in New York? Well, the vote there was extremely close. Clay lost by roughly 5,000 out of 486,000 cast. The results were as follows:

Polk (Democrat) 237,588
Clay (Whig) 232,482
Birney (Liberty) 15,812

Could Millard have eliminated that margin? Maybe, just maybe. Apart from the fact that Millard would have been a native son, his nomination might have suppressed the Democratic vote, particularly among the Irish in New York City. Frelinghuysen was tarred as an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic moralist, a label that Fillmore might well have avoided. Second, Millard might have induced some James G. Birney voters to switch columns. Finally, Millard began his political career as an Anti-Mason. His presence on the ballot might have persuaded additional anti-masons or former anti-masons, who were wary of Clay (who was a Mason) to make their way to the polls.


  1. You have a good point. The VP was chosen by the convention , not Clay, which was a mistake.

    Fillmore was vetoed by the Southern Whigs who feared he was too anti-slavery.

  2. Alas, we'll never know!


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