Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Clay in 1844: Four Key States

Some months ago, I opined that Henry “Clay's best chance of winning the presidency probably came in 1840 -- the year he wasn't nominated.” See also here.

Daniel Walker Howe doesn’t quite come out and say so, but he seems to suggest that Clay’s best shot was in 1844. In addition to Howe’s point discussed here, he repeatedly refers to events that might have turned the election in Clay’s favor:
Clay’s narrow defeat in 1844 may well have been due to massive Democratic ballot-box stuffing in New York, Georgia and Louisiana.

* * *

One cannot confidently attribute the result of a close election to a single tactical mistake [Clay’s “Alabama Letters” during the 1844 campaign], but it is a fact that enough voters turned to the unambiguously antiannexationist Liberty party in New York and Michigan to give Polk pluralities in those states.

* * *

[Horace Greeley] felt very bitter toward those Liberty Party voters who cost Clay New York and the election of 1844.

Let’s take a closer look, then, at the election of 1844, focusing on the four states that Howe mentions: New York, Georgia, Louisiana and Michigan. The numbers in parentheses are the number of electoral votes allotted to the states:

Polk Clay Birney
New York (36) 237,588 232,482 15,812
Georgia (10) 44,147 42,100 0
Louisiana (6) 13,782 13,083 0
Michigan (5) 27,737 24,185 3,638

Now Clay lost in the Electoral College by 65 votes: 170 to 105. A quick look at the electoral vote totals shows that Georgia, Louisiana and Michigan combined had a total of 21 electoral votes. Polk got them all. But even if all three of those states are put in the Clay column, that only narrows Polk’s margin of victory to 149 to 126.

New York, in other words, was the pivotal state; the others were irrelevant. With its 36 electoral votes, if New York alone had gone for Clay, he would have squeaked through with a vote of 141 to 134.

Clay lost to Polk in New York by just over 5,000 votes out of 485,000 cast – 5,106 to be exact. That was about one-third of the votes cast for the Liberty Party candidate, James G. Birney.

The statistics may be found here.


  1. Anonymous1:43 PM

    I seem to recall there was an article a few years back from Vernon Volpe that questioned the thesis that the Liberty Party cost Clay the election. Searching online, I found the complete citation:

    Vernon Volpe, "The Liberty Party and Polk's Election, 1844," Historian 53 [Summer 1991]: 691-710

  2. Sean,

    By coincidence, watch for my next post.


Related Posts with Thumbnails