United States Expansion, Annexation: Oregon and Texas
President John Tyler, Texas territory, diplomatic crisis, Annexation of Texas, Whig Party
The new Republic of Texas asked to be annexed to the United States as early as 1837. The governments of Presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren took no action for two reasons. First, the question of Texas annexation divided the North and South. Up to the 1840s, trans–Mississippi expansion had extended Southern society: Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri were all slave states. Texas would be another, and Northerners who disliked slavery and Southern political power imagined that the Texas territory could become as many as 11 new slave states with 22 new proslavery senators. Annexation of Texas was certain to arouse Northern and antislavery opposition. President John Tyler, who supported the South, tried to annex Texas in 1844 but was defeated by congressional Northerners and by some Southern members of the anti-Jacksonian Whig Party. The second reason for avoiding annexation was that Mexico still considered Texas its own territory. Annexation would create a diplomatic crisis, and perhaps lead to war.
In the presidential election of 1844 the Whig Party nominated Henry Clay of Kentucky. Clay refused to take a stand on the annexation of Texas. The Democrats rejected former president Martin Van Buren, who opposed annexation, and nominated James K. Polk of Tennessee. Polk ran on a pro-annexation platform: He would annex Texas, and he would assert American ownership of all of Oregon’s territory disputed with Britain. Polk’s position on Oregon was intended to reassure Northerners that expansion would benefit them as well as the South.
This position on Oregon was, however, a radical change from earlier policies. Previously, Americans had not claimed land north of the 49th parallel, the present-day United States–Canada border on the Pacific. Polk claimed all the land up to latitude 54°40’ north, the present southern boundary of Alaska, which at the time was owned by Russia. The British, on the other hand, claimed territory as far south as the Columbia River. After Polk won the election, both sides sought to avoid a serious dispute; they backed down and accepted the boundary that exists today between Washington State and British Columbia. The compromise avoided war, but it convinced Northern expansionists that Polk (and behind him, the Democratic Party) cared more about Southern expansion than about Northern expansion.
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