Martin Van Buren's Lost Opportunity to Become President
On April 20, 1844, Martin Van Buren finished writing one of the most consequential letters of his political career. The previous month, U.S. representative William Henry Hammett, a Mississippi Democrat, had requested that the former president send him his “opinions as to the Constitutionality & expediency of immediately annexing Texas to the United States.” Despite being warned that Hammett might have written with ulterior motives, Van Buren decided to answer him.
The issue of Texas annexation had grown increasingly important in the minds of Americans ever since President John Tyler had begun making moves to bring the Lone Star Republic into the Union. Tyler had succeeded William Henry Harrison after his sudden death just a month into his term, but he had quickly made enemies with the Whig Party that had elected him as part of the 1840 ticket. Multiple vetoes of Whig legislation in the late summer of 1841 led party leaders to wash their hands of the new president. Without official party support, Tyler looked for an issue that might attract independent Whigs, as well as Democrats. Texas annexation seemed to provide just such an opportunity. With the help of political operatives such as Duff Green and cabinet officers such as Abel P. Upshur and John C. Calhoun, Texas annexation emerged as an important campaign issue in the lead-up to the Whig and Democratic national nominating conventions in May 1844.
This was the environment in which Van Buren sat down at his desk at his Lindenwald estate in Kinderhook, New York, and wrote his response to Hammett. In a seventy-three-page draft, the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination explained his opposition to the immediate annexation of Texas. While Van Buren considered annexation constitutional, he did not believe it was necessary at the moment and warned that it might lead to war with Mexico. “The acquisition of so valuable a territory by means which are of questionable propriety,” he argued, “would be a departure from those just principles upon which this government has ever acted, and which have excited the admiration and secured the respect of the dispassionate and enlightened friends of freedom throughout the world.” Van Buren also did not buy the conspiracy theories that some proslavery supporters, including men close to President Tyler, were floating about Britain’s desire to acquire Texas and turn it into a base from which to launch abolitionist agitation in the U.S. South.
Van Buren gave the letter to his son, Martin Jr., who took it to Washington. After being vetted by several friends, it was published in the Globe. Purely by coincidence, a letter opposing immediate annexation from the presumptive Whig presidential candidate, Henry Clay, was published in Washington on the same day.
Clay’s letter did not harm his chances for nomination; the same could not be said for Van Buren. When Democrats met in late May to select a ticket, a group of delegates implemented a rule that made it harder for him to win the presidential nomination. Eventually, the convention delegates shunned Van Buren and the rest of leading party candidates and turned instead to Tennessean James K. Polk, who was an unabashed supporter of immediate annexation. Polk’s victory over Clay in November seemed to confirm that Democrats had made the right decision in choosing him as their nominee.
In the immediate aftermath of the May 1844 nominating convention, Van Buren expressed no regrets for his decision to take a stand against the immediate annexation of Texas. He drafted a letter to fellow Democrat Amos Kendall in which he stated that when he had refused to compromise his beliefs on “a great national question, for the unworthy purposes [of] increasing my chances for political promotion,” he had done “so in full view of the consequences that might result.” Van Buren continued, “I had I assure you a much greater dread of being thought capable of trimming my sail to catch the popular breeze of the moment made by suppressing or disguising my real feelings in so grave a matter than of losing the nomination.”
The 1844 campaign was Van Buren's last realistic chance to make it back to the White House. He ran on the Free-Soil ticket in 1848, but by that point, the United States had defeated Mexico in a war to acquire even more territory. It was the very outcome that Van Buren had wanted to avoid when he wrote Hammett four years earlier.