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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

At once increasingly rigid and increasingly unreal


Texas

was duly annexed, and Tyler's Presidency drew towards its close. He seems to have hoped that the Democrats whom he had helped to defeat in 1840 would accept him as their candidate for a second term in 1844; but they declined to do so, nor did they take kindly to the suggestion of nominating Calhoun. Instead, they chose one Polk, who had been a stirring though not very eminent politician in Jacksonian days. The choice is interesting as being the first example of a phenomenon recurrent in subsequent American politics, the deliberate selection of a more or less obscure man on the ground of what Americans call "availability."

It is the product of the convergence of two things--the fact of democracy as indicated by the election of a First Magistrate by a method already frankly plebiscitary, and the effect of a Party System, becoming, as all Party Systems must become if they endure, at once increasingly rigid and increasingly unreal.

The aim of party managers--necessarily professionals--was to get their party nominee elected. But the conditions under which they worked were democratic. They could not, as such professionals can in an oligarchy like ours, simply order the electors to vote for any nincompoop who was either rich and ambitious enough to give them, the professionals, money in return for their services, or needy and unscrupulous enough to be their hired servant. They were dealing with a free people that would

not have borne such treatment. They had to consider as a practical problem for what man the great mass of the party would most readily and effectively vote. And it was often discovered that while the nomination of an acknowledged "leader" led, through the inevitable presence (in a democracy) of conflicts and discontents within the party, to the loss of votes, the candidate most likely to unite the whole party was one against whom no one had any grudge and who simply stood for the "platform" which was framed in a very democratic fashion by the people themselves voting in their "primaries." When this system is condemned and its results held up to scorn, it should be remembered that among other effects it is certainly responsible for the selection of Abraham Lincoln.

Polk was not a Lincoln, but he was emphatically an "available" candidate, and he won, defeating Clay, to whom the Whigs had once more reverted, by a formidable majority. He found himself confronted with two pressing questions of foreign policy. During the election the Democrats had played the "Oregon" card for all it was worth, and the new President found himself almost committed to the "forty-seven-forty-or-fight" position. But the practical objections to a war with England on the Oregon dispute were soon found to be just as strong as Calhoun had represented them to be. Moreover, the opportunity presented itself for a war at once much more profitable and much less perilous than such a contest was likely to prove, and it was obvious that the two wars could not be successfully undertaken at once.


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