Shortly after Texas secured its independence from Mexico on the San Jacinto battlefield, Texans voted in favor of joining the U.S. in a statewide referendum. President Andrew Jackson, the flagbearer for “Manifest Destiny,” privately desired Texas and had previously tried to purchase the territory from Mexico, but publicly demurred to even recognize the new republic until the last day of his presidency.
And despite the appeals of his former protégé — fellow Tennessean and Texas legend Sam Houston — Old Hickory kept his support quiet to avoid affecting the election of 1836 in which his vice president, Martin Van Buren, faced multiple Whig opponents including William Henry Harrison.
Texas was a political third rail for the same reason secession broke out decades later: the expansion of slavery.
Northern states opposed adding any more slave-holding states, a maneuver that would increase that coalition’s power in Congress. They were also wary of sparking a war with Mexico over Texas — a warning that would come to fruition anyway a decade later.
Jackson’s resistance materialized into full-on rejection when Van Buren, a Democrat from New York, formally rejected Texas’ annexation proposal. In response, Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar withdrew the state’s appeal to its larger neighbor.
Former President John Quincy Adams, then back in the House of Representatives, explained the opposition to annexation in an address to his constituents and criticized support within the body for the proposal.
“[Texas diplomat Memucan Hunt, Jr.] had been told with Solemnity of face that there was a doubt of the Constitutional power of Congress and the President to accept the proposal and moreover that they could not think of it now, because it would risk a War with Mexico, and violate the sacred Faith of Treaties,” Adams said.
“But Mr. Jefferson had shewn [sic] how a Constitutional camel could be swallowed for the sake of Louisiana by palates accustomed to strain at a gnat, and the Chairman of the late Committee of Foreign Affairs professed his readiness and capacity to swallow another for the sake of Texas.”
The opposition Adams stirred up forced Van Buren’s hand toward rejection and prefaced a similar fate for proposals introduced in both chambers of Congress.
While Van Buren’s effort to stave off political recoil after eight years of his party’s control of the White House succeeded at first, the Panic of 1837 recession ensured he would not win another term.
During the election of 1840, Texas annexation disappeared from the campaign rhetoric. Harrison, a southern Whig, demolished Van Buren in the election. His legacy is one marked by the longest inauguration speech and the shortest tenure in office — 31 days, after catching and dying from pneumonia caught during the speech, delivered in the freezing cold, and its aftermath.
This left John Tyler, also a southern Whig, to take the country’s reins. He made Texas annexation a central factor in his platform. Where some saw in Texas an expansion of slavery and others a potential economic boon, Tyler saw a perfectly-wrapped gift to secure his second term — that surely the state would support the president who secured their annexation.
After a few years focused on resolving boundary disputes and easing tensions with Great Britain, Tyler set his sights on Texas.
Abel P. Upshur, the new secretary of state and an ardent supporter of annexation, began discussions with Texas emissaries in 1843 — an involvement that came to a screeching halt in February 1844 when a cannon exploded on the USS Princeton during a joyride, killing Upshur and another presidential cabinet member.
Tyler selected former Vice President John C. Calhoun to take Upshur’s place and jumpstart the negotiations. Only a couple of months later, Calhoun had a deal and a treaty of annexation was signed.
The next hurdle lay in Congress’s upper chamber, and Tyler turned his lobbying efforts up to 11.
To rally support, Tyler turned to one of his predecessors, Andrew Jackson, who penned a letter to the Senate urging the treaty’s approval. “Texas might from necessity be thrown into the arms of England and be forever lost to the United States,” the former president said.
Only 16 Senators voted for ratification — an outcome prompted by the leak of Calhoun’s private correspondence to the public.
The Pakenham Letter, as it would come to be known, was a letter from Calhoun to British diplomat Richard Pakenham in which the American took to task Britain’s meddling in America’s affairs. Specifically, Calhoun took issue with Britain’s opposition to slavery and its desire to see the practice abolished in Texas.
Famous for his defenses of slavery in the elongated lead-up to the Civil War, Calhoun wrote, “slavery is in reality a political institution, essential to the peace, safety, and prosperity of those States of the Union in which it exists.”
That the leading American negotiator of Texas annexation so thoroughly backed the preservation of slavery confirmed the worries of the northern Whigs.
After breaking so significantly with half of his party, Tyler had no path toward re-election. After a brief flirtation with a third-party run, dropped out and endorsed Democratic nominee James K. Polk.
In the closing act of his presidency, Tyler addressed Congress urging them to bring Texas into the fold and ignore Mexico’s threats of conflict.
With the treaty’s defeat, Polk, Tyler, and the other annexation supporters changed tactics. They instead put forward a joint resolution that only required a simple majority of both chambers to pass, vesting in the president the license to resolve the annexation question.
That resolution passed and was signed by Tyler just before Polk assumed office — the constitutionality of which is debated to this day. The Texas Congress and electorate ratified their support for the annexation in 1845, and it became official the next year.
This long, drawn out political fight would indeed spark an actual fight between the U.S. and Mexico over Texas’s southern boundary. Polk would win that war, setting the Rio Grande as the nation’s southern boundary.
A decade in the making, Texas was admitted to the Union and now celebrates America’s Independence Day alongside its own. That history is tightly interwoven with some of America’s most forgotten presidents — but without them, neither the U.S. nor Texas would be what they are today.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.