Indiana State alumnus and author John Bicknell, ’82, says America could be very different today, if the presidential election of 1844 had gone a different way.
Imagine if Texas and California were our international neighbors instead of states. What if the Civil War never happened? These key events in American history could have turned out much differently, if the presidential election of 1844 had gone a different way, according to author John Bicknell.
The ’82 graduate of Indiana State University is a career journalist and has recently penned a book, “America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion, and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation” exploring this turning point in the country’s history.
“Counterfactual history is always fascinating,” Bicknell said. “What’s interesting about the election of 1844 is no one really thought of it as a pivotal moment at the time.”
Bicknell says he’s always been fascinated with this time period and was looking for a book on the election between candidates Henry Clay and James K. Polk — both in a broad sense of the history and the religious climate of the time.
“Most of the treatments I’ve read have given short-shrift to the religious awakening in politics,” said Bicknell, who majored in political science and minored in religious studies.
What he found was “The Year of Decision 1846,” a book by Bernard DeVoto, in which the author presents this year as the crucial time in westward expansion. Bicknell goes a step further and explores the events that set up our Manifest Destiny.
At about the same moment as the election of Polk, the first wagon train made its way over the Sierra and the rest is … well, history. Clay, however, likely would have put the brakes on westward expansion, Bicknell found.
“Clay was against expanding across the continent,” he said. So, if Clay would have been elected, there probably would not have been a Mexican-American War, Texas wouldn’t have become a state and California would be a separate country.
Further, there’d be no Wilmot Proviso, no Compromise of 1850, no Fugitive Slave Act and perhaps no Civil War, or at least a war fought under very different circumstances.
“You see how much difference an election can make, even when you’re not thinking about how much difference it can make,” Bicknell said.
It was a close election, and all Clay had to do was win New York, Bicknell said. Clay ultimately lost this state by about 5,000 of the approximately 500,000 votes cast. Coincidentally, hundreds, if not thousands, of pro-Polk Irish immigrants were registered to vote in the weeks preceding the election.
So this election season, as we’re all inundated with a constant barrage of negative political ads on television, emails from candidates and newspaper articles fact-checking the latest finger-pointing, rest assured it could be worse.
“I think it would behoove all of us, when they say, ‘This is the dirtiest election in history,’ don’t believe it,” Bicknell said.
Nowadays, those bile-filled TV commercials are at least linked in some way to a small kernel of truth. Back in the 19th century, campaigns literally made up lies about their opponents, Bicknell said. Polk, for instance, was said to have branded his slaves.
It was also a different time for voters in 1844: Women could not vote, neither could African-Americans in most of the country, yet nearly all restrictions on white male voters had been lifted.
With the absence of TV — much less Netflix or YouTube — politics then were entertainment sources, Bicknell said.
“In Jacksonian era, politics were more of a sport,” he said. “And you wanted your party to win, if you wanted a job. It’s not quite life and death, but it’s certainly success and failure.”
In a collision of politics and information, the technological strides of the time were the equivalent of us being able to teleport someone today, Bicknell said. The telegraph — which was described as the “destruction of space and time” — was introduced in 1844, newspapers boomed and the railroad delivered magazines and pamphlets faster than ever.
Bicknell sees the mid-1840s as the birth pangs of a different type of today’s “Information Age,” and now with social media and instant access to limitless information via the Internet, we’re perhaps returning to a time when politics are entertainment.
“America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion, and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation” is available for purchase on Amazon.com and major booksellers.
Originally from Montezuma, Bicknell works in Washington, D.C., where he has been an editor for Roll Call, Congressional Quarterly and FCW, a publication for federal technology executives. He lives in Virginia with his wife, Arwen, who is an editor for the RAND Corporation, and his son, Thomas.