Longtime political journalist Bicknell (co-editor: Politics in America 2012, 2011) presents a diverting snapshot of America in 1844.
It was a time of great enthusiasms, some good, some not. Philadelphia was rocked twice by nativist riots against Irish Catholics. The followers of William Miller prepared to welcome Christ's return to Earth, first in March, then in October, with disappointing results. John C. Frémont returned from an exploratory mission to Oregon and California as parties of settlers headed West from Missouri; Bicknell follows one of these, chronicling one family's tribulations on the journey. Political passions raged in this presidential election year, particularly over the proposed annexation of the Republic of Texas, an issue that provoked controversies over the territorial expansion of slavery and the likelihood of war with Mexico. The Whigs chose Henry Clay as their nominee, replacing the unpopular incumbent John Tyler; Clay proceeded to shoot himself in the foot repeatedly with ill-conceived statements fudging his position on Texas. The pro-annexation dark horse James K. Polk emerged with the Democrats' nomination after a protracted convention battle reported in real time over Morse's new telegraph. The Mormon prophet Joseph Smith was also a candidate but was murdered by a mob in jail. Bicknell tells all these stories and more with enthusiasm, exceptional narrative skills and sound historical judgment. Ultimately, however, the events of this rather ordinary year never cohere into a thematic whole, a sense that the events unique to 1844 really made much of a difference. The problems of the Millerites and Mormons affected only a few, and resolution of the Texas issue was deferred to another day. While a Clay presidency would have taken the country down a very different path, Bicknell concedes that Polk's victory did not result from a decisive turning point in national attitudes but happened largely because Clay just wasn't a very good candidate.
An entertaining account of a single year of unexceptional significance.