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Rare 1844 Election Ribbon Acquired

Henry Clay ribbon

The Briscoe Center has acquired a rare campaign ribbon from the 1844 presidential election. It was made in support of Whig candidate Henry Clay, who opposed plans for annexation of the Republic of Texas by the United States.

“Between the Texas Revolution in 1836 and statehood in 1845, Texas entry into the Union was one of the most pressing national issues Americans faced,” said Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center. “This newly acquired campaign ribbon contributes to our understanding of this fascinating episode in U.S. history.”

The ribbon, roughly three by six inches, is made of silk. “Union without Texas” heads a short ditty about Clay’s candidacy that alludes to the “American system” of economic cooperation that he campaigned for during his political career. “Industry” is personified as a woman working among agricultural tools (not the factory-based mass production of the late 19th-century economy). Perhaps sensing that public opinion was enticed by the economic arguments for annexation, the ribbon portrays union as a threat to American workers.

Henry Clay was one of America’s most important politicians in the antebellum era. Born in 1777, he served as a congressman, senator and secretary of state. He was the 19th century’s longest serving Speaker of the House of Representatives, a five-time unsuccessful candidate for president, and a founder of the Whig Party. Clay was a slave owner from Kentucky who favored the gradual emancipation of slaves and their relocation to Africa. Like many politicians, he saw Texas annexation as an expansion of slavery that would exacerbate the country’s sectional tensions.

Although a majority of Anglo settlers in Texas had favored annexation since the early days of the Texas Republic, opinion in America was divided. Annexation touched upon a number of controversial matters including the expansion of slavery, foreign relations with Mexico and Great Britain, and the migration of American people and power westward. The sentiments of those who favored annexation were tied to the expansion of American power and its lucrative economic opportunities. Clay and others were more concerned with curtailing slavery, peace with Mexico, and practical concerns related to how such a vast area would be populated and defended.

Popular and respected, Clay lost the 1844 presidential election, which suggests he badly misread public opinion on the annexation issue. Democratic candidate James K. Polk successfully channeled the American zeitgeist, advocating for annexation as part of the nation’s destiny-fulfilling drive westward. The following year, after much negotiation, Polk authorized Texas’s entry into the Union as the 28th state.

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