An Embattled President, Immigration Reform, Religious Fervor and New Technology Marks America of...1844

"Catholic Priests Burning Bibles," an illustration from an anti-Catholic pamphlet, 1842.
"Catholic Priests Burning Bibles," an illustration from an anti-Catholic pamphlet, 1842.
Chicago Review Press/American Antiquarian Society/The Bridgeman Art Library

America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion, and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation By John Bicknell 320 pp. Chicago Review Press $26.95

It was a tumultuous year for the United States. An embattled President whose public approval was dropping fast waged legislative war against an unfriendly Congress.

Immigration was a hot topic as natural born citizens and those new to these shores clashed in riots and demonstrations. Religious leaders were prepping for Christ's return, and a new communication method was linking people and messages at faster than ever speed.

Welcome to America in...1844.

Longtime political scribe and historian Bicknell's volume shows how many issues for the country came to a head during the year in which John Tyler - later estranged from his own Whig political party - sat in the White House.

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That he was elected as Vice President and ascended only due to the death of William Henry Harrison a month after the latter took office did no favors for the man some wags dubbed "His Accidency."

But, as Bicknell writes, Tyler was a hearty advocate for Western Expansion, and no plum was more prized than the potential of welcoming the Republic of Texas into the Union.

Though the eventual Lone Star State gained independence from Mexico (as every Texas schoolchild knows) in 1836, there were plenty of forces who did not want to take on the Republic's cons (debt, the thorny issue of slavery, a wiry independent streak) nor risk the chance of starting a war with Mexico and having to defend borders immediately.

At one point, Texas envoy Sam Houston - frustrated with federal dilly-dallying on the subject - even floated the idea of forming an alliance with England, writing that Texas "may look to a better reception from the grandmother country."

Tyler's Presidential successor, the similarly expansionist-minded Democrat James Polk, would finally see Texas become a state in late 1845. Had Whig Party candidate Henry Clay won that election instead, Bicknell theorizes the westward border of the United States (at least for the time) might have stalled at Mississippi.

Organized religion was also on the minds of many with the murder of controversial Mormon sect founder Joseph Smith, widespread anti-Catholic riots in New York, and the unfulfilled religious predictions of William Miller.

His followers - or "Millerites" - prepared for the second coming of Jesus Christ on as prophesized by their leader's interpretation of Scripture on two different dates in 1844. Needless to say, Miller Time never happened - and many of his followers found themselves jobless and without homes and possessions that they had given away.

Inventors and experimenters would also make their mark on the year, including Samuel Morse and his telegraph machine, and Samuel Colt and his new firearm technology. But the saddest tale is from Charles Goodyear, the scientist (and Blimp namesake) whose insanely-focused efforts to find a way to make rubber withstand extremes of heat and cold ruined him financially and personally.

That the brilliant scientist was also a horrible businessman, inadvertently allowing others to take his basic findings, improve on them as the same time he did, and then file the patents on vulcanized rubber before he could, also cut him out of a fortune. But that didn't stop him from wandering the streets asking any smith or miller with an open flame to borrow it for experimentation.

Finally, 1844 saw great interest in westward expansion. Bicknell details the varying fates of expedition/scouting parties (including maverick John Fremont) and groups of migrants as they faced harsh weather, shortages of food, and sometimes hostile Indians on their journey.

While his prose style is sometimes dry and factual, Bicknell nonetheless ties in a number of disparate people, events, news events, and movements from the year into a cohesive narrative. And in the process, shows how a single 12-month cycle 170 years ago helped shape what the United States is today.

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