An ambitious Kentucky lawmaker. A president mistrusted by his own party. Texas taking on an outsize role in Congress. Is this 2014, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell waiting gleefully to seize the majority, President Barack Obama under withering criticism from Democrats marooned in the minority and Lone Star Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz ready to take up spheres of influence in the Senate?
Nope. It's 1844, when Henry Clay of Kentucky dethroned President John Tyler as standard-bearer for the Whig Party in that year's presidential contest. It was a year when Tyler bet his political future on annexing the Republic of Texas, risking war not just within Congress; but also with Mexico, which was still smarting from Texas' secession. It was a year when religious fundamentalism was on the rise, with Mormonism in its ascent and other Christian sects predicting the second coming any day now. It was a time of economic uncertainty and hardened debate about the future of the country.
This journey into Antebellum America is brought to you by John Bicknell, a CQ Roll Call alumnus whose new book, "America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion, and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation" is the latest selection for Roll Call Book Club.
Bicknell has a smooth style and dry wit and is an able guide through a weird time in American history. This year, historians and cultural curators conjured other obscure chapters of history, such as the 1814 burning of Washington, D.C., by British troops. But in general, the Civil War and its attendant debates tend to suck up all the oxygen of any treatment of 19th century American politics.
That's where "America 1844" comes in handy. Bicknell navigates the big events, such as congressional machinations over Texas and the 1844 presidential nominating process, with deft retellings of little-known, but revealing anecdotes. One is the horrific February explosion on board the USS Princeton on the Potomac River, which killed Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur but spared Tyler, who was below deck. We also see how figures such as Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, Rep. John Quincy Adams and Sen. Thomas Hart Benton fit into the raucous year. As the subtitle illustrates, the country was proceeding along a couple of different paths. Seeing how we landed on the one we eventually took is quite a trip.
Roll Call Book Club returns Nov. 12 at Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital, with Bicknell on hand to discuss his book. The free event starts at 6 p.m. at 921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE and includes beverages, snacks and a free book — thanks to our partners at Hooks Book Events. To register, go to our spot on Eventbrite.
A Bloc of One
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