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by Christopher Grisham
In the early 1800s, the world shrank. The steam engine, attached to boats and trains, allowed people to travel farther and faster than ever before. Nothing at the time, however, connected people more than the invention of the telegraph. In our collection at the Tennessee State Museum, we have one of the earliest known telegraph messages ever sent. The story behind it is much more than one of technical innovation.
Telegraph, 1840-1865 (Tennessee State Museum collection, 92.92)
Samuel Morse, throughout the 1830s and 40s, had worked out a way to send electronic signals through wires. In 1844, he was ready to show the country how useful his new invention could be. What better way to do that than with one of the biggest news stories in the nation? Morse had a telegraph line run between Washington D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland, the site of the Democratic National Convention that summer. He wanted to show that he could communicate important news from the convention to the political leaders of the country almost instantly.
There was no way for Morse to know just how much news was going to be made at that convention.
The Democratic Party at the time was divided into various factions based on certain policies and issues. Many of those divisions were regional, splitting the Northern from the Southern Democrats. Slavery was the most obvious of these issues, dividing the party in the same ways it was dividing the nation, but another issue soon became more immediate. In April of 1844, President Tyler sent a treaty for the annexation of Texas to the U.S. Senate. When the 1844 convention started, former President Martin Van Buren was considered the leader of the party and was the clear favorite to win the nomination. However, with Van Buren’s stance against the annexation of Texas to the United States, his support quickly eroded with Democrats from the South and West. The Democrats were left without a unified party leader.
Oil Painting of James K. Polk by George Peter Alexander Healy, 1845. Tennessee Historical Society Collection at the Tennessee State Museum (1.872)
Tennessean James K. Polk saw this convention as a way to breathe new life into a stalled political career. Following his role as Speaker of United States House of Representatives from 1835-39, he served as Governor of Tennessee from 1839-41, but failed in his bid to win reelection, essentially twice. He lost again when he tried to regain the office four years later. Polk sent two of his closest allies, Gideon Pillow and Cave Johnson, to the Baltimore convention with the goal of advancing his name for the position of Vice-President. As a southerner and an expansionist, he felt that he would provide the perfect balance for a Van Buren/Polk ticket.
In Baltimore, as the convention continued and Van Buren’s chances of becoming the nominee faded, more names were pitched as possible candidates. However, there was always some faction of the party that wouldn’t support whoever was named by another faction. Gideon Pillow and Cave Johnson eventually realized that this confusion could prove beneficial for their friend. Polk was a strong supporter of expansion, known as a devoted Democrat, and was a disciple of Andrew Jackson. These qualities made him an attractive consensus candidate, and on the ninth ballot, James K. Polk was chosen as the Democratic nominee for President with George Dallas of Pennsylvania as his running mate.
The telegram shown below, announcing Polk’s nomination, was one of the first to ever be sent. Thanks to Samuel Morse’s telegraph line, people in Washington D.C. were some of the first in the nation to learn that Polk was running for president. As a matter of fact, they knew before Polk himself, as he had to rely on letters making their way from Baltimore. This new system of sending information had worked so well that Morse was invited onto the platform as Polk was being sworn in as the 11th President of the United States. From there he sent up-to-the-minute descriptions of the event to newspapers back in Baltimore.
Telegram, June 1844 (Tennessee State Museum collection, 82.54.1)
Christopher Grisham is the K-12 education manager at the Tennessee State Museum