When Joseph Smith declared his candidacy for the American presidency in 1844, he was only one of many hoping to change the entire nation. At this moment of societal transformation, the Whig Party, who just four years earlier achieved their first presidential victory, concluded that they needed a new candidate to replace their incumbent. The Democratic Party was divided over the future direction of their platform, most especially over what to do with the potential annexation of Texas. And those pushing for transformation were not secluded to the electoral realm. The tens of thousands of Americans who believed millenarian preacher William Miller concluded that both political parties were worthless, given that the world was going to end that year anyway. Reformers, inventors, and explorers all tried to set their mark on the still-young nation. Yet all seemed to remain in discord. While Samuel Morse’s invention of the telegraph promised to shrink the distance between the expanding empire, it appeared that the American people could not be further apart.
John Bicknell, in his book America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion, and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation, attempts to tell the story of this momentous year. Main characters like politicians John Tyler, James Polk, and Henry Clay are placed along with cultural figures like William Miller and Joseph Smith to demonstrate both the breadth of this cultural transition and the depth of its influence. Though a majority of the content is focused on the key players in the election itself, enough attention is given to wider tumult to demonstrate that this was indeed a society in transition. Innovations in communication, transportation, and technology seemed to summon a new stage of modernity. The hope of annexing Texas and Oregon promised to expand the nation’s border. Yet the persistence of internal battles made it impossible for America to enjoy these momentous developments.