George Mifflin Dallas wanted to be historically great and famous. He had to settle for historical footnote. Dallas served as James K. Polk’s vice president and battled fellow Pennsylvanian James Buchanan for supremacy in the state. In the end, Dallas’ legacy came down to the Walker Tariff. The vice president cast the tie-breaking vote in a contentious tariff debate. This undercut his support in Pennsylvania, so he tried to stake out other positions on expansion and slavery These actions doomed his presidential aspirations.
James Buchanan led a Pennsylvania political faction called the Amalgamators. George Dallas opposed Buchanan’s followers and led his own “Family Party.” Dallas believed in a strong, active federal government that supported tariffs, a strong banking system, and internal improvements. Essentially, Dallas supported Henry Clay’s “American System.” Buchanan opposed these ideas and the pair spent a decade battling in Pennsylvania.
Both men rose to national prominence and both turned down President Martin Van Buren when he offered the attorney generalship. However, Dallas did accept James K. Polk’s offer of the vice presidency. Polk wished to lower the tariff, settle the banking issue, and expand American territory. The Polk-Dallas ticket narrowly edged Henry Clay in the 1844 Presidential Election.
Vice President Dallas’ put his opposition to a lower tariff aside to support Polk’s platform. He had supported higher tariffs to support Pennsylvania coal miners and mining interests. However, his new position forced him to compromise. The Polk Administration put forth the Walker Tariff Bill, which lowered rates. Dallas hoped to remain above the fray since he did not have to cast a vote or take part in the debate. Instead, the vice president simply presided over the senate and only voted if the senate tied.
The vice president’s worst nightmare materialized in a 27-27 tie. If Dallas voted against the measure, then he would be ostracized. If he voted in favor, then he would open himself up to charges of hypocrisy and flip-flopping. Dallas decided to support his president and boss. He claimed he had examined the distribution of support for the tariff and argued that his vote reflected the will of the American people. The vote destroyed his political career in Pennsylvania and ended any chance at elective office in his home state after his term expired.
The tie-breaking vote demolished Dallas’ reputation in Pennsylvania, but may have enhanced his prospects nationally. Unfortunately, the vice president’s support of the Mexican War eradicated his support outside of Pennsylvania. Dallas hoped an aggressive expansionist platform would position him for a White House run in 1848. The Pennsylvanian wholeheartedly supported administration efforts to expand American borders to the Pacific. He went as far as supporting the call for 54 40’’ or fight in the Oregon border negotiations with Britain.
Polk managed a settlement with the British over Oregon. Dallas supported the treaty since it freed the country to fight Mexico over the southwest if necessary. War with Mexico broke out in 1846 and the vice president called for America to annex all of Mexico. Cooler heads prevailed and the U.S. settled for half of Mexico. Dallas supported the outcome, but angered some by calling for popular sovereignty to settle the slave issue.
Slavery in the Mexican Cession became a hot topic during the war. Northerners feared slavery would expand westward and tilt political power further southward. Dallas thought people in the territories should vote whether to allow slavery in their borders. His advocacy of popular sovereignty further alienated Dallas from Democratic voters. The vice president’s 1848 presidential campaign was stillborn.
Relations between Polk and Dallas deteriorated over the course of four years. Polk held his own counsel and rarely sought advice from Dallas. The vice president resented this and spoke ill of the president. The pair rarely spoke with one another by the end. At one point, Dallas compared Polk to England’s King Charles I. Parliamentary rebels executed the king two centuries earlier. Dallas found Charles and Polk equally bull-headed and back stabbing.
Dallas returned to private life in 1849, but President Pierce required his services in 1856. Ironically, he replaced James Buchanan as Minister to Britain. Buchanan won the 1856 Presidential Election and left Dallas in London. He remained in the post until May 1861 when he resigned to return home. He died in 1864.
George Dallas destroyed his own political career in four short years. He spent a lifetime battling James Buchanan in Pennsylvania, but managed to alienate his supporters by being forced to support James K. Polk’s policies. Dallas flip flopped on the tariff destroying his home base. Then, he alienated people outside Pennsylvania with his overzealous support of Manifest Destiny and milquetoast response to slavery’s expansion. In the end, Dallas managed to bungle his chances at the presidency.