Electing FDR: The New Deal Campaign of 1932 by Donald A. Ritchie

1189996For Franklin D. Roosevelt to be elected President four times, he had to be elected a first time. Donald Ritchie’s book gives a quick look at how this happened. Ritchie spends more time writing about the loser in 1932, Herbert Hoover, than Roosevelt, and tries to make the case that Roosevelt’s win in 1932 was not exactly a foregone conclusion.

Herbert Hoover was probably happy that he lived in an era before polls about approval ratings of Presidents existed. If so, Harry Truman would probably not be known as the President with the lowest recorded rating. Hoover became President just a few months before the Great Depression started. During it, Hoover declined to mobilize much of anything in a Federal response to the massive unemployment and bank failures and economic dislocation. His personality made him hard to like as he always thought he was the smartest man in the room. (Such are the problems with electing someone who went to Stanford.)

Hoover’s missteps during the Depression were numerous. He signed a bill raising the tariff to ridiculously high protectionist levels. During periods of great hunger in the country, he would only support Federal funds for seeds and food for livestock, not food already made for people to eat. He felt that would be teaching people to rely on the government to eat. Instead of starving to death. They may die, but at least they learned a lesson.

The biggest fiasco was the Bonus Army. In June 1932, a large group of unemployed World War I veterans marched on Washington to demand an early payment of a bonus they were supposed to receive for their service. It was budgeted for 1944. And Hoover thought they should wait to 1944. Hoover wanted the Bonus Army removed from Washington. He ordered the Army, under the leadership of Douglas MacArthur to evict the group. Hoover ordered that no weapons be used. But, MacArthur, claiming that they were all Communists, sent his troops marching in with sabers and used tanks as well. Even in an era before television, the images were devastating to Hoover’s image.

The Democrats had earned a small majority in the House in the 1930 elections, elevating John Nance Garner of Texas to the Speakership. The Republicans still held a small majority in the Senate, but Hoover asked the Democrats to caucus as the majority because he thought they would be easier to deal with. The Republicans declined to do this.

Democrats started to line up to run against Hoover in 1932. Garner was one candidate, but he hated actually running for office. He had a safe district and he liked being Speaker. But, he still had ambitions.

The other candidate was the charismatic governor of New York, Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt had won the governorship in 1928, replacing Al Smith, who had lost to Hoover in 1928. Smith expected Roosevelt to ask him for advice frequently. Roosevelt didn’t and the two men headed on a path to estrangement. Al Smith may have been the Happy Warrior, but he was also rather petulant.

When the Democrats convened in Chicago in 1932, Roosevelt came in with momentum, winning most of the primaries, although few of those produced much in the way of delegates. Still, Garner, along with Smith, did not arrive with much support either. But, the Democrats still required any nominee to get 2/3 of the delegates to be nominated.

Roosevelt’s supporters assumed he could hold on to his support for three or four ballots at most. It took five ballots to nominate Roosevelt, spurred by California’s William McAdoo (who was one of the losers in the 1924 deadlock), who threw California’s support to Roosevelt. Smith finished second and was so peeved that he declined to let his delegates make the nomination unanimous. Garner was given the second slot. Roosevelt broke with tradition by flying to Chicago to accept the nomination in person. Previously, candidates would give their acceptance speeches either in writing or a few weeks after the convention.

Hoover assumed he wouldn’t have to campaign much. He assumed that the American people would assume that he was too brilliant and too hard-working that he didn’t have to sully himself with going out on the hustings. That idea was soon discarded when the Republicans realized that they were in big trouble.

Roosevelt campaigned all over the country, which helped to dispel the notion that he was too disabled from polio to be an effective leader. Roosevelt campaigned on a plan called “The New Deal” which would include numerous government programs to help get Americans working. There were also plans to create Federally owned power companies and even more liberal ideas, all crafted by a coterie of liberal intellectuals who advised the campaign.

Hoover had no firm plan, counting on private charities to help with short-term needs like hunger and shelter. When Hoover campaigned, he found crowds hostile to him, something that he couldn’t understand. Why would anyone be mad at him? Hoover majored in geology at Stanford, not self-awareness.

As the campaign moved on, the Democrats became more confident in their chances. The Republican congressional candidates ran away from Hoover. There was no sophisticated polling at the time, but it wasn’t hard to tell who was going to win. Most newspapers were endorsing Roosevelt, including those run by William Randolph Hearst.

The election was not close. Hoover suffered the biggest loss by any incumbent in American history up to that time. Roosevelt won 57.4% of the popular vote and had 472 electoral votes to Hoover 39.6% and 59 electoral votes, all of them in the Northeast.

The book finishes up with a discussion of Hoover’s declining political career and dislike of Roosevelt. (The two men barely spoke after the election or on Inauguration Day.) Hoover thought the Republicans might draft him to run again in 1936 or 1940, but his name was political poison. Hoover may have been the sorest loser in a Presidential election ever except for the two Adamses.

Hoover would be rehabilitated in public opinion when Harry Truman became President. Truman asked Hoover to head up a government efficiency commission. (Hoover loved to look for inefficiency, it was pretty much the only thing he was good at.) When the Republicans regained the White House under Dwight Eisenhower, Hoover thought he might get some other duties. But, Eisenhower did not like Hoover. It wasn’t until Richard Nixon ran in 1960 did Hoover find a Republican candidate that looked up to him.

In Washington now, there is a memorial dedicated to Franklin Roosevelt on the National Mall. It has statues depicting events in the life of Roosevelt, including the Depression and World War II. It is quite heroic. The Department of Commerce Building is named for Herbert Hoover. It has a nice food court.

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The Log-Cabin Campaign by Robert Gray Gunderson

log cabin campaignThe 1840 Presidential campaign has always gone down as one that introduced a new style of campaigning. One where a candidate would actively seek the office and give speeches. And, a campaign which would be more about personalities than issues. One would think that a pretty good book could be written about this campaign.

This 1957 book  by a University of Kentucky speech professor is not a good book. While it professes to be scholarly (it has footnotes!), the author uses a style of prose that makes him sound like a frat pledge from the 1980s. All the major figures are referred to by nicknames. Whig candidate William Henry Harrison has so many nicknames that you can lose track (the Hero of Tippecanoe, Old Tip, Tip, Cincinnatus, The County Clerk) of just who the author is referring to.

Van Buren’s party, the Democrats, are almost always called “Loco-Focos” after the name of the faction of the Democratic party that Van Buren came from. (The term refers to a name for matches, which some New York Democrats used to light candles at a meeting where Tammany Hall bosses had all other light sources turned off or closed.)

The book goes on and on about various Whig party powerbrokers (in particular Thurlow Weed) and how they raised money or found stump speakers (such as Abraham Lincoln) to help Harrison’s campaign. But the book is mostly just a series of anecdotes strung together with some old timey speak tossed in.

Just what Harrison stood for was never clear. But, the Whigs were never big on details. They just wanted to be elected. That, and have a national bank. Other than that, they were mostly just hoping that Andrew Jackson, or his designated successor, Van Buren, would be embarrassed.

If there is anything interesting to be gleaned from this book, it’s mostly just some trivia about William Henry Harrison. For example, did you know that at the time of the election, Harrison’s job was Clerk of the County Courts (hence the nickname above) in Sandusky County, Ohio? He had been out of work for a while.

Did you know that Martin Van Buren’s Vice President, Richard Mentor Johnson, was essentially dumped from the ticket because Southerners seemed to dislike the fact that he was living with one of his slaves in a marital situation. (That was only socially acceptable at the time if you forced yourself on the slave, instead of seeking consent. O America, you never fail to be so hypocritical. Nevertheless, Johnson still received the electoral votes for Vice President in 1840.)

And in 1840, Whig rallies tend to consist of people rolling giant canvas balls with the name of supporters written on them. The idea was to “get the ball rolling for Tip.” It was also to make fun of Missouri Democratic Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who had given a speech in 1837, leading to the reversal of the Senate’s censure of Andrew Jackson.

“And now, sir, I finish the task which three years ago I imposed upon myself. Solitary and alone, and amid the jeers and taunts of my opponents I put this ball in motion.”

Harrison outpolled Van Buren by 126,000 votes. That wouldn’t amount to much today, but in 1840, that was good enough for a 6 point win. The Electoral vote was even more exaggerated with Harrison earning 234 votes to Van Buren’s 60. (Johnson lost 12 electoral votes for Vice President to other Southerners, including future President James Polk.) Van Buren had little chance of winning after the nation suffered a severe economic downturn in 1837. Credit was extraordinarily tight, and the public had soured on the Democrats having a monopoly on power pretty much since 1801.

Ultimately, Harrison has gone down in history mostly because he died after just a little bit more than a month after his inauguration. It was popularly believed that he contracted pneumonia after delivering a lengthy inaugural address in cold weather, but it seems more likely that he died of complications from being 68, being stressed out, and drinking Washington D.C.’s poor water. Vice President John Tyler succeeded him and turned out to hold none of Harrison’s (or the Whig Party’s) positions on just about anything. And nobody was happy for four years.

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1912 by James Chace

1912Although many people might have lost track of this event in the 14 hours of the Ken Burns documentary on the Roosevelts, the 1912 Presidential Election was one of the most important in the history of the United States. Which could be why James Chace, a Bard College professor, subtitled this book “Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs – The Election That Changed the Country.” This particular book tries to dig into the reasons for why this election was so pivotal, but it seems a little thin in parts.

The driving figure in the 1912 election was former President Theodore Roosevelt, who, after two years out of office, realized that his hand-picked successor, William Taft, wasn’t cutting it. Taft had proven to be more conservative than Roosevelt anticipated, too easily cowed by Wall Street, and not committed to Roosevelt’s policies on conservation. (And that was just the start of it.)

In 1911, Taft had the Justice Department investigate U.S. Steel for antitrust violations. Roosevelt had well-known for being a “trust-buster”, but Roosevelt actually helped form that corporation. Roosevelt felt betrayed. It was time to run.

Roosevelt’s plan was to make a good showing in the 13 states with primaries (New Hampshire didn’t have one at the time) and then the Republican party leaders would have to give him the nomination. And Roosevelt succeeded in that regard by winning 9 of the last 10 primaries. Taft won just one, with Wisconsin senator Robert La Follette winning two others.

However, Taft’s supporters still controlled the Republican party machinery. Taft dominated delegate selection in state caucuses and controlled the convention. Roosevelt’s supporters walked out when they realized that the deck was stacked against them. They formed their own party, which was officially dubbed the Progressive Party, although it is better known as the Bull Moose Party. (Hiram Johnson of California was Roosevelt’s running mate.)

On the Democratic side, the party, tiring of the vapid populism of William Jennings Bryan (who lost three times), had taken a shine to a former Princeton University president, Woodrow Wilson, who had been elected Governor of New Jersey in 1910. Speaker of the House Champ Clark was the favorite candidate of the Washington crowd.

The Democratic convention took 46 ballots to nominate Wilson, who trailed Clark most of the time, until Bryan threw his support to Wilson late in the game. Thomas Marshall of Indiana was nominated for Vice President.

Chace gives a lot of space to Socialist candidate Eugene Debs, almost writing more about him than Wilson, and certainly more than Taft. Labor tensions were very high at the time and socialism was not yet anathema to the American political scene.

Roosevelt campaigned on a platform which he dubbed “the New Nationalism.” Roosevelt’s plan would be considered bold even today. Roosevelt wanted to establish a national health insurance plan (mostly for the elderly), set up a plan for the recall of judges (but not Supreme Court justices) who handed down decisions the people disagreed with, as well as increasing government regulation of business.

Wilson countered Roosevelt with a plan known as “the New Freedom.”  Wilson’s plan was somewhat progressive, although not as much as Roosevelt’s. The centerpiece of The New Freedom was the establishment of a national banking system, which would ultimately become the Federal Reserve System. Wilson tried to present himself as an intellectual and progressive, while trying to make people forget that he espoused segregation and in a recent book described Eastern European immigrants as inferior to others.

Taft didn’t campaign much, figuring that he was doomed. But, he knew that as long as he was in the race, it would be nearly impossible for Roosevelt to win. So, he had that. Taft’s Vice President, James Sherman, died in late October, and he was replaced by a different Ivy League president, Columbia’s Nicholas Murray Butler.

Roosevelt almost didn’t make it through the campaign as he was shot by a potential assassin in Milwaukee. Fortunately for Roosevelt, the wound was not serious nor did it cause a serious infection.

The election was not particularly close. Wilson won the popular vote with a little over 6 million votes, although it was only 41% of the total because of the three-way race. Roosevelt won 27% of the vote and Taft won 21%. Wilson won 40 of the 48 states, Roosevelt won 6, and Taft won just 2 (Vermont and Utah). Taft holds the distinction of having the worst showing of any incumbent President in terms of Electoral Vote totals and Popular Vote percentage.

The Progressive Era is one of the most fascinating times in American History. Nearly everything in America changed. Women’s suffrage was on its way in. Support for Prohibition was growing. Immigration from Eastern Europe was transforming American cities. If you just want a brief overview, this book will suffice, but it seems that there could have been much more.

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Making of the President, 1964 by Theodore H. White

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter winning a Pulitzer Prize with his groundbreaking, dramatic, psychologically intense depiction of the 1960 presidential campaign, Theodore White tried it again in 1964. But, this election lacked the drama of 1960 (most elections have) and instead, White came up with a somewhat confused narrative that paints the winning candidate, Lyndon Johnson, as both a saint and sinner, and the loser, Barry Goldwater, as a man with crazed followers with only a passing grip on reality.

White’s book was published in 1965 and it came out before the United States started to come apart at the seams because of the Vietnam War and race relations, taking down Johnson’s presidency. Goldwater, who is presented as one of the least mainstream candidates ever, could have become the Conservative movement’s icon, if only the people of California hadn’t elected Ronald Reagan as governor in 1966, changing the course of American politics.

The book opens with the assassination of Kennedy and the reactions to it by Johnson, the Cabinet, and the leading Republican contenders of the era: Goldwater, Nelson Rockefeller, and Richard Nixon. White, who had authored a long, laudatory piece for Life Magazine on the request of Jacqueline Kennedy, almost wants you to get on a plane to ask the Pope to make Kennedy a saint.

Fortunately, the rhetoric dies down a bit. Most of the book is dedicated to the Republican campaign, which was the only contested one as Johnson opted to run in his own right.

There were just 16 state primaries in 1964 (along with one for the District of Columbia for the first time). Then, as now, New Hampshire started things off. Ambassador to Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge won that primary, mostly because of name recognition from his time as a Massachusetts senator. Goldwater and Rockefeller decided to duke it out in the last two major primaries: Oregon and California.

Rockefeller won in Oregon, but Goldwater won decisively in California. Goldwater was hurt by a recent divorce and, even worse, by fathering a child from his second wife during the campaign. (Two years later, the divorced and remarried Reagan would be elected governor of California.) Goldwater was then able to out organize Rockefeller in the state caucuses to sew up the nomination.

Before the convention, Pennsylvania governor William Scranton tried to enter the race, hoping for a draft from liberal Republican delegates. Scranton planned to make an appearance at a governors’ conference in Cleveland with Dwight Eisenhower, but the former President would not make a public appearance with Scranton, whose candidacy quickly died.

The Republican Convention in San Francisco turned out to be a contentious affair. Goldwater supporters openly heckled and booed Rockefeller when he addressed the delegates. The Republican Party, long controlled by Eastern financial interests, was now in the hands of a much different type of Republican. These Republicans wanted smaller government. They wanted a strong defense. They wanted law and order. The Republican power base had now shifted to the west and to the south. (Representative William Miller of New York was Goldwater’s running mate.)

Goldwater famously said during his acceptance speech,

 I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

Johnson’s biggest problem during his campaign was finding a running mate. Some assumed that Robert Kennedy would be a logical and/or sentimental choice. But, the two men never got along (a bit of an understatement) and Johnson turned to two Minnesota Senators: Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy. Since Humphrey had helped passed the Civil Rights Bill earlier in 1964, Johnson owed him the favor. Ahh, but how would have things been different if McCarthy had won the job.

Goldwater had many obstacles to overcome in the election. In one early campaign speech, he spoke about giving NATO “commanders” the option to use nuclear weapons on their own accord. This was interpreted as meaning that Goldwater wanted to remove command and control of nuclear weapons from the White House and entrust them to potentially unknown generals. The term “commanders” actually referred to the head of NATO, but the damage was done. Goldwater was painted as a guy who wanted to nuke everything. (You can find many other ads here.)

Johnson and the Democrats also claimed that Goldwater wished to make Social Security a voluntary system, something which Goldwater hadn’t quite staked out. But, it was the start of a Democratic tradition of blaming Republican candidates for wanting to gut Social Security. (50 years later, it’s still around. And the accusations still get made.)

Goldwater also voted against the Civil Rights Bill, although he said he did so on Constitutional grounds. Goldwater refused to play his version of the race card against Johnson by playing to the fears of white Americans, but he had those voters sewn up already.

White pointed out that Johnson ran as an almost nonpartisan, apolitical candidate who would unite the country. This was in spite of the fact that Johnson was one of the most partisan politicians ever elected President.

The book hints at future problems. There is a chapter on “the Negro Revolution” as well as some discussion about the foreign policy problems facing the country, namely in Southeast Asia. And those situations ended up playing out even worse than White feared. (White briefly discusses one of the first big protests of the time, the 1964 Free Speech movement at UC Berkeley. But, he misses the point and claims that Berkeley students were hypocritical because they didn’t pass a free housing measure. White was likely not aware that the vast majority of students were registered to vote outside of the Berkeley city limits. Or they couldn’t vote because they weren’t 21. The permanent residents of Berkeley in 1964 were still fairly conservative.)

The election was not close. Johnson took home 61.1% of the popular vote, a record at the time. He won 446 electoral votes to 52 for Goldwater, who won five states in the Deep South as well as Arizona.

Johnson came back to the White House figuring that he would be the most popular President since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. He could only dream of that.

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A Catholic Runs for President: The Campaign of 1928 by Edmund A. Moore

catholicrunsforpresidentThe Presidential election of 1928 was not a close one. Yet, it was memorable for the reason that the losing Democratic candidate, New York Governor Al Smith, was the first Catholic to be nominated for the Presidency by a major party. Although Smith’s religion was not the main reason he lost, it certainly didn’t help. And it gave Smith’s opponents, who distrusted him for his stance on the repeal of Prohibition and for being from New York City, even more ammunition to use against him.

In 1956, a political scientist named Edmund A. Moore looked back to 1928 and examined the election strictly in terms of Smith’s religion. It’s not a particularly relevant book to us today since: 1) a Catholic, John F. Kennedy, would be elected President in 1960, 2) there have been subsequent Catholic nominees for the Presidency and Vice-Presidency (John Kerry in 2004, Geraldine Ferraro as Vice President in 1984, and current Vice President Joe Biden), 3) Catholics appear all over the political spectrum now (Dennis Kucinich and Rick Santorum were both Catholic candidates in 2012.) and 4) there was a major party Mormon nominee in Mitt Romney and the U.S. was practically in a state of war against that religion during the 19th Century. America has come a long way in hating religion and we save our dumbest and most vile invective for Islam.

When we last saw Smith in 1924, his delegates at the Democratic Convention in New York successfully blocked the nomination of William McAdoo and forced the Democrats into nominating a compromise candidate, John W. Davis, who … did not win.

In 1928 Smith was the presumptive nominee. Anti-Smith forces decided that the best way to stop the Catholic “wet” governor of New York was to find a “dry” Catholic. Montana senator Thomas Walsh took a few delegates to the convention in Houston, but it was not nearly enough to stop Smith’s momentum. The Democrats finished their business in three days. Arkansas Senator Joseph Robinson was the Vice Presidential Nominee.

The Republicans were running the very popular Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who was generally considered to be the brains behind the very popular Calvin Coolidge. Senator Charles Curtis of Kansas was nominated for Vice President.

In 1928, American Catholics were a scary bunch to many for a variety of reasons, although not many of them made a lot of sense. There was a general fear of people who tended to live in big cities (as Smith did). There was a widely-held belief that a Catholic president would be more obedient to the Pope than to the American people.

Smith tried to react to the religious arguments against him, but he never could find the right approach. The problem facing him was that some of the arguments were so outlandish (like turning the White House over to the Pope) that it was hard to argue against something so outlandish without sounding foolish. Magazines like The Atlantic Monthly had long articles with discussions of Smith’s “Catholic problem.” 

Another problem Smith faced was that with the focus on his religion as well as his opposition to Prohibition, nobody really knew what Smith’s positions on other matters were. Also, because Smith sounded “ethnic”, Republican opponents reveled in pointing out his lack of education and dearth of foreign policy experience as compared to the Stanford-educated and world renowned Hoover. (This book doesn’t discuss Smith’s positions on any matter in any depth.)

With the American economy booming, Smith faced an uphill battle in 1928. But, with Southern Democrats fearful of a Catholic because he was, for lack of a better word, different, Smith’s base of support was gone. Hoover routed Smith by a 444-87 margin in the electoral vote and by a 58%-40% margin in the popular vote. Hoover was able to pick off the Southern states of Texas, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Smith even lost his home state of New York. The only states that Smith won were states in the Deep South with almost no Republican voters as well as two narrow wins in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Smith was hoping that by running in 1928, he would still be popular among Democrats and be considered a top candidate for 1932. That idea had one problem that Smith didn’t foresee. With Smith running for President, the Democrats found a new man to run for New York Governor. His name was Franklin D. Roosevelt, a longtime Smith ally. When 1932 rolled around, the two men were no longer allies. They were competitors.

American politics has never been pretty. Mud has been thrown since the Election of 1796. My impression from this book is that it was clear that there was a significant part of America that didn’t want a candidate like Al Smith to win. His Catholicism was just one facet of why people feared him. The fact that he was from a city, and not just any city, but THE BIGGEST CITY still left a good chunk of America afraid. If Smith hadn’t been Catholic, there would have been some other reason to go after his character.

The Election of 1928 showed that America was, for the most part, full of shallow, fearful bigots who were easily manipulated by more powerful forces. Would Al Smith been a good President? Probably not. After the election, Smith went to work for those same big business concerns that he campaigned against. The losers were all the people who were manipulated into believing the worst things about a large part of the American population. Or do the American people just prefer to be told whom to hate?

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The 103rd Ballot by Robert K. Murray

If one were able to go back in time to 1924, most people would be stunned by a lot of things. Communications that seemed glacial in pace, medical care that wouldn’t be very good, and also that the United States was dominated by people who believed that the country should be run by people who were white, who didn’t drink any alcohol, and, for good measure, had only a passing acquaintance with science.

For the most part, the America of 1924 was an unpleasant place for those who were not part of the ruling class. The conflict between all of the disparate parts of American life at the time came to a head in the disastrous Democratic convention of 1924.

Robert K. Murray’s book from 1976 has a straightforward title about how long it took for the Democrats to nominate a candidate for President in 1924. It took the Democrats 16 days, packed into a sweltering Madison Square Garden in New York, to finally nominate someone to go be a sacrificial lamb running against incumbent Calvin Coolidge, who had quickly gained in popularity as the American economy began to flourish. Murray’s book is a great read, rich with detail, and surprisingly not too bogged down with details. There is a good feel for the time period, although you do leave the book with the feeling that everyone in New York in 1924 thought that everyone from outside of New York was a stupid hick and beneath them. Which is to say, New York is still the same.

The Democrats had a lot of problems in 1924, but perhaps their biggest was that a large chunk of their support in 1924 came from the Ku Klux Klan. In the 1920s, the Klan had developed a system where people could easily join up. Becoming a Klan member didn’t mean that you were in favor of burning crosses and lynching African-Americans. It just meant that you liked a country that was white, Protestant, and free of immigrants (except of course for the immigrants that your family came from, they were OK). Estimates of Klan membership in the 1920s ranged from 3 to 8 MILLION people. Some state governments, such as Indiana’s, were essentially run by the Klan.

Prohibition was the other big wedge issue for the Democrats. The party was split between rural conservatives who supported it and urban moderates and progressives who found the idea intolerable.

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Party Over Section: The Rough and Ready Presidential Election of 1848

So have you been yearning deep in your soul to find out more about the election of 1848? Of course you have. Who wouldn’t.

1848 election(To save you the Googling: Zachary Taylor won.)

I picked up a copy of this book and just wondered how much could be written about a presidential election that was won by a party that doesn’t exist anymore, the Whigs, and by a candidate that died just a little over a year into office. And while few people may know that Zachary Taylor won the election of 1848, even fewer know who he defeated.

For Sibley, a Cornell professor, what is most important about this election is not necessarily the winner, but rather that it began to mark the end of elections that were decided by party matters as sectional differences were soon to overwhelm American politics leading to the Civil War.

And perhaps the most important figure in this whole election was not the man who won or even the man who finished second. Instead, it was a third-party candidate, former President Martin Van Buren, who ran on the Free Soil Party ticket. Van Buren would not win any states, but he won over 10% of the popular vote, and won over 25% of the vote in New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont.

While 1848 was a year of revolution and social upheaval in Europe, over in the U.S., things were much quieter. The United States had triumphed over Mexico in a war that added a sizeable chunk of the Southwest, including a place called California. This had all been the doings of expansionist Democratic President James Polk. Polk had pledged to serve just one term, so the 1848 would be an open election. (Polk never got home after leaving Washington, dying of cholera on the way soon after leaving office.)

The Whig Party, which was a diverse group of political interests that coalesced along the idea of Federal government expansion for internal improvements and a national bank, saw the 1848 election as a chance to get back into the White House. The Whigs had won in 1840 with William Henry Harrison, but Harrison died soon after taking office and his successor turned out to be WINO (Whig in Name Only) John Tyler.

One thing the Whigs agreed on was that the war with Mexico was wrong. Whigs in Congress vehemently opposed the war, particularly one Illinois Representative named Abraham Lincoln, who kept pushing the “Spot Resolution” that would have made Polk provide a map showing the exact spot where the alleged Mexican incursion into American territory started.

The most prominent Whigs were getting very old. Henry Clay, who had already lost three presidential elections, was 71. Daniel Webster was 66 and was known to have a drinking problem. So, the Whigs decided that since they had success with a military man before in Harrison, they would try it again.

There were two heroes of the Mexican War: Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. Scott was far more of a political animal than Taylor. Taylor had never voted in any election. Nobody knew what his policies. Scott, unfortunately for him, had made some political statements, some of them nativist. The Whigs decided that the decidedly rough around the edges Taylor would be their man. The Whig convention took just one day. Former New York representative Millard Fillmore was nominated for Vice President.

The Democrats were in a mess. A sharp division sprung up when a Pennsylvania representative named David Wilmot added an amendment to an appropriations bill that would prohibit slavery in any of the newly acquired territory from Mexico. (Wilmot was not an abolitionist. He just didn’t like whites and blacks mixing for the most part.) However, anti-slavery forces jumped on the Proviso and support for it became a source of discord.

The discord was sharpest in New York. The Democratic party there split into two groups: the Barnburners, who supported the Wilmot Proviso; and the Hunkers, who were more likely to try to find some common ground with the South over the expansion of slavery.

When it came time to name delegates for the Democratic Convention, New York sent two different delegations, both of which demanded to be seated as opposed to the other. At the Convention,  organizers decided to allow both groups to be seated, but gave New York the same number of votes. Neither New York side agreed to this and one group left and the other refused to vote.

The Democrats trotted out three candidates: Lewis Cass of Michigan, who fought in the War of 1812 (although he was part of a unit that surrendered Detroit to the British without firing a shot); James Buchanan, the Secretary of State; and Levi Woodbury, a Supreme Court justice. Cass prevailed after four ballots because he was the least objectionable of the three. William Butler of Kentucky was nominated for Vice President.

The Barnburners from New York, along with other anti-slavery politicians (both Whigs and Democrats), and nominated Van Buren for President on the Free Soil Party ticket. Charles Francis Adams, son of the former President, was nominated for Vice President.  Van Buren did not have much in the way of anti-slavery credentials, but he did have name recognition.

The campaign itself was not overly exciting. The candidates rarely ventured out to speak for themselves, using surrogates to speak for them. Not much was known about Taylor’s views on slavery expansion. And Taylor wasn’t going to tell people if he didn’t have to. The Whigs did not even have a platform. They just put out a short statement at the convention that everything was OK.

Lincoln turned out to be one of Taylor’s biggest supporters and people took notice of him. However, Lincoln had agreed to not run for reelection to the House, so he could not immediately capitalize on his good publicity.

Both parties did their best to turn out their voters, who would all vote on the same day (November 7, 1848) for the first time in American history.

With New York’s Democrats in disarray, Taylor and the Whigs were able to win that state and its 36 (out of a total of 290) electoral votes, which went a long way to winning the election. The Whigs won most of the Eastern Seaboard, while the Democrats prevailed in the West. Much of the South voted for Taylor because he lived in Louisiana and was a slave owner.

However, the Democrats took control of both houses of Congress. The Free Soilers had managed to win nine House seats. The Democrats didn’t easily take control in the House because they only had a plurality, not a majority, and it took 63 ballots before a Democratic Speaker was chosen.

Taylor would die in 1850. Cass would go on to be Secretary of State for Buchanan prior to the Civil War, where he was pretty much the only competent person in that administration.

American politics, which hadn’t exactly been a pleasant thing to watch previously, was going to get extremely nasty in the years to come.

 

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