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.