As the election of 1848 approached, it was starting to become impossible to ignore the increasingly divisive issue of slavery in the United States. Hardly anyone wanted to abolish slavery where it existed, but there was a growing feeling in the North that slavery ought to be contained and not permitted to expand into any new territories. This had been made more difficult by the aftermath of the recently concluded Mexican War. The territories which had been gained from Mexico which were south of the line established in the Missouri Compromise of 1820 were open to slavery. The Whigs, at least the northern branch of the party, had been opposed to the Mexican War for this reason. Led by an obscure congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln, the northern Whigs accused the Polk administration of waging an aggressive war against Mexico for empty military glory and to expand the slave territories. The relatively quick and easy American victory over Mexico made such anti-war sentiments politically incorrect however, and the Whigs found they had to backtrack before the upcoming election.
There was no question of the incumbent President James K. Polk running for reelection. He had promised to serve only one term and he was exhausted from performing his duties as president. Polk died only three months after leaving his office. The Democrats met at their national convention in Baltimore on May 22. There they selected Senator Lewis Cass for president. Cass had been the territorial governor of Michigan from 1813 to 1831 and then had served as Secretary of War under Andrew Jackson, minister to France and then from 1845 to 1848 a Senator from Michigan. His running mate was William Orlando Butler, a veteran of the War of 1812, who had served as a Congressman from Kentucky from 1839-1943.
There was a problem with Cass, however, at least as far as the New York delegation was concerned. Cass was an advocate of “squatter” or popular sovereignty on the issue of slavery, believing that the people of a territory should determine whether a state should be admitted as a free or slave state. Some of the New York delegation, the Hunkerers because they “hunkered” after offices, supported Cass’s nomination, while others, the Barnburners believed Cass to be too soft on slavery. In the end, the Barnburners left the convention and, along with other anti-slavery people and organized the Free Soil Party. The Free Soilers, with their slogan, “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor and Free Men” nominated former president Martin van Buren and John Quincy Adams’s son, Charles Francis Adams.
The Whigs were anxious for the voters to forget that they had even been against the Mexican War, so when they met in Philadelphia in June, they nominated General Zachary Taylor, Old Rough and Ready for president. Taylor had never held any political office, had no set political opinions on any issue, and had never even voted, but he had led an American army to victory in Mexico, so he seemed to be perfect for the job of president. The Whigs also nominated Millard Fillmore, a congressman from New York who had served from 1833 to 1843, who had then served as the New York State Comptroller, as Taylor’s running mate.
Many Whigs were anxious about nominating a candidate with absolutely no political experience. Daniel Webster feared that a man he regarded as “an illiterate frontier colonel” would be unelectable. Other Whigs, including Lincoln, made a virtue out of Taylor’s inexperience, pointing out that he would be sure to follow the will of the people.
There was the usual mudslinging throughout the campaign. The Democrats portrayed Taylor as an ignorant, illiterate military autocrat who thirsted for martial glory and establish himself as a dictator, after the example of Caesar or Napoleon. He was stingy and cruel to his slaves. The Whigs retaliated by claiming that Cass was dishonest, and involved in graft from his tenure as Superintendent of Indian Affairs. They also mocked Cass’s pretensions to military glory. There wasn’t much substantive debate on any issues.
The election of 1848 was the first presidential election in which the election was held on the same day in every state, November 7. From this year on, the national elections would be held on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November. Zachary Taylor won the election without too much trouble, getting 1,360,099 votes (47.3%) to Cass’s 1,220544 (42.5%). Martin van Buren and his Free Soil Party received 291,263 (10.1%) popular votes. Obviously, anti-slavery sentiments were gaining ground, at least in the North. In the Electoral College, Taylor got 163 votes, mostly in the East with all of the largest states, except for Ohio, while Cass won 127 electoral votes. The Free Soilers didn’t win any states, but it is possible they split the Democratic vote, especially in New York, allowing the Whigs to win.
Although born in Virginia and raised in Kentucky, and a slave owner himself, President Taylor turned out to be a staunch nationalist who sought to prevent the spread of slavery in the new territories.Taylor hinted that he would sign the Wilmot Proviso, which banned slavery in the territories gained from Mexico, if it ever passed Congress, and he wanted California to be admitted as a state without first being organized as a territory so that the slavery issue could be decided by the people of California rather than Congress. Taylor’s highest priority was keeping the Union together and he threatened to personally lead an army against anyone who attempted secession.
Unfortunately, Zachary Taylor died of either Cholera or food poisoning just seventeen months into his term. The new president, Millard Fillmore, lacked Taylor’s strength of character and although he was moderately anti-slavery, was more willing to give in to the demands of Southern slave owners than Taylor had been. Perhaps it was just as well. It is possible that the Civil War might have begun a decade earlier if Taylor had lived. On the other hand, Fillmore’s administration began a decade of inaction when the United States badly needed strong leadership to resolve the increasing sectional tensions.
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