HomeHistoryUS History: The Election of 1848 – Zachary Taylor Whigs To Victory

US History: The Election of 1848 – Zachary Taylor Whigs To Victory

The election of 1848 is the first presidential election to take place on the same the day in every state, which would go on to be the case in every election going forward and it was also a three-way battle for the presidency as General Zachary Taylor takes on Michigan Senator Lewis Cass and former Democratic president, Martin Van Buren…so with that, all said, let’s get into it. 

The Fallout of James K. Polk’s Presidency

Unlike many of his one term predecessors, James Polk’s presidency was a success as the former Speaker of the House turn president was able to accomplish quite a lot during his term. Under his presidency, Polk established an Independent Treasury to manage government funds, he reduced the prices of high tariffs with the ‘Walker Tariff’ while also increasing the amount of revenue and trade in the U.S., which helped to create what would be ‘The Smithsonian Institute’ and negotiated with Britain to get the Oregon territories which would become free states aka states that didn’t allow slavery.

By far the biggest thing to occur under James K. Polk’s time in office was acquiring the areas of Texas and California from Mexico but this was easier said than done.

Because of trumped-up charges by Polk and his desire to get that new land, he claimed that Mexicans near the Rio Grande attacked American soldiers and that they shed blood on U.S. soil, however many Mexican higher-ups disputed this as that part of the land wasn’t owned by the U.S.

Nevertheless, this would result in the Mexican American War with the U.S. claiming the Republic of Texas and California before entering the U.S. as official states after both sides signed a treaty to end the conflict. Polk decided to honour his promise that he made when he ran for office in 1844 and not to seek another term, leaving soon after the up-and-coming election. Tragically James Knox Polk would die from cholera at the age of 53 just months after leaving the White Office. 

Cracks Within the Democratic Party

With Polk stepping down after one term and his VP George Dallas not having any interest to run, left the field wide open for several candidates to get the nomination.

While names like Levi Woodbury and James Buchanan were proposed, it was Martin Van Buren, the former president and co-founder of the party who looked like the hands-on favourite to get the nomination, however, this prove to not be the case as he wouldn’t be able to get enough votes from the delegates to get the nomination, especially from the pro-slavery wing of the Democratic Party.

Instead, the party’s nominee in 1848 was the former Minister of France, Secretary of War and Michigan Senator, Lewis Cass; Despite the fact he was Northern, Cass believed in the idea of “Popular Sovereignty” which was a plan that allowed the states to decide on the issue of slavery rather than allowing the government to figure it out.

Cass ran with William Orlando Butler who was from Kentucky and a war hero in the Mexican American War; While Cass believed he could easily beat the Whigs in this election, Martin Van Buren had other ideas. 


The Birth of Free Soil Party

After failing to get the nomination from the Democratic party. Martin Van Buren decided to create another political party along with other influential politicians like Salmon P. Chase, Henry Wilson, Charles Sumner, John P. Hale and Hannibal Halim; This new political party would be known as ‘The Free Soil Party’.

The platform on which the Free Soil Party ran on was the support of the Wilmont Proviso, which supported the abolishment of the Missouri Compromise which allowed slavery in states below the northern parallel west of the Mississippi River.

Much like what he did with the Democrats, Martin Van Buren decided to run for president with another party he created and brought along, Charles Francis Adams who was a former state senator from Massachusetts and the son of the former president, John Quincy Adams and grandson to founding father, John Adams.

Although the Free Soil Party was only on the ballot in a few states and therefore unlikely to win the election, Van Buren decided to run anyway mostly because he didn’t want Lewis Cass to become the next president, so he wanted to play the role of ‘spoiler’ in this election and decided to get as much support from northerners who were against slavery expanding out west. So those are the nominees for the Democratic and Free Soil Party, now it’s time to turn to the Whigs and their candidates.

Old Rough and Ready!

Even though most in the Whig Party were against the Mexican American War, the party went on and changed their opinions about the war in the hopes of avoiding the same fate the Federalists suffered after the War of 1812.

The general who led troops in the Mexican American War, Zachary Taylor hailed from the state of Kentucky and was a widely popular figure following the war. Both the Whigs and Democrats tried to persuade Taylor to be their party’s nominee as the man nicknamed ‘Old Rough and Ready’ was very vague on politics and had never voted in an election which made him even more of an appealing candidate to both sides. Ultimately, Taylor decided he would run for president as part of the Whig Party defeating names like Winfield Scott, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.

Speaking of Daniel Webster, he was given the chance to become Taylor’s running mate for vice president in the 1848 election, but he declined so instead the Whigs chose Millard Fillmore, who was the New York State Comptroller as Taylor’s running mate. Now that we’ve discussed the candidates running in this election, it’s time to briefly talk about the campaigning that’s going on.

The Campaigns

Much like what they’ve done in 1840 and 1844, the Whigs are going to ignore the issue of slavery in this election and instead focus on Taylor’s success as a general much like what they did with William Henry Harrison. The Democrats are also going to ignore any talk about slavery as an issue in this campaign as Lewis Cass is trying to appeal to the Southern wing of the Democratic Party with his support of ‘Popular Sovereignty.

The Free Soiler as mentioned earlier aren’t on the ballot in every state, so their influence in this election is smaller than they’d hope for but, Martin Van Buren is running on the idea of firing up the abolitionists and anti-slavery supporters in the North with the hopes that it will deny Cass the chance to become president. Now with all of that out of the way, let’s look at the results.

The Results

So, with four new states (Florida, Wisconsin, Texas and Iowa) being added to the Union, the electoral votes needed to win in this race is 146 or more. When it’s all said and done, Zachary Taylor won the election and became the 12th president of the United States with ‘Old Rough and Ready’ receiving 163 electoral votes and 47.3% of the popular vote.

Lewis Cass finished pretty strong in second place, getting 127 electoral votes and 42.5% of the popular vote. Martin Van Buren in his fourth and final bid for the presidency didn’t receive any electoral votes but did pull an impressive 10.1% of the popular vote, the best performance by a third party candidate in terms of the popular vote up to that point.

Van Buren’s plan to play spoiler in this election worked as he and the Liberty Party who also ran in this election gathered enough support to prevent places like New York from voting for Lewis Cass. Now before I close things out, I have a little bit of some bonus trivia regarding the newly elected President Zachary Taylor

President For a Day

Inauguration day was set on March 4th, 1849 with James K. Polk and George Dallas looking to vacate the White House, but there was a problem, and that problem is the fact that March 4th, 1849 was on a Sunday and Zachary Taylor, who was a religious man refused to take the oath of office on this day. With Zachary Taylor refusing to be sworn in and the previous regime heading out, someone needed to be the commander and chief even if it was for a single day…

That duty was given to a pro-slavery senator by the name of David Rice Atchison, who was the next in line to be in charge in case anything happened to the president and vice president as part of the line of presidential succession. Because of this, Atchison has the distinction by some as “The Man who was President for a Day”, a title that would be on his tombstone marker upon his death in 1886.

And that’s the election of 1848, the Whigs have once again regained the White House with another war hero at the helm, but will things be good for them and the rest of the country within the next four years?  You’ll have to wait and see in the election of 1852 article.

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