1852, Franklin Pierce Defeats Winfield Scott, John Pitale: The Controversy Over The Fugitive Slave Act Of 1850 – Guest Essayist: Daniel A. Cotter

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The 1852 election pitted Franklin Pierce of the Democratic Party against General Winfield Scott of the Whig Party, John P. Hale of the Free Soil Party, Daniel Webster of the Union Party, Jacob Broom of the Native American Party, and George Troop of the Southern Rights Party.  In nominating Pierce, the Whig party refused to renominate the incumbent, President Millard Fillmore.  Pierce won the election in a significant Electoral College landslide over General Scott, 254-42.  As with the 1848 election, and for the next several presidential elections, a major focus of the election was on the question of slavery, especially the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Compromise of 1850.

The Candidates

Pierce served as Brigadier General in the US Army during the Mexican-American War and also served in both the US House of Representatives and Senate, leaving Congress to return to private practice.  Pierce won the Democratic nomination on the 49th ballot.  Pierce viewed the abolitionist movement as a significant threat to the continuation of the union of the North and South, and, as a presidential candidate he advocated the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and strong enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  The Democrats saw Pierce as a compromise candidate who could fuse both regions and avoid threats of secession.

General Scott was a lifelong military man, beginning his military career when he joined the United States Army just before his 22nd birthday as a Captain.  Scott served in the Army for the next fifty-three years.  Known as “Old Fuss and Feathers” because of his insistence on protocol and discipline, Scott was Commanding General of the US Army for twenty years, longer than anyone else in history.  During his long military career, Scott oversaw forces in the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and briefly for the Union in the Civil War.  Scott is credited with devising the Anaconda Plan, which was instrumental in the Union defeating the Confederacy.  The Whig Party was deeply divided at its convention, with the South favoring President Fillmore and Scott favored by the North.  On the 53rd ballot, Scott won by a very small margin.

Webster had also been a Whig Party candidate for President, receiving twenty-one votes on the 53rd ballot. Webster was recognized as one of the great statesmen of his time as well as a leading courtroom lawyer.  Webster served fourteen years in the House of Representatives and another nine years in the United States Senate.  He also served twice as Secretary of State.  The Union Party had been formed in 1851 as an offshoot of the Whig Party.  After the Whig Party nominated Scott, the Union Party nominated Webster as its candidate.  Webster died shortly before the Presidential election, but his name remained on the ballot in some states.

The Native American Party, or Know-Nothing Party, originally also nominated Webster for its candidate as well, without his permission.  When Webster died, the party quickly replaced him with Jacob Broom, a lawyer who had presided over the convention nominating Webster as the Party’s candidate.

Hale had been a potential nominee for President in 1848. In 1852, the Free Soil Party handily nominated Hale as its candidate.  The Southern Rights Party was a Southern faction of Democrats who favored secession.  Troop, a former US Senator, was nominated.

The 1850 Actions and the Election Campaign

The Fugitive Slave Act, passed as part of the Compromise of 1850, required escaped slaves to be returned to their owners and compelled public officials and citizens in the free states to comply with this requirement.  The Act was not well received by the Northern states or by abolitionists because it made them complicit in enforcing slavery.  The Compromise of 1850 was a series of laws designed to resolve the tensions between the North and South.  The Compromise simply postponed, but did not prevent, the Civil War.  As described above, both the Act and Compromise had a significant impact on the lineup of political parties and candidates for President.

The election campaign was confusing because the positions of both the Whig and Democratic parties were very similar and without any clear distinctions.  Much of the focus during the campaign was on the candidates themselves.  Scott was not favored in the South given his abolitionist views, while Pierce and the Democratic Party supported the Compromise and wished to avoid further agitation over slavery.  As a result, voter turnout was low.  Pierce easily won the Presidency, capturing more than 50% of the popular vote and the Electoral College, 254-42.

Impact on Constitution 

The 1852 election showed the continued division of the nation on the issue of slavery.  While the Fugitive Slave Act and Compromise of 1850 postponed secession and the Civil War, they also drew a sharper focus on the issue of slavery.

Conclusion

The question of slavery continued to shape Presidential elections in 1852, with Pierce’s views on accepting and enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act and Compromise resulting in his large margin of victory and inauguration as the 14th President.  Pierce served only one term and, like his predecessor, was rejected for renomination by his political party, in part due to his views on the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  Slavery would continue to divide the nation, leading up to eventual secession and the Civil War.

Dan Cotter is a Partner at Butler Rubin Saltarelli & Boyd LLP and an Adjunct Professor at The John Marshall Law School, where he teaches SCOTUS Judicial Biographies.  He is also Immediate Past President of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to Butler Rubin or any of its clients, The Chicago Bar Association, or John Marshall.

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  1. […] the 1852 election[16] was not quite as rancorous as the present campaign for the presidency, it still had its share […]

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