The 1848 election pitted former President Martin Van Buren of the Free Soil Party against Zachary Taylor of the Whig Party, Gerrit Smith of the Liberty Party, and Lewis Cass of the Democratic Party. The incumbent, President James Polk, did not seek reelection due to his declining health and his prior promise to serve only one term. A major focus of election was the question of slavery and whether it would extend to the Western states. Zachary Taylor narrowly won the election, becoming the third of four Whig Party members to become President of the United States. As described below, Van Buren’s candidacy on behalf of the Free Soil Party likely influenced the outcome in Taylor’s favor.
Taylor was a career military man, serving forty-one years in the United States Army and achieving the rank of Major General. Taylor fought in the Mexican-American War as well as in the War of 1812, including defending Fort Harrison in Indiana Territory against Native Americans led by Tecumseh. The Whig party nominated Taylor (the Democratic Party also sought to enlist him as its candidate) even though he had never previously voted in an election nor had he disclosed his political beliefs or views on any substantive topic. Taylor was from Louisiana and owned more than 100 slaves.
Prior to joining the Free Soil Party, at the Democratic Party convention, Van Buren fought hard for the nomination. However, on the fourth ballot, the Democratic Party nominated Cass, who was a former Michigan Senator and Governor, and had also served as an Ambassador to France and as Secretary of War under President Andrew Jackson. The Democratic Party refused to take any position on slavery. As a result, many Democrats left the convention and formed the Free Soil Party. Many suspected Cass of being pro-slavery.
Van Buren served as the 8th President of the United States from March 4, 1837 to March 4, 1841. During his presidency, Van Buren supported anti-abolitionist positions such as purging the mail of antislavery materials and the automatic tabling of all antislavery petitions before Congress. However, Van Buren changed his views on slavery, due to his frustration with the growing power of the Southern slave states, and supported the formation in 1848 of the Free Soil Party, which opposed slavery. The Party was led by Salmon P. Chase, John P. Hale and others. Van Buren did not believe that he could win the White House, but instead ran to divide the Democratic Party vote.
The Liberty Party originally nominated Hale to be its candidate for President. However, Hale left the Liberty Party along with other anti-slavery members, being disappointed with the party’s platform and formed the Free Soil Party. As a result, a small faction remained in the Liberty Party, nominating Gerrit Smith to be its candidate. Smith was a lifelong abolitionist from New York who was a member of the Secret Six, a group responsible for funding John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid. Smith was a candidate for President in 1848, 1856 and 1860. In 1853-1854, he served as a Free Soil Party member of the United States House of Representatives.
The Election Campaign
Despite all the jockeying relating to the issue of slavery leading up to the election, that issue was not debated or discussed in the election campaign itself. Indeed, future presidents Abraham Lincoln and Rutherford B. Hayes both campaigned for Taylor, making it clear in the South that Taylor was a slave owner.
The Democratic division on the issue of slavery in the Northeast provided Taylor the opportunity to dominate the vote in that region. The Free Soil Party was able to get on the ballots in only 19 of the 29 states. When the popular vote and Electoral College vote was counted, Taylor won with 1.4 million (47.3%) of the popular vote and 163 of the 290 electoral votes (146 needed to win). Taylor won in eight of the fifteen slave states and seven of the fifteen non-slave states. Cass finished second with 1.2 million votes and 127 electoral votes. Van Buren was successful in dividing Democratic support and received 300,000 votes.
Impact on Constitution
The 1848 election highlighted the deep divide in the nation on the issue of slavery. Shortly after the election, Senate Majority Leader Henry Clay came up with the Compromise of 1850, one final attempt to keep the nation united. Around that time, Taylor became sick with an unknown digestive ailment and died on July 9, 1850. His Vice President, Millard Fillmore, served out the remainder of Taylor’s term.
The issue of slavery helped shape the outcome of the 1848 Presidential Election, even if it was not a major topic of debate during the election campaign. The next twelve years would see increased threats of secession and great debates on the question of slavery. That question would not be decided for another 17 years, after the significant bloodshed and loss of lives of 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.