Once again, the Whigs were in control of the presidency. Last time, William Henry Harrison died after a month and John Tyler went rogue. But that’s not going to happen this time, right? RIGHT?!
The Last Four Years
The Whigs’ winning strategy during this divisive time period was to run a candidate that had expressed no previous political views. That strategy worked! But now, President Zachary Taylor’s policy goals were anyone’s guess. To Henry Clay’s frustration, Taylor kept his distance from the party leadership. He also did not have a close relationship with his Vice President, Millard Fillmore, who had been put on the ticket to appease the South. Turns out Taylor did have opinions and wasn’t going to let others control his administration!
Despite being a slave owner, Taylor did not believe that slavery should expand into the new territories that Polk
forcibly took bought from Mexico. If he had said this during the campaign, he probably would not have been elected. He also supported admitting California to the Union as a free state, since it was now booming in population thanks to the Gold Rush. He allowed Utah to become a territory separate from California and made Mormon leader Brigham Young its territorial governor in order to ease tensions with the new settlers. Lastly, he sided with the New Mexico Territory in its land disputes with Texas.
Henry Clay, back to being Kentucky’s senator after several failed presidential runs, partnered with Illinois Senator (and future Lincoln-debater) Stephan Douglas to devise a compromise on the issue of slavery in the new territory. The Compromise of 1850, as it came to be known, had five main points: 1) Admit California to the Union as a free state, 2) Establish popular sovereignty in the remaining territories (new settlers vote on slavery), 3) Settle Texas’ aggressive western land claim as part of New Mexico Territory, 4) Continue to allow slavery in the District of Columbia, but ban its trade, and 5) Pass the Fugitive Slave Act, which required Northerners to return escaped slaves to their Southern owners. This plan was controversial, to say the least. Northerners were not happy to be forced into aiding the slave owners. Luckily, President Taylor opposed Clay and Douglas’ plan, so it had no chance of passing!
One year and four months into his term, Zachary Taylor got food poisoning at a Fourth of July party and died.
Was Taylor Murdered? Pause!
Many believed that President Taylor had been intentionally poisoned at the party, which would make him the first assassinated president in US history! Could pro-slavery radicals have gotten to Taylor a decade before the Civil War? Well, modern tests on Taylor’s exhumed body proved that Taylor had indeed died from gastroenteritis. I think we’ve seen enough of these premature deaths to agree that it was, once again, the tainted water supply in DC that took the president’s life.
And just like that, the Whigs were 0/2 on their presidents not dying. Thanks to previous presidential ascender, John Tyler, we know that Vice President Millard Fillmore was now the full-president. Despite his Northern roots, Fillmore was much more sympathetic to the South than Taylor had been. By the end of his term, the Compromise of 1850 was passed, and everyone was angry.
Slavery, slavery, slavery! The debate of slavery in the new territories was dividing the nation. Desperate to hold onto their current coalitions, both the Whigs and the Democrats continued their strategy of avoiding the issue during the presidential election. The leadership of both parties endorsed the Compromise of 1850, meaning there were no major policy differences between them. This meant the 1852 election would mostly be personality-based, but both parties had trouble picking a candidate that everyone could agree on.
Party Watch & The Candidates
By supporting the Compromise, Fillmore had won over the Southern Whigs, but was despised in the North. At the convention, New England party-members preferred Secretary of State (and former 1836 regional candidate) Daniel Webster. The rest of the North backed General Winfield Scott, the other hero of the Mexican-American War. You might also remember Scott as President Martin Van Buren’s pick to enforce the Trail of Tears. He was known as “Old Fuss and Feathers,” due to his emphasis on appearance and discipline in the military. After 53 ballots, the Whigs finally agreed on General Scott. His running mate was North Carolina politician, Secretary of the Navy, and future Confederate Senator, William A. Graham.
Things weren’t going any smoother for the Democrats. At their convention, 1848 loser Lewis Cass had lots of competition. Pennsylvania politician and former Secretary of State James Buchanan had earned support from the South by speaking out against the Wilmot Proviso (an attempt to outright ban slavery in the territories) a few years earlier. Next was Stephen Douglas, who helped orchestrate the Compromise of 1850. Also in the running was New York politician and former Secretary of War, William Marcy. Marcy was a Hunker who had helped bring the anti-slavery Barnburners back into the party after their brief split in 1848. The four of them traded places as favorites, but none could win a majority. 49 ballots later, the Democrats settled on their second dark horse candidate of the mid-1800s, Franklin Pierce, a former senator from New Hampshire. Pierce was described as a Northern man with Southern principles, and his candidacy brought the party back together. Even Barnburner Martin Van Buren supported him! His running mate was Alabama Senator William Rufus King, a close friend of Buchanan’s, meant to appease his supporters.
Seeing as how it was so difficult for both parties to agree on their candidates, a lot of voters felt displaced. The electorate was in a state of transition and several third parties popped up while the big-two realigned.
First, despite the return of the Barnburner Democrats back to their home party, the anti-slavery Free Soil Party still ran a candidate in 1852. Their pick was another New Hampshire Senator, John Hale. Less noble was the Native American Party. No, not those Native Americans. These were anti-immigrant, United States nativists. Originally starting as a secret anti-Catholic society, their supporters were instructed to reply, “I know nothing,” when questioned about the party. Opponents referred to them as the “Know Nothings,” and the name stuck. The Know Nothing Party nominated Whig Daniel Webster, without his permission. Webster also gained the nomination of the Union Party, a group of Southern Whigs unwilling to vote for General Scott. To his credit, Webster did not endorse either party. Of less importance was the Southern Rights Party, a group of hard-lined Southern Democrats opposed to Pierce, and the abolitionist Liberty Party, which was still kicking but had lost most of its support to the Free Soilers.
With both candidates unwilling to speak against the Compromise of 1850, the campaigns focused their attacks on the moral character of their opponents.
Old Fuss and Feathers was seen as pompous and narcissistic. While he had an impressive military resume, Democrats argued that he was obsessed with rank and status. They criticized the Whigs for romanticizing the “Gunpowder Glory” of their military-hero candidates.
Pierce had the opposite problem. He also served in the Mexican-American War, but did not earn the glory of Taylor or Scott. Instead, he was best known for fainting (possibly twice) from pain after his horse fell on him during battle. While his army succeeded, he became known as “Fainting Frank” and “The Fainting General.” The Whigs used this to paint Pierce as weak and cowardly. They also attacked his heavy drinking habit, saying he was “a hero of many a well-fought bottle.”
California has entered the game! First West Coast state!
As expected with these weak candidates, the election had a low turnout. But, as you can see, it’s still a blowout. Southerners didn’t believe that Scott was as sincere in his support for the Compromise of 1850 as Pierce.
As for the third parties, none of them received any electoral votes. Without Van Buren, the Free Soilers only earned half the votes they did in the previous election. Daniel Webster received a few thousands votes from the Know Nothings and Union Party, despite his death a few weeks before the election.
Franklin Pierce dominated Winfield Scott with a score of 254-42, becoming America’s 14th president. He won the largest share of electoral votes since James Monroe’s uncontested election in 1820.
What Did It Say About America?
Overall, it was a boring election hidden behind an extremely tense time period. Neither party would take a stance against slavery when it was desperately needed. The abundance of third parties indicated that everyone was mad and the parties were fractured. Their coalitions were weak and evolving. The Whigs had the biggest problem. Pierce’s blowout win would make General Scott the last Whig candidate. Could a new, better party rise from its ashes?
While it may seem like the Democrats were in a good position, Pierce would be their last candidate to win with a majority of the popular vote until Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.
It was the end of an era. Henry Clay resigned the Senate and died of tuberculosis in 1852, leaving his party in shambles. As I mentioned above, the Whigs’ next biggest name, Daniel Webster, had died a few years earlier. Another influential (and racist) politician, John C. Calhoun, was also taken by tuberculosis in 1850. And with many of both party’s former presidents dead (Jackson, Harrison, Polk, and Taylor), it was difficult to see who would guide them through the new decade. Man, the mid-1800s were grim.
Was It The Right Decision?
Nope! Yet again, I’m not a big fan of the Whigs either (General Scott literally made the Trail of Tears happen), but Pierce would be a particularly weak president when America needed strong leadership the most.
Just after the new year, between Pierce’s victory and his inauguration, he and his family were passengers on a train that derailed in Massachusetts. Pierce and his wife, Jane, watched their 11-year-old son be crushed to death by the wreckage. Jane believed that the disaster was punishment from God for Pierce’s pursuit of high office. Both suffered severe depression going into Pierce’s term. Because of this, Pierce would rely heavily on the Democratic party leadership during his administration, people like his Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis.