The Slavery Issue: The Election of 1848

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The Slavery Issue: The Election of 1848


Crisis. Neither the Wilmot Proviso nor the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo settled what was becoming the most convulsive political question of the day: whether slavery would spread into territory gained from Mexico. As the presidential election of 1848 approached, many Americans looked to the electoral system to decide the matter, and since President Polk decided not to seek reelection, the field was wide open.

The Liberty Party. First to make a formal nomination was the abolitionist Liberty Party. Although riven with strife over how radical a program to pursue, the political abolitionists of the Liberty Party agreed with the principle of the Wilmot Proviso. The party convention endorsed the Proviso and named John P. Hale, a former Democratic senator from New Hampshire, for president.

Calhoun and Southern Rights. On the other side of the spectrum, John C. Calhoun staked out a firm Southern rights position based on his Senate resolutions. Calhoun articulated in 1848 what secessionists would repeat in 1860: that the Constitution itself protects the right of property and that no law passed by Congress can ever tell a man where he can or cannot take his property.

Democrats and Popular Sovereignty. The Democratic Party tried to diffuse Southern rights and the slavery issue with a compromise called popular sovereignty. Identified in 1848 with the candidacy of Lewis Cass of Michigan, popular sovereignty left it to a territorys settlers whether or not to allow slavery within its borders. However, Cass and the Democrats remained vague about the details; they never took an official position on precisely when or how settlers were to make the choice. Would it happen only after settlers had passed through the territorial stage and drawn up a state constitution? Or as soon as the territory was organized? The answers to

these questions were critical. In the first case settlers would presumably have been in the territory for some time, giving a new institution such as slavery time to take hold. For this reason Southerners tended to assume that this was what was meant by popular sovereignty. If the decision was made at the initial organizational stage, as many Northerners assumed it would be, there could be at most a few slaves and slave owners in a given territory since under Mexican law slavery had been abolished. When the Democratic convention met and nominated Cass, delegates from two state delegations walked out in protest: Alabama because slaverys future was not guaranteed in the platform, and New York because its favorite son, the former president Martin Van Buren, was passed over for the nomination.

Another Whig War Hero. The Whigs chose a more successful strategy: nominate a popular candidate and offer no platform whatsoever. The popular candidate was a hero of the Mexican War, Gen. Zachary Taylor, who was chosen despite his refusal to state an opinion on any contested topic. The Whigs were hoping to duplicate their success in 1840, when they nominated a popular general (William Henry Harrison), issued very few policy statements, and glided to victory. Another plus for the pro-Taylor faction, known as Cotton Whigs, was the fact that the candidate was a Louisiana planter who owned more than one hundred slaves. This situation no doubt promised to help the struggling party in the Southern states, but it was enough to drive antislavery partisans, who were known as Conscience Whigs, out of the party.

Free Soil Party. Almost immediately after the Whigs nominated Taylor, disgruntled Conscience Whigs such as Salmon P. Chase and Charles Sumner started talking about forming a new antislavery party with a broader political base than the abolitionist Liberty Party. The Van Buren wing of the Democratic party, many of whom had sponsored and supported the Wilmot Proviso, were extremely receptive to the idea. So members of all three groupsConscience Whigs, Van Buren Democrats, and Liberty Menheld a convention in Buffalo in August 1848 to form the Free Soil Party. Pious abolitionists mingled with Democratic politicos, free blacks, and Whig Brahmins under the main tent while in the background a committee worked out the platform and candidates. The platform combined Liberty Party pronouncements (No more Slave States and no more slave Territories) with popular Democratic planks such as a call for free homesteads. The organizers also unveiled a catchy slogan: Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, Free Men. For president, the party nominated former president Van Buren; for vice president, the Whig (and son and grandson of presidents) Charles Francis Adams.

Van Buren. Many seasoned abolitionists doubted whether Van Burenwho as president had supported purging the mails of abolitionist materials and automatically tabling antislavery petitions sent to Congresswas a changed man. Van Buren, however, had decided the time had come to take a stand against what free soilers called the Slave Power. The minds of nearly all mankind, declared Van Buren, have been penetrated by a conviction of the evils of slavery.

Southern Choice. The campaign itself was divided. In the North both the Whig and Democratic parties claimed to support the Wilmot Proviso; in the South, Democrats pointed to the thousands of square miles of new slave territory their party had delivered. The Whig war hero Taylor proved to be by far the strongest candidate in the South. Will the people of [the South] vote for a Southern President or a Northern one?, asked Southern newspapers. In an ominous sequel to the votes on the Proviso, Southern Democratic voters jumped parties to vote for the slaveholder Taylor.

Another Victory for Taylor. When the votes were counted, Taylor carried eight of the fifteen slave states and seven of the fifteen free states. The Free Soil Party polled 290,000 votes (about 10 percent of the total, 14 percent in the North), enough to throw New York State and the election to Taylor. The new antislavery coalition also elected nine congressmen and two U.S. senators, the Ohioan Chase and Sumner of Massachusetts, who would carry the Free Soil message to Washington. No longer would the slavery issue be pushed to the political sidelines.


Richard H. Sewell, Ballots for Freedom: Antislavery Politics in the United States 18371860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976);

Arthur M. Schlesinger, ed., History of American Presidential Elections, 17891968 (New York: Chelsea House, 1971).