United States presidential election, 1848
|Presidential election results map. Buff denotes those won by Taylor/Fillmore, blue denotes states won by Cass/Butler. Numbers indicate the number of electoral votes allotted to each state.|
The United States presidential election of 1848 was the 16th quadrennial presidential election, held on Tuesday, November 7, 1848. It was won by Zachary Taylor of the Whig Party, who ran against Lewis Cass of the Democratic Party and former President Martin Van Buren of the newly formed Free Soil Party. Incumbent President James K. Polk, having achieved all of his major objectives in one term and suffering from declining health, kept his promise not to seek re-election.
The Whigs in 1846–47 had focused all their energies on condemning Polk's war policies. They had to reverse course quickly. In February 1848 Polk surprised everyone with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War and gave the United States vast new territories (including what are now the states of California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, Canada and New Mexico). The Whigs in the Senate voted 2-1 to approve the treaty. Then, in the summer, the Whigs nominated the hero of the war, Zachary Taylor. While he did promise no more future wars, he did not condemn the Mexican-American War or criticize Polk, and the Whigs had to follow his lead. They shifted their attention to the new issue of whether slavery could be banned from the new territories.
The choice of Zachary Taylor was made almost out of desperation; he was not clearly committed to Whig principles, but he was popular for leading the war effort. The Democrats had a record of victory, prosperity, and the acquisition of both Oregon and the Southwest. It appeared almost certain that they would win unless the Whigs picked Taylor. His victory made him one of only two Whigs to be elected president before the party ceased to exist in the 1850s; the other was William Henry Harrison, who had also been a general and war hero, but died a month after assuming office.
Whig Party nomination
Mexican-American War General Zachary Taylor of Louisiana, an attractive candidate because of his successes on the battlefield, but who had never voted in an election himself, was openly courted by both the Democratic and Whig parties. Taylor ultimately declared himself a Whig, and easily took their nomination, receiving 171 delegate votes to defeat Henry Clay, Winfield Scott, Daniel Webster and others. After Webster turned down the vice-presidential candidacy, Millard Fillmore received the party's nomination for vice-president, defeating—among others—Abbott Lawrence, a Massachusetts politician whose mild opposition to slavery led him to be dubbed a "Cotton Whig".
Democratic Party nomination
Former President Martin Van Buren once again sought the Democratic nomination, but Lewis Cass was nominated on the fourth ballot. Cass had served as Governor and Senator for Michigan, as well as Secretary of War under Andrew Jackson, and from 1836 to 1842 as ambassador to France. General William O. Butler was nominated to join Cass on the ticket, garnering 169 delegate votes to defeat five other candidates, including future Vice-President William R. King and future Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
The Democrats chose a platform that remained silent on slavery, and with Cass suspected of pro-slavery leanings, many anti-slavery Democrats walked out of the Baltimore convention to begin the Free Soil Party. Van Buren had burned for the nomination, but he had wanted it on a Free Soil platform. Neither his name nor his stand received any support at the Democratic convention.
Free Soil Party nomination
The Free Soil Party, was organized for the 1848 election to oppose further expansion of slavery into the western territories. Much of its support came from disaffected anti-slavery Barnburner Democrats and Conscience Whigs, including former President Martin Van Buren. The party was led by Salmon P. Chase and John Parker Hale and held its 1848 convention in Utica and Buffalo, New York. On June 22, Van Buren defeated Hale by a 154-129 delegate count to capture the Free Soil nomination, while Charles Francis Adams, whose father (John Quincy Adams) and grandfather (John Adams) had both served as president, was chosen as the vice-presidential nominee.
Van Buren knew that the Free Soilers had not the slightest chance of winning, rather that his candidacy would split the Democratic vote and throw the election to the Whigs. Bitter and aging, Van Buren did not care despite the fact his life had been built upon the rock of party solidarity and party regularity. He loathed Lewis Cass and the principle of popular sovereignty with equal intensity.
Liberty Party nomination
Despite their significant showing in the prior presidential election, certain events would conspire to remove the Liberty Party from political significance.
Initially, the nomination was to be decided in the fall of 1847 at a Convention in Buffalo, New York. There, Senator John P. Hale was nominated over Gerrit Smith, brother-in-law to the party's previous nominee James G. Birney. Leicester King, a former judge and state senator in Ohio, was nominated to be Hale's running mate. Anti-slavery Democrats and Whigs, disappointed with their respective nominees, would form a new movement in conjunction with members of the Liberty Party such as John Hale and Salmon Chase to form the Free Soil Party that summer. At this point, both Hale and King withdrew in favor of a Free Soil ticket led by former President Martin Van Buren, and the great majority of members of the Liberty Party followed them into the new political party. A small faction refused to support Van Buren for the presidency, however. They held another convention in June 1848 as the "National Liberty Party." Gerrit Smith was nominated almost unanimously with Charles Foote, a religious minister from Michigan, as his running-mate.
The Native American Party, a precursor to the Know Nothings, which had split from the Whig Party in 1845, met in September 1847 in Philadelphia, where they nominated Zachary Taylor for president and Henry A. S. Dearborn of Massachusetts for vice-president. However, when the Whig Party nominated Taylor for the presidency with Millard Fillmore as his running mate the following year, this rendered his previous nomination moot and the Native American Party failed to make an alternate nomination.
The campaign was fought without much enthusiasm, and practically without an issue. Neither of the two great parties made an effort to rally the people to the defense of any important principle.
Whig campaigners, who included Abraham Lincoln and Rutherford B. Hayes, talked up Taylor's "antiparty" opposition to the Jacksonian commitment to the spoils system and yellow-dog partisanship. In the South, they stressed that he was a Louisiana slaveholder, while in the North they highlighted his Whiggish willingness to defer to Congress on major issues (which he subsequently did not do).
Democrats repeated, as they had for many years, their opposition to a national bank, high tariffs, and federal subsidies for local improvements. The Free Soilers branded both major parties lackeys of the Slave Arm, arguing that the rich planters controlled the agenda of both parties, leaving the ordinary white man out of the picture. They had to work around Van Buren's well-known reputation for compromising with slavery.
The Whigs had the advantage of highlighting Taylor's military glories. With Taylor remaining vague on the issues, the campaign was dominated by personalities and personal attacks, with the Democrats calling Taylor vulgar, uneducated, cruel and greedy, and the Whigs attacking Cass for graft and dishonesty. The division of the Democrats over slavery allowed Taylor to dominate the Northeast.
The Free Soilers were on the ballots in only 17 of the 29 states with the popular vote, making it mathematically possible for Van Buren to win the presidency, but he had no real chance. Still, the party campaigned vigorously, particularly in the traditional Democrat strongholds in the northeast.
While some Free Soilers were hopeful of taking enough states to throw the election into the House of Representatives, Van Buren himself knew this was a long shot and that the best that his party could do was lay the groundwork for a hopefully improved showing in 1852.
Political cartoon about the election campaign, titled "Shooting the Christmas Turkey"
"Grand Presidential sweep-stakes" - political cartoon of the three main candidates
- weber, balmer and; h., weber, c. "Image 1 of Fort Harrison march".
With Taylor as their candidate, the Whigs won their second and last victory in a Presidential election. Taylor won the electoral college by capturing 163 of the 290 electoral votes. However, the popular vote was close. Although Taylor out-polled Cass in the popular vote by 138,000 votes, he came 79,000 votes shy of a majority. Thus, with 47% of the popular vote, Taylor was elected as a minority president.
A study of the county returns reveals that Free Soil strength drawn at the expense of the major parties differed by region. In the East North Central States, it appears at least the majority of the Free Soil strength was drawn from the Whig Party.
Conversely, in the Middle Atlantic region, Free Soil bases of strength lay in the areas which had hitherto been Democratic, particularly in New York and northern Pennsylvania. The Free Soil Democrats nomination of Van Buren made the victory of Taylor nearly certain in New York. On election day, enough Democratic votes were drawn away by Van Buren to give the Whig ticket all but two Democratic counties, thus enabling it to carry hitherto impregnable parts of upper New York state. The Democrats, confronted with an irreparable schism in New York, lost the election.
In New England, the Democratic vote declined by 33,000 from its 1844 level, while the Whig vote likewise declined by 15,000 votes. The third-party vote tripled, and the total vote remained nearly stationary—a partial indication, perhaps, of the derivation of the Free Soil strength in this section. For the first time since the existence of the Whig Party, the Whigs failed to gain an absolute majority of the vote in Massachusetts and Vermont. In addition, the Democrats failed to retain their usual majority in Maine; thus only New Hampshire (Democratic) and Rhode Island (Whig) of the states in this section gave their respective victorious parties clear-cut majorities.
Of the 1,464 counties/independent cities making returns, Cass placed first in 753 (51.43%), Taylor in 676 (46.17%), and Van Buren in 31 (2.12%). Four counties (0.27%) in the West split evenly between Taylor and Cass. This was the first time in the Second Party System in which the victorious party failed to gain at least a plurality of the counties as well as of the popular vote.
As one historian remarks, somewhat sarcastically, practically the only thing it decided was that a Whig general should be made President because he had done effective work in carrying on a Democratic war.
|Presidential candidate||Party||Home state||Popular vote(a)|| Electoral
|Count||Pct||Vice-presidential candidate||Home state||Elect. vote|
|Zachary Taylor||Whig||Louisiana||1,361,393||47.3%||163||Millard Fillmore||New York||163|
|Lewis Cass||Democratic||Michigan||1,223,460||42.5%||127||William Orlando Butler||Kentucky||127|
|Martin Van Buren||Free Soil||New York||291,501||10.1%||0||Charles Francis Adams, Sr.||Massachusetts||0|
|Gerrit Smith||Liberty||New York||2,545||0.1%||0||Charles C. Foote||Michigan||0|
|Needed to win||146||146|
Source (Popular Vote): Leip, David. "1848 Presidential Election Results". Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. Retrieved July 27, 2005. Source (Electoral Vote): "Electoral College Box Scores 1789–1996". National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved July 31, 2005. (a) The popular vote figures exclude South Carolina where the Electors were chosen by the state legislature rather than by popular vote.
Geography of results
Map of presidential election results by county.
Map of Whig presidential election results by county.
Map of Democratic presidential election results by county.
Map of Free Soil presidential election results by county.
Map of Liberty presidential election results by county.
Map of "Other" presidential election results by county.
Cartogram of presidential election results by county.
Cartogram of Whig presidential election results by county.
Cartogram of Democratic presidential election results by county.
Cartogram of Free Soil presidential election results by county.
Cartogram of Liberty presidential election results by county.
Cartogram of "Other" presidential election results by county.
Results by state
This was the first election where the two leading candidates each carried half of the states. As of 2012, it has subsequently happened just once, in 1880. Source: Data from Walter Dean Burnham, Presidential ballots, 1836–1892 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1955) pp 247–57.
| Zachary Taylor
| Lewis Cass
| Martin Van Buren
|North Carolina||11||44,054||55.17||11||35,772||44.80||-||no ballots||79,826||NC|
|South Carolina||9||no popular vote||no popular vote||9||no popular vote||-||SC|
Electoral college selection
|Method of choosing electors||State(s)|
|Each Elector appointed by state legislature||South Carolina|
|Each Elector chosen by voters statewide||(all other States) *|
* Massachusetts law provided that the state legislature would choose the Electors if no slate of Electors could command a majority of voters statewide. In 1848, this provision was triggered.
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- History of the United States (1789–1849)
- Inauguration of Zachary Taylor
- Second Party System
- United States House of Representatives elections, 1848
- United States Senate elections, 1848
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- Election of 1848 in Counting the Votes