Podcast – The 1848 Election

The 1848 Election

The 1848 Election

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From the Book:
A Short History of United States Politics – Book 1
The issue of slavery rose to the surface for the first time as a major issue in the election 1848. This episode relates the events of that election.

1848 Election
The Issues
The slavery issue took its place front and center during the 1848 election. Since the previous election in 1844 the a large portion of the Oregon Country had entered the country as a territory and Texas had been annexed. Additionally, President James Polk had successfully waged the Mexican War and forced Mexico to cede a large region of land that would become the Southwestern United States. Questions over whether states formed from these vast territories would be slave or free states raged across the political landscape. In 1846 Democratic Pennsylvania Representative named David Wilmot had formulated a compromise bill that would become known as the Wilmont Proviso that promised a solution to the dilemma, however Congress refused to enact the measure that would become part of the political debate of the election.

In 1846, war between Mexico and the United States broke out following several incidents between the two nations. The United States pursued a doctrine called Manifest Destiny, which called for expansion and occupation of territory from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Mexico controlled a large portion of this territory. Mexico won its long, draining War of Independence from Spain in 1821. The war left Mexico politically divided and weak. Much of the territory it controlled it was unable to govern. Native tribes like the Comanche and Apaches raided deep into Mexico, stealing cattle and burning ranches. Texas won its independence in 1836. Mexico threatened war with the United States if it annexed its former territory. In 1845, the United States annexed Texas after James Polk won the 1844 election. The United States offered to buy the huge territory that now consists of the states of California, Arizona, and New Mexico. Mexico refused, so Polk sent troops into a disputed territory between the two countries. When a Mexican unit attacked it and killed about a dozen United States soldiers, the United States declared war on May 13, 1846. This would be the first United States Military campaign fought exclusively on foreign soil. The war was quick, as Mexico was in no position to fight an emerging power. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo saw Mexico cede a huge territory to the United States in exchange for 15 million dollars and the assumption of Mexico’s debt owed to United States citizens.

Pennsylvania Democrat David Wilmot introduced an amendment to the bill that provided the funds to pay Mexico for the land acquired under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The House, dominated by northern anti-slavery Representatives, adopted both the bill and the proviso on August 8, 1846. The Senate adjourned without debating the measure. The Senate, more equally divided between slave and free states, approved the bill but rejected the proviso on February 1, 1847. If enacted, the proviso would have forbidden any expansion of slavery into any territory acquired under the treaty. The Proviso provided another line of division between the northern anti-slavery states and the southern slave states. Even though Congress did not pass the bill, it provided fodder for the campaign of 1848.
The Parties of 1848 consisted of the Whig, Democratic, Free Soil Party, and Liberty parties.

The Liberty Party held its last nominating convention in October 1847. The party nominated Gerrit Smith for President, however the party only managed to get on the ballot in four states. A notable point is that the first black, a freed slave named Frederick Douglass became the first black to receive a vote to become a nominee for President for the party.
Frederick Douglass (c.1818 – February 20, 1895)
Born into slavery on a plantation in Talbot County, Maryland, Douglas was the son of Harriet Bailey, a slave. She gave him the name, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. His owner’s wife, Sophia Auld, started teaching him to read and write, but had to stop under her husband’s orders. He managed to continue learning to read and write on his own. He escaped with the aid of a free black woman, Anna Murray in 1838, whom he later married. The couple settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts where he joined the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The couple adopted the surname Douglass as their married name. Douglass became an ordained minister in 1839. He became well known for his oratory as he began traveling to abolitionist meetings. The American Anti-Slavery Society invited him to participate in their “Hundred Conventions” project. He accepted the invitation.
American Anti-Slavery Society
Founded in 1833 by abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Arthur Tappan, the Society became one of the leading anti-slavery organizations. Frederick Douglass became one of its leaders. The Society was controversial because of its views. Because slavery had become so enmeshed in the nation’s economy, abolishing it would have major economic repercussions. Thus, their efforts to abolish it were often met with violence.

The six month tour included speaking engagements throughout the Midwest and New England states. During this tour violence broke out frequently, as was the case at Pendleton, Indiana, where rioters almost killed Douglass.

The first Quakers, or Friends as they refer to themselves, migrated into the Pendleton area in 1833 when Jonathan Thomas visited the area. He went on to found the Fall Creek Friends. The society built the Fall Creek Meeting House in 1836. The Fall Creek Friends became active in the abolition movement.

The meeting was too large for the Meeting House to host, so the Friends had advertised to rent a building. None were offered, so the Friends elected to hold the event in a grove in an orchard near the falls of Falls Creek. Workers erected a platform and the crowd gathered. Not all were there to hear the speakers talk. During one of the speeches, violence broke out from a mob of about sixty men that had gathered. The mob attacked the speakers and Frederick Douglas landed on the ground. One attacker raised an iron bar to strike him on the head, but one of the Friends managed to shove Douglass to safety. The mob began throwing rocks as Douglass and the others ran. As they jumped over a rail fence, one rock struck Douglass, knocking him unconscious. A number of Friends grabbed him and helped him escape to a nearby farm house, where they cared for him. He suffered cuts to the face and head and a badly broken hand. the hand never healed properly, leaving him with an injury that would plague him the rest of his life.

In the following years Douglass authored three books, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass published in 1892.

Douglass traveled to Europe in 1845 at the insistence of friends that feared his owners, attracted to his fame, would attempt to take their property back. Douglass voyaged to England where he would stay for two years. During that time he traveled extensively in Ireland and England giving speeches. A fundraising effort by his supporters there raised enough money for them to purchase his freedom.

In 1847 he returned to the United States to reside in Rochester, New York. He started an abolitionist newsletter called the North Star with funds donated by his Irish and English supporters. He entered the arena of women’s rights in 1848 when the attended the first women’s rights convention, the Seneca Falls Convention. He became the first black to receive a vote from a political party, the Liberty Party, during their 1848 Presidential nominating convention.
Douglass would continue to deliver eloquent speeches and write in favor of emancipation for blacks and women’s rights in the years before and after the Civil War. In 1874 he moved to Washington DC where he would live in a home overlooking the Anacostia River he would call Cedar Hill. Douglass passed away while attending a National Council of Women meeting on February 20, 1895. He is interred in Mount Hope Cemetery, near Rochester, New York.

Founded in 1848 as an anti-slavery party, the Free Soil Party existed from 1848 through 1854, when the new Republican Party absorbed it. The party comprised anti-slavery Whigs and Democrats. The party was strongest in New York, but existed in several others. The Free Soil Party opposed extending slavery into the territories. The party nominated candidates for President and Vice-President two different times. In 1848, the party nominated Martin Van Buren as President and Charles Francis Adams as Vice President. The ticket garnered no electoral votes, polling at around 10%. In 1852, the party nominated John P. Hale as President and George Washington Julian as Vice President. The ticket this time dropped to less than 5% of the vote. The party did elect two Senators and sixteen representatives to Congress before fading away in 1854.

The Election of 1848
The Candidates
President – Zachary Taylor (
Vice President – Millard Fillmore
President – Lewis Cass
Vice President – William O. Butler
Free Soil
President – Martin Van Buren
Vice President – Charles Francis Adams

Zachary Taylor (November 24, 1784 – July 9, 1850)
The son of Richard and Sarah Dabney Strother Taylor, Zachary was born on a plantation in Orange County, Virginia. The family migrated to Kentucky shortly after his birth. On the Kentucky frontier near Louisville, his early education was spotty. His mother taught him to read and write and he attended formal schools only briefly and sporadically.
Military Career and Marriage
He enlisted as a first lieutenant of the Kentucky Seventh Infantry Regiment. He received a commission in the United States Army in 1807. He was deployed to New Orleans where he became ill and was sent home to Louisville. I’m May 1808 he received appointment as a captain. He married Margaret Mackall Smith a month later. The couple would have six children. During these years in Louisville, he acquired several farms and a plantation that included about 200 slaves.

In July 1811 he was awarded command of Fort Knox, which was north of Vincennes in the Indiana Territory. The previous commander had deserted, leaving the garrison in disarray. He restored discipline in just a few short weeks leading Indiana Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison to commend him for his actions. He did not participate in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in November as he had traveled to Washington, DC to testify in the court martial of General James Wilkinson.

Over the next years he served as commander of various garrisons in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Kansas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Florida and Texas. He commanded troops in the Black Hawk War and the Second Seminole War. His habit of living with his troops and sharing their hardships earned him the nickname of Old Rough and Ready.

In the years prior to the Mexican/American War Taylor received a steady stream of promotions from his success in driving the Mexican army from Texas as they attempted to reclaim the region. His success at the Battle of Palo Alto and the nearby Battle of Resaca de la Palma, beating the Mexican Army even though he was badly outnumbered, he gained promotion to major general. He gained national acclaim during the Mexican-American War as the commander of the United States Army during that war. His actions in the war led him to become the only person to receive three Congressional Gold Medals.
Taylor had little interest in politics, however his national fame made him an attractive candidate for higher office. The Whig party managed to persuade him to accept their nomination for President of the United States in 1848.

Millard Fillmore (January 7, 1800 – March 8, 1874)
The son of Phoebe and Nathaniel Fillmore, Millard was native to Moravia, New York. Born in a log cabin, Fillmore’s family experienced severe poverty when he was a child. His father apprenticed him to a cloth maker, who failed to teach him the trade. His father next got him a job at a cloth mill. During slow times at the mill, Millard borrowed books from a circulating library and spent his spare time reading. He also enrolled at a local academy. In the following years he studied law with an attorney, taught school and practiced as a justice of the peace. He gained admittance to the New York bar in 1823 and opened a practice in East Aurora, New York. He and Abigail Powers married in 1826. The couple would have two children. In 1829 he successfully ran for the New York Assembly on the Anti-Masonic party, where he would serve until 1831. At the end of his third one year term, he declined to run for reelection and instead opted to move to Buffalo and open a law practice. In 1832 he mounted a successful bid for election to the United States House of Representatives. After taking his seat, he became a supporter of the Whig party, however he declined the invitation to run on the ticket in 1834. He gained election to the House or Representatives as a Whig in 1836. Fillmore declined to run again in 1846 and returned Buffalo. He continued his law practice and remained active in politics. During his time in the House he had attained a national stature. The Whig nominated him as their vice presidential candidate in the 1848 elections.
Lewis Cass (October 9, 1782 – June 17, 1866)
The son of Jonathan Cass, and Mary Gilman Cass, Lewis was native to Exeter, New Hampshire. The family migrated to Marietta, Ohio in 1800. He married Elizabeth Spencer in 1806. He served in the War of 1812 in the 3rd Ohio Volunteer Regiment. Cass rose in rank, achieving brigadier general in 1813. After the Battle of the Thames, Cass resigned his commission and accepted the position of Territorial Governor of Michigan, a post he held until 1831. President Andrew Jackson appointed him as Secretary of War in 1831. Jackson appointed Cass as the United States Minister to France on October 4, 1836. Upon his return to the United States in 1842 the Democratic Party briefly considered him in 1844, however James Polk received the nomination instead. The Michigan assembly elected him to the United States Senate in 1845, where he would serve until he resigned to accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States.

William Butler (April 19, 1791 – August 6, 1880)
The son of Percival and Mildred Hawkins Butler, William was native to Jessamine County, Kentucky. He attended Transylvania University, graduating in 1812. He began studying law, however the War of 1812 broke out and he enlisted in the 5th Regiment, Kentucky Volunteers. He received transfer, with rank of ensign, to the 17th Regiment, United States Infantry. He fought at the Battle of Raisin River in January 1813, where he was captured. Carried to Detroit, the British paroled him. He reenlisted upon arriving home, fought in the October 5, 1813 Battle of the Thames. For his actions during the battle he received promotion to colonel. He later participated in the Battle of New Orleans. After the war he attained admission to the bar and opened a practice in Carrolton, Kentucky. He gained election to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1817, serving until 1818 when voters chose him to represent them in the United States House of Representatives. He ran an unsuccessful campaign as a Democrat for governor of Kentucky in 1844. The Democratic Party chose Butler as their Vice Presidential candidate in 1848.

Charles Francis Adams (August 18, 1807 – November 21, 1886)
The son of John Quincy and Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, Charles was native to Boston, Massachusetts. During much of his youth Charles accompanied his parents to Europe while his father served in various diplomatic posts. Upon the family’s return, he attended Boston Latin School after which he enrolled in Harvard College. He graduated in 1825 after which he studied law, attaining his law degree and opened a practice in Boston in 1829. Adams ran for the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1840, winning three consecutive terms. In 1845 he returned to the Massachusetts Assembly as a Senator, serving from 1843 – 1845. The next year he a newspaper called the Boston Whig, of which he became the editor. The Free Soil Party chose him as its Vice Presidential candidate in the 1848 election.

The Campaign
The Democratic Party was divided over the slavery issue, mostly along sectional lines. In the north, Democrats struggled with the issue, but were mainly opposed. In the south Democrats embraced the practice and advocated for its expansion into the territories. The Whigs danced around the issue. They nominated popular war hero Zachary Taylor, who mainly avoided the slavery question as well as discussing any other political issue. The Free Soil Party attacked both the Whigs and the Democrats as hypocrites, as in the northern states both Whigs and Democrats expressed support for the Wilmot Proviso while in the south they promoted the expansion of slavery into the territories. The Whigs had nominated a slave holder for President, a fact they promoted in the south.

Electoral results
President – Party – Home state – Popular vote – Electoral
Zachary Taylor – Whig – Louisiana – 1,361,393 – 163
Lewis Cass – Democratic – Michigan – 1,223,460 – 127
Martin Van Buren – Free Soil – New York – 291,501 – 0
Gerrit Smith – Liberty – New York – 2,545 – 0

This story is excerpted from my book, A Short History of United States Politics Book 1, which is part of my United States History Series. You can find the book on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and other online retailers in both ebook and softbound format. You can also find the book on my website, http://www.mossyfeetbooks.com. You can contact me at mossyfeetbooks@gmail.com
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