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Free Soil

Free Soil: The Election of 1848

Joseph G. Rayback
Copyright Date: 1970
Pages: 336
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    Free Soil
    Book Description:

    The presidential election of 1848, known as the Free Soil election, marked the emergence of antislavery sentiment as a determining political force on a national scale. In this book Joseph G. Rayback provides the first comprehensive history of the campaign and the election, documenting his analysis with contemporary letters and newspaper accounts.

    The progress of the campaign is examined in light of the Free Soil movement: agitation for Free Soil candidates and platforms at the national conventions proved ineffective, and the nominations of Zachary Taylor and Lewis Cass completed the major parties' alienation of the various antislavery groups. Thwarted in their attempts to capture the national parties, the Free-Soilers formed a massive coalition, which met in Buffalo, and formally created the Free Soil party, nominating their own candidate, ex-President Martin Van Buren. The Whigs and the Democrats, forced by the new party to take a position on the touchy slavery question, attempted to use Free Soil to elect their candidates -- in the North by claiming, it in the South by disclaiming it.

    Rayback concludes that the Free Soil election was one of the most significant in American history, a turning point in national politics that marked the end of the Jacksonian Era. Although Taylor was elected president, Van Buren took about ten percent of the popular vote away from the Whigs and the Democrats. It was the first presidential election in which a third party made substantial inroads on major party loyalties, one in which the electorate indicated a desire for a moderate solution to the problem of slavery extension -- a solution that was attempted by the Thirty-first Congress with its Compromise of 1850.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6443-4
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Chapter One The Early Contenders
    (pp. 1-22)

    The presidential campaign of 1848, like several presidential campaigns before and like most of those that followed, began almost as soon as the results of the election of 1844 were known. As might be expected, it began earliest among the close political friends and associates of former aspirants in the defeated party—among the Whigs who were unembarrassed by their own party leader in the White House, who might lay claim to future support.

    In a measure, Henry Clay, as the party’s latest candidate and as the Great Embodiment of Whig principles, had to be given consideration. Clay, however, had...

  5. Chapter Two The Wilmot Proviso
    (pp. 23-33)

    The event that caused the greatest change in the campaign was the introduction of the Wilmot Proviso late in the first session of the Twenty-ninth Congress. On 8 August 1846, President Polk requested Congress to appropriate $2 million to enable him to bring about a speedy termination of the war with Mexico. Since he expected that an adjustment of the boundary between the two republics would probably be the chief obstacle to establishment of a peace, he suggested that a settlement might be expedited if “we . . . pay a fair equivalent for any concessions which may be made...

  6. Chapter Three The Hero of Buena Vista
    (pp. 34-55)

    Credit for “discovering” Zachary Taylor at the head of the American army below the Rio Grande was claimed by several contemporary political leaders, among them John J. Crittenden, Alexander H. Stephens, and Thurlow Weed.¹ But the credit more rightfully belonged to the people. Taylor’s initial and apparently spectacular victories over Mexican forces at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma on 8 and 9 May 1846 made an instantaneous impression upon the popular mind.

    As early as 11 June a large meeting of New Jersey citizens gathered on the old battlefield at Trenton to name the hero as the “People’s...

  7. Chapter Four Antislavery Forces: The Democrats
    (pp. 56-80)

    The antislavery movement that developed in the Polk administration and became a major force in the presidential campaign of 1848 had diverse origins and motives. Much of the story is familiar. The movement became political in 1833 when the American Anti-Slavery Society started a petition campaign for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. When a Democratic House of Representatives—urged in part by southerners who were angered by the criticism of their peculiar institution and in part by those who wanted relief from the flood of petitions—adopted a resolution to table such petitions in 1836, the...

  8. Chapter Five Antislavery Forces: The Whigs
    (pp. 81-98)

    The development of an antislavery movement among northern Whigs during the Polk administration proceeded along somewhat different lines than it did among Democrats. In the early months of the new administration the antislavery passions which had been manifested over the Texas issue began to disappear from public view as Whigs recognized that they were “flogging a dead horse.” But the attitudes of antislavery Whigs did not change, and their constancy became evident in Massachusetts.

    In 1845, Bay State Whiggery was dominated by an uneasy coalition, divided by the ambitions of its important public figures : Abbott Lawrence and Nathan Appleton,...

  9. Chapter Six Antislavery Forces: The Liberty Men
    (pp. 99-112)

    While the nation focused its interest upon the threatening disarray of the Democratic and Whig parties during the crucial months of 1847, a significant crisis was also developing within the Liberty party. Abolitionist politicians had emerged from the contest of 1844 with cruelly disappointed hopes. Not only was their total of 62,000 votes lower than they had expected, but also, as many recognized, their impractical activities during that campaign seemed to have put future success out of reach. The party’s refusal to take a stand on the Texas issue had cost it votes which could never be recovered. Moreover, it...

  10. Chapter Seven Compromise and Evasion
    (pp. 113-130)

    In the latter part of 1847 even a casual observer of the political developments of the year would have concluded that the Wilmot Proviso was to become the issue upon which the next presidential election would be decided. TheSavannah Georgianstated the fact in the simplest terms: “The bank is dead, the sub-Treasury in most successful operation, the principles of free trade firmly established—all these subjects, for the time being at least, are laid upon the shelf. . . . The only great question before the country, therefore, is the Wilmot Proviso. This question will enter into the...

  11. Chapter Eight The Contest for Delegates: Democrats
    (pp. 131-144)

    In the early months of 1848 the question of which philosophies would control the Democratic and Whig parties in the approaching national conventions finally became inextricably mixed with the question of which contenders would control the majority of voting delegates. Thus it often becomes difficult to decide whether measures or men were more important and whether the two factors ever can be separated.

    The double uncertainty over issues and men was most acute among Democrats. They had been presented with four “solutions” to the issue of slavery in the territories: the Wilmot Proviso, the Buchanan suggestion for extension of the...

  12. Chapter Nine The Contest for Delegates: Whigs
    (pp. 145-170)

    The struggle for delegates among Whig candidates and their associates developed differently from that of the Democrats. In the early months of 1848 the party set aside its efforts to evade the Proviso and turned to indulge itself in the luxury of a battle to the death between Taylor and Clay forces.

    The attack of Taylor Whigs upon Clay’s candidacy began shortly after Clay’s trip to Cape May. The General’s campaign managers, who long before had concluded that the Kentuckian could not be a winning candidate, had confined their opinions to private communications as long as the old veteran remained...

  13. Chapter Ten The Rumble of Antislavery Revolt
    (pp. 171-185)

    While Democratic and Whig aspirants battled for convention delegates in the spring of 1848, antislavery elements in both parties were also developing plans of action. New York’s Barnburners produced the most spectacular series of events by indulging in a bitter feud with the Hunkers over the legitimate method of choosing delegates to the national convention.

    After they had adjourned at Herkimer in October 1847, the Barnburners issued a call for a state convention to meet in the same city on 22 February to name a delegation which would represent New York at Baltimore. The Barnburner-controlled legislative caucus of the Democratic...

  14. Chapter Eleven Baltimore & Philadelphia
    (pp. 186-200)

    In Baltimore, where “wave after wave of parched Locofocoism” began to gather at the taverns as early as 15 May, preconvention talk centered on the New York feud. Wild rumors, passed by reporters, delegates, and the ubiquitous hangers-on, filled the smoke-laden atmosphere of the city’s hostelries (where many tried to sleep eight to a room): the Barnburners had patched up their quarrel with the Hunkers; they were eager to be rejected in order to go home and nominate Old Zack ; Walker had signed over the Federal patronage to secure their support; Cass was trying to bag the Utica delegates...

  15. Chapter Twelve Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, & Free Men
    (pp. 201-230)

    Before the Philadelphia convention adjourned, the nation had begun to turn its attention to the antislavery Democrats, among whom the news of Cass’s nomination was greeted with marked hostility. As might be expected, reaction was strongest in New York, where the Barnburner delegates, determined to make no compromise with the “lords of the lash,” had returned immediately after their withdrawal from the Baltimore convention. Greeted by a gigantic throng at the New York City railway station, they had repaired to Central Park; with twelve thousand listening and shouting, they displayed their indignation and announced their determination to fight for their...

  16. Chapter Thirteen Slavery: The Issue
    (pp. 231-259)

    By the time the Free-Soilers had completed their organization, both major parties had entered the third month of their campaigns. Among regular Democrats the Cass nomination had met with high approval. The rejoicing was particularly evident in the Northwest, where journals such as theCleveland Plain Dealergreeted the news in big, bold headlines proclaiming “THE GREAT WEST TRIUMPHANT”; theIllinois State Registerreported that “no nomination” had ever been “hailed . . . with more cordial and genuine joy and enthusiasm.”¹ The DetroitFree Presssummarized the reasons for this western enthusiasm in ten succinct statements :


  17. Chapter Fourteen Final Complications
    (pp. 260-278)

    The intense preoccupation of all political parties with the problem of slavery did not completely preclude consideration of other issues. It was the northern Democrats, undoubtedly conscious that their party position on various economic issues of the past had won them power, who most often reminded the electorate that other issues besides slavery were involved in the outcome of the election. They warned that the silence of their opponents upon these questions did not mean that the old platforms had been abandoned. “The man who believes that the old issues between the two great parties in this country are not...

  18. Chapter Fifteen The Returns
    (pp. 279-287)

    It was nearly a week after election day before enough returns were gathered to reveal the outcome of the contest. During the interval, as reports from the “doubtful” states trickled in, it became evident that the Whig candidate would win “a splendid victory.” The final tabulation confirmed the result. Of 2,878,023 votes cast, Taylor polled 1,360, 967—47.28 percent of the popular vote. Cass secured 1,222,342—42.47 percent of the total. The electoral count was Taylor 163 votes, Cass 127 votes. Van Buren won 291,804 popular votes—10 percent of the total—but he failed by wide margins to carry...

  19. Chapter Sixteen The Reasons
    (pp. 288-302)

    As in all American elections the forces and factors that produced these results were many and complex. The most overwhelming and the most obvious, and yet the most easily overlooked in 1848, was the factor which losing candidates normally contemned as “blind obedience to party dictates.” Described more positively and more kindly, the most important factor affecting the Free Soil election was party loyalty. By 1848 both the Whig party and the Democratic party had won the affection and allegiance of large numbers of people. These people voted for Taylor because he was the candidate of the Whig party and...

  20. Chapter Seventeen The Significance of the Free Soil Election
    (pp. 303-310)

    The presidential election of 1848 was significant, as most presidential elections are significant, because of its effect on party structure, because of what it revealed of the people’s attitude, and because of what it suggested concerning the future course of parties and of the nation’s policies.

    The Free Soil election revealed that both major parties were approaching, if they were not already in, a state of crisis. That conclusion is apparent from a careful examination of the election returns.

    Whig managers could easily perceive that Taylor’s “glorious victory” contained some alarming aspects. Despite his brave showing, Taylor secured a smaller...

  21. Note on Sources
    (pp. 311-316)
  22. Index
    (pp. 317-326)