The Election of 1836...

So the stage is set. Taylor gets the nod, largely backed by southern support. The growing abolitionist sense of the party never could coalesce due to the need to court southern support, but in early ballots Taylor was largely opposed by northern states. Eventually he did outlast his rivals, including the antislavery war hero Winfield Scott. Picking a decorated soldier was a political calculation. The Whigs, opposed to the war, had been confronted with a problem. The Democratic leadership was popular, the country doing well, and the war had been a smashing success. So despite their strong opposition to things like manifest destiny they gave it up, knowing that maintaining opposition to the popular war was a death sentence.

But it was still an imbalanced nomination, with the bulk of Taylor’s support being from the south. Let it never be said that the compromise candidate really mollified the party rifts. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth from northern Whigs followed, decrying how this represented an end to the nascent abolitionist movement for the party.

To placate the northerners the party picked New York Whig, and anti slavery politician, Millard Fillmore. A man with experience at both state and federal levels, currently serving as comptroller of New York. Figuring his experience and more traditional party values could sand off the edges of the rough and ready Major General.

His opponent on the Democrat ticket was Lewis Cass, a Michigan man whom was suspected of pro slavery leanings, or at the very least was not anti slavery. And so we loop back to the election of 1836. Remember the man who actually won? Martin Van Buren? That guy served a single term, but remained popular. He had sought reelection in 1840, but lost, and candidacy in 1844, but was rebuffed in favor of Polk, whom had promised to only serve a single term to placate divisions in the party. True to his word Polk stepped aside in 1848. Van Buren, pushing for an anti slavery platform, tried to secure the nomination but lost. Upset over this he and his supporters formed the Free Soil party, free soil being free states naturally.

This new party did draw from both anti slavery Democrats and northern Whigs. Now the truth of the matter is that Van Buren had never pursued a policy of strict anti slavery, but he did capitalize on that sentiment.

The election did put the contradictions in both parties into sharp relief. Abraham Lincoln campaigned for Taylor and the Whigs in the north on the basis of reducing partisanship and reduction of the executive, in the south the Whig campaign played up his slave ownership.

Taylor’s campaign had to fight against the man himself at times, with Fillmore acting as a handler of sorts. Taylors independence and lack of party discipline led to a decline in the tickets prospects. But careful grooming, in the form of the, now dubbed, Allison Letters, aided the campaign. Promising to be “president of the whole people” and how he would follow “good Whig doctrine”.

In the end it was a fight between two unpopular compromise candidates. Now I’m going to pull a quote from Wikipedia, which is attributed to Joel Silbey in Party Over Section: The Rough and Ready Presidential Election of 1848:

And remember Van Buren and the Free Soil party?

See their green streaks by Chicago, Upstate New York, and northern Ohio? They won no states, but they did win some pretty big population centers. Their total of the vote was around 10%, and didn’t swing any states by taking counties, but certainly took enough of the vote to have an impact. They also got two senators and 14 members of Congress, so they were ok in the end.

In the end both Cass and Taylor took 15 states, but Taylor had enough electoral votes to get the nod. Texas, Iowa, and Wisconsin combined were worth only what Kentucky was. To top it off voter participation dropped 6%, from 78% to 72%.

Once in office Taylor wasn’t the candidate they thought they’d get though. The abstaining from signing a party platform, lack of committed political principles, and general cantankerousness caused rifts in the party that never healed. Taylor’s role in the compromise of 1850, his various proposals (such as two free super states created out of all unaligned territory) bucked party leadership and the passive executive that he had campaigned on. Slave owners felt betrayed by not pushing for more slave friendly policy.

In the end the party would ultimately fracture and dissolve. The south largely being absorbed by the officially pro slave Democrats, the north joining with the Free Soil into the new Republican party. Though the Compromise of 1850 would temporarily relieve the pressure, it was only a partial measure that kicked the can a decade. In 1852 the Whigs lost decisively, and the deaths of party luminaries Cass and Daniel Webster meant that, ultimately, the party officially dissolved in 1854.