With the Mexican-American War well underway, the midterm elections in 1846-47 were bound to be consequential.
By this time, both the Whigs and the Democrats had factions emerging in their respective parties. In the Democratic Party, the Van Burenites or Jacksonian Democrats were called “Barnburners,” while supporters of President James Polk were called “Hunkers,” as they “‘hunkered’ after offices that only Washington could bestow.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 770 quoting Michael Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party (New York, 1999), 238-45.
The Whig Party had divided between the “Conscience” Whigs and the “Cotton” Whigs, which would remain divided until Abraham Lincoln brought them back together under the new Republican Party. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 769.
Despite these divisions, the Whigs were united in their opposition to President Polk’s policies, and as it turned out, a good portion of the American voting population agreed with the Whigs. The midterm elections came at a time where the Democrats held the House of Representatives with 143 representatives to the Whigs’ 77 representatives. Id. The midterm elections would give the Whigs a narrow majority, 115 to 108. Id.
The Democrats were not completely defeated, however, as they made gains in the Senate. See id. For some Democrats, like former president Van Buren, this was purely a byproduct of the Mexican-American War. Id. The Whigs had sold the idea that the war was “waged for the extension of slavery,” and the public appeared to be in broad agreement with that sentiment. See id. quoting Van Buren, quoted in Michael Holt, The Fate of Their Country (New York, 2004), 18.
President Polk was left to justifying the war he created, dedicating a significant portion of his Annual Message to Congress to the issue. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 769. The Whigs had damaged the administration’s strength and put President Polk on the defensive.
The Whigs had tapped into public opinion and adopted policies that were not only populist but were also sound. The Democrats had spent a sizable amount of their capital pursuing and justifying the Mexican-American War, which, whatever its purpose, the Whigs were repackaging into being a war to extend slavery.
Notably, these developments were happening at a time where the political parties were subdividing into factions. These factions, while resolutely adherent to the broader political party, may be the key to the American political system historically having just two major political parties. When passions arise and consensus builds within a party as to policy, there will inevitably be some that have varying levels of disagreement. But the strength of the party as a whole remains, as the factions come and go, along with the issues that spark their creation.
Even with factions arising in both the Whig and Democratic parties, the Whigs were positioning themselves to outmaneuver the Democrats and to undermine support for President Polk’s war.