Election of 1848: The Candidates

The Whig Ticket for President, Zachary Taylor, and Vice President, Millard Fillmore.

The Election of 1848 was bound to be unique, as President James Polk had made clear that he would serve only one term as president. With that, the Whigs and the Democrats had to put forth candidates that could meet the parties’ respective goals of reversing President Polk’s policies (the Whigs) and expanding on President Polk’s policies (the Democrats).

Some Whigs had hoped to nominate Henry Clay, who had been one of the most articulate Whigs since the inception of the party. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 828. However, others wanted a new face to the party, including Representative Abraham Lincoln. See id. Clay had opposed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the treaty that ended the Mexican-American War, and when the treaty was ratified, it was a blow to Clay’s credibility. See id.

Many Whigs believed that Winfield Scott, with all his military accomplishments in the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War would be a wise choice. However, President Polk’s attacks on Scott admittedly had an effect on his reputation, and Scott exacerbated the situation with some unfortunate public comments as well. See id.

On the fourth ballot of the Whig convention in Philadelphia, the Whigs nominated Zachary Taylor, the old military hero of the Mexican-American War, a war the Whigs opposed. See id. at 828-29. Known as “Old Rough and Ready,” the Whigs supposed that he would be a strong repudiation of President Polk’s policies for the preceding four years, while minimizing any sectional tension. See id. at 829.

On the Democratic side, there had been a shift in policies during the Polk administration, which would give an advantage to the Democrats. A movement within the Democratic Party called “Young America” advocated for infrastructure improvements throughout the country at the hands of private enterprise, not public-private corporations. See id. Whereas the Whigs had previously been appealing to businesses, the Democrats now had a strong grip on business interests.

At the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore, the Democrats nominated Lewis Cass of Michigan. Id. at 830. He was an ideal continuation of President Polk’s policies, as he embraced imperialism. He had a proven record of this through his role as President Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of War, where he enforced the removal of Native Americans, and more recently, his fight to annex more territory of Mexico in the wake of the Mexican-American War. See id. He believed that America’s “safety-valve” was an “unlimited power of expansion,” as it bolstered America’s economic and political strength. See id. quoting Thomas Hietala, “This Splendid Juggernaut,” Manifest Destiny and Empire, ed. Sam Haynes and Christopher Morris (College Station, Tex., 1997), 58 (internal quotations omitted).

The two major parties had nominated their best candidates, both hoping to frame President Polk’s tenure as president in the most favorable light for them. The Whigs sought to eliminate imperialistic tendencies and garner support for the old military hero, who effectively did not have a political record. Meanwhile, the Democrats felt confident that their candidate, who had been active in politics since the 1810s, would be an agent of continuation for the Democrats.

The Whigs, who had only elected one president to the White House, William Henry Harrison, hoped to establish a presidency that would finally put a stop to the Democratic policies that had come to dominate the country. As President Polk sought to use the powers of his office to expand the country and embrace slavery, the Whigs knew they must reverse course or there may be no turning back.

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