Election of 1848: The Barnburners

A Political Cartoon Regarding the Barnburners.

Approaching the Election of 1848, President James Polk did not have unanimous support amongst Democrats. In fact, quite the opposite.

Despite the fact that President Polk vowed to only serve one term as president, he had stirred signifiant discontent in the Democratic Party with his policies. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 831.

Whereas northern Democrats had given President Polk significant support throughout his term as president, by the end of his term, they “felt they had received little or nothing.” Id. The Democrats who had supported Martin Van Buren just a matter of years prior had become disenchanted with President Polk and his brand of Democratic politics. See id.

This anger culminated in the Van Burenite faction of the Democrats breaking away and calling themselves “Barnburners.” Id. This name derived from “the legendary New York Dutch farmer stupid enough to burn down his barn in order to drive the rats out of it.” Id. citing Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy (New York, 2005), 583; Joel Silbey, Storm Over Texas (Oxford, 2005), 99-111.

The Barnburners, the “Conscience” faction of the Whigs, and the small Liberty Party, held their own convention in Buffalo, New York in August 1848 to nominate their own candidate for president. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 831. The convention nominated Van Buren for president, with a platform centered on opposition to slavery and endorsement of improving infrastructure. See id. at 831-32.

While Van Buren would not come close to winning the election, the platform that the convention created would be remarkably similar to that of the Republican Party a decade later, which would win the presidency with Abraham Lincoln. See id. at 832.

The politics of the Election of 1848 set up the dynamics that would play out before the Civil War. While the Democrats regressed in their policies, both the Whigs and the third parties were more in tune with the needs and wants of ordinary Americans. The factions breaking out in the Democratic Party particularly reflected those regressive policies, and just a short decade later, the Democrats would be on the verge of extinction.

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