The Election of 1852

President Franklin Pierce. By: George P.A. Healy.

With the first term of Millard Fillmore’s presidency winding down in 1852, the Democrats felt a sense of momentum that they could reclaim the White House. In the midterm elections of 1850, the Democrats secured 140 of the 233 seats in the House of Representatives, eclipsing the Whig Party. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 141.

The Whigs had held the White House since 1848, with President Zachary Taylor sweeping into the White House, dying shortly thereafter, and President Fillmore carrying the mantle of the Whig Party for the following three years. With the Election of 1852 approaching, the Whigs were the underdogs. They were members of a younger party, attempting to establish a lasting presence in Washington through challenging the policies of the Democrats.

Campaign Poster for Democratic Ticket, Election of 1852.

The Democrats had several notable candidates for the nomination. Lewis Cass of Michigan wanted to redeem himself after his defeat in 1848 to Zachary Taylor. Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois presented a formidable opponent, however, and one that was becoming a national figure. New York’s favorite son, William Marcy, who was Secretary of State under President James Polk, was an underdog. James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, future president, was also a candidate and one who was known as a “Northern man with Southern principles,” and had earned a significant backing. See id.; Roy F. Nichols, The Democratic Machine, 1850-1854 (New York, 1923) 15-168. There was no clear favorite for the nomination, and the divisions within the Democratic Party looked likely to bubble to the surface.

Lewis Cass.

Baltimore hosted the Democratic convention in May of 1852. In the first 49 roll calls, “Cass, Douglas, and Buchanan successively held the lead in balloting,” but none obtained the two-thirds necessary to secure the nomination. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 141-42. When the balloting began, Cass, Douglas, and Marcy faced an uphill battle with delegates from the South as they were known to value popular sovereignty, toxic to the southern way of thinking. See id. at 142. Similarly, northerners resolved not to allow Buchanan, a man who treasured southern values, to become the candidate for the party. See id.

The deadlock was resolved when a dark horse candidate, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire, came forward. His friends in New Hampshire, as well as southern delegates who believed he would be an ideal candidate, marketed him to the convention. With no other viable option, he became the nominee for the Democratic Party. The platform for the party centered on a pledge to “abide by and adhere to a faithful execution of the acts known as the Compromise measures . . . the act for reclaiming fugitives included,” and to “forestall any renewal of the slavery agitation.” Id. at 142 quoting Proceedings of the Democratic National Convention, 1852 (n.p., 1856).

Winfield Scott, nicknamed “Old Fuss and Feathers.”

The Whigs, in their convention, had to grapple with a significant amount of fracturing in their party as well. There was a split in the party amongst those who supported the outgoing president, Millard Fillmore, and those who supported William Seward, a prominent New York politician and Senator from New York. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 142. The result was the nomination of Winfield Scott, the war hero of the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War, nicknamed “Old Fuss and Feathers.” At a time when the Whigs needed a unifying candidate, pompous Old Fuss and Feathers did more damage than good. His prominent military reputation worked for him, but the Democrats had undermined his electability just a matter of years before, during the Mexican-American War. That undermining stopped Scott from getting the Whig nomination for president in the Election of 1848 and provided an inauspicious aura for his candidacy in the Election of 1852.

Pierce won the election, 254 electoral votes to 42 electoral votes. See id. at 143. He carried 27 of 31 states, a resounding victory and the largest one since the days of President James Monroe. With his successful election to the presidency, it was all but ensured that the issue of slavery would be suppressed and the Compromise of 1850‘s terms would not be revisited.

In this sense, Democrats were inspired, as they wanted to remove the slavery question from politics altogether so as to preserve the institution and prevent the South from taking rash action. This development was deflating for the antislavery movement, who had a collective hope to revisit and settle the question of slavery after agreeing to a temporary cease-fire in the Compromise of 1850. In the “antislavery crusade,” this was the “lowest point yet,” but those opposed to slavery would be able to collect themselves and redouble their efforts, despite there being a Democratic president and Congress. Id. quoting Martin B. Duberman, Charles Francis Adams, 1807-1886 (Boston, 1961), 179.

These developments occurred on a changed political landscape. Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, two bastions of oratory and of preserving the Union, had died. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 143. While the facade of public discourse appeared to be the same, churning underneath for both the North and the South were pernicious views about the future. Northerners, despite agreeing to the perpetuation of slavery in the Compromise of 1850, knew that it was an untenable long-term position. Likewise, southerners knew that if slavery were eliminated, as many northerners wished, secession would not only be the best option; it would be the only realistic option.


  1. jeffersonstclair

    Love presidential and campaign history, especially from this era. I’ve written a couple of profiles of John Tyler and Martin Van Buren, in addition to the Adams/Jefferson battles and Garfield’s dark horse bid for president that you might enjoy. Thanks for sharing.

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