Presidential Campaigns, 1840-1860
by R.D. Monroe, Ph.D.
Table of Contents
Traditionally, the election of 1840 has been presented as an issueless election which the Whigs won by imitating successful Democratic tactics of mass political appeal—sloganeering, parades, aggressive organizing, rallies, campaign newspapers, and pamphlets. The Whig candidate was a military hero (like Andrew Jackson) who lacked a record on controversial political topics. While ignoring the issues and conducting a campaign of bogus symbols and distractions, Whigs smeared Democratic president Martin Van Buren as an effete and immoral Eastern sophisticate who had turned the White House into a salon for illicit pleasures.
In fact, though the Whigs did indeed nominate a former general, William Henry Harrison, for president, issues did play a very important role. Whig pamphlets of the era reveal great emphasis on political policies, specifically remedying the economic depression of 1837 through positive economic legislation and reining in the perceived abuses of federal power of Andrew Jackson's presidency and its ideological sequel, the Van Buren presidency. Jackson, according to the Whigs, had wrecked the economy with his anti-bank and hard money policies and Van Buren continued those policies. The economic depression that followed in the wake of the Panic of 1837 lent great weight to the argument. Both Democrats and Whigs fought over whom was the better republican, portraying their foes as neo-monarchists. In Illinois Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas engaged in a number of debates on those issues, a modest precursor to their monumental contest of 1858.
To choose Harrison, Whigs abandoned their legislative champions Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. Though by no means a cipher, Harrison's career had been in relative eclipse, and he was not identified with any of the controversies of the day in a manner that would alienate a voting bloc. Clay's ownership of slaves, by contrast, made him unacceptable to many northern voters. John Tyler of Virginia, a states' rights advocate and former Democrat who had broken with Andrew Jackson, was given the Whig vice presidential nomination to placate Clay's supporters and provide sectional balance. Democrats did not make an official nomination for vice president because of embarrassment and discomfort with the incumbent Richard M. Johnson and his open relationship with an African-American woman.
In the ensuing campaign, Democrats ridiculed Harrison as an aging nonentity who, if given an adequate pension, would be content to retire to a log cabin, rocking chair, and a whiskey jug. Whigs giddily seized on this imagery and portrayed Harrison as a log-cabin-dwelling commoner who did indeed perch on his stoop and sip from a jug of hard cider. The former general was "Old Tippecanoe" and the ticket was "Tippecanoe and Tyler too," an alliteration that stuck in the national consciousness. Harrison was no commoner, but his image was in painful contrast to Van Buren's public image of insouciant dandy in the midst of a depression. Democrats tried to counter this unfavorable portrayal by calling Van Buren "Old Kinderhook," a reference to Van Buren's New York birthplace. In the end, Harrison carried nineteen states and Van Buren won seven, while the popular vote was 1,275,612 to 1,130,033. James G. Birney candidate of the Liberty party, an antislavery third party, garnered a mere 7,053 votes.
John Tyler had replaced Harrison as president upon the latter's death in 1841. Never comfortable with Whig economic policy, which called for a national bank and protective tariff, Tyler vetoed Whig legislation to revive both and found himself politically ostracized. The campaign to replace him in 1844 was supposed to be a contest of political titans Henry Clay (right) and Martin Van Buren. However, both men drastically misjudged the public temper on Texas annexation. Tyler negotiated a treaty annexing Texas, which had declared itself a republic in 1836, and presented it to the Senate in April 1844. Both Van Buren and Clay published public letters that same month condemning annexation, which they feared would result in war with Mexico. Public opinion, though, was solidly behind expansion as many American regarded virgin territory as a path to greater prosperity and upward social mobility. Democrats embraced the expansionist fever, and Van Buren was subsequently defeated at the Democratic national convention, with Tennessean James K. Polk (left) winning the nomination for president and George M. Dallas for vice president.
Clay was duly nominated by the Whigs, with Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey for vice president. Whig ideology called for developing the nation's existing territory rather than acquiring more, so Clay's opposition to annexation was not a bar to his nomination. Whigs hoped that antislavery-minded voters would supportClay as the only alternative to the rabidly pro-annexation Polk. However, Clay was a slaveholder, and he had strongly denounced the abolition movement in 1839 while angling for the 1840 nomination. James G. Birney was again in the race as the nominee of the Liberty party, providing a third party alternative to those of antislavery convictions.
Clay began to worry that his opposition to annexation was damaging his prospects in the South. In July he wrote two public letters in which he argued that annexation might indeed be acceptable if it could be done without the risk of war with Mexico or an increase in sectional tensions. He later wrote another letter condemning the antislavery activities of his cousin Cassius M. Clay. The letters damaged Clay in the North; he appeared to be waffling on annexation while again condemning the antislavery movement. He did not do enough to reassure those who favored annexation—they could support the Polk ticket which had made annexation a rallying cry. He alienated those who were uneasy with annexation and suspicious because of Clay's ownership of slaves. Clay had managed annoy everyone.
The prospect of additional slave territory entering the Union sparked an increase in the Liberty party's vote totals. Clay should have had many of those voters as he was the only candidate with a chance of winning who had expressed reservations about annexation. His intemperate and ill-timed letters dimmed those prospects.Polk rolled up a solid majority of 170 electoral votes to Clay's 105. Support for the Liberty party may have cost Clay New York's electoral votes (36 votes). The Liberty party polled more than fifteen thousand votes in New York with Polk winning the state by a mere five thousand vote margin.
The Mexican War re-ignited sectional tensions between North and South over the expansion of slavery into territory acquired as a war indemnity from Mexico. In 1846 Congressman David Wilmot introduced a resolution that prohibited slavery in any territory acquired in the war. Though the resolution failed to pass in the Senate, it did pass in the House, demonstrating the reluctance of many northern representatives to accept the spread of slavery. Both major parties were roiled by the resulting sectional uneasiness. Whigs tried to avoid the question of slavery's expansion by arguing against any territorial indemnity. Democrats came up with the concept of popular sovereignty, whereby the citizens of a territory would decide whether to permit slavery.
The Democratic convention in May nominated Lewis Cass for president. Cass had opposed the Wilmot Proviso as a Michigan senator and was typically credited with the concept of popular sovereignty. The convention chose General William O. Butler as Cass's vice presidential running mate. Frustrated with the selection ofCass, who was an outspoken foe of the effort to exclude slavery from new territory, a significant portion of the Democratic party, the so-called Barnburner followers of Martin Van Buren, walked out of the convention. The Barnburners subsequently formed the Free Soil party with similarly disaffected Whigs and former members of the Liberty party. This third party met in Buffalo, New York, in August and selected Martin Van Buren as its presidential candidate and Charles Francis Adams, a Massachusetts Whig and son of the president, as its vice presidential candidate.
Whigs had hoped to frame the presidential campaign around the issue of prohibiting the acquisition of territory from Mexico. However, in March 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was submitted to the Senate, and its terms called for Mexico to cede substantial territory to the United States. Fearful that to reject the treaty would invite the Polk administration to carve up the entire Mexican nation, many Whigs senators voted to ratify. As a result, it was impossible to stage a presidential campaign on opposition to the acquisition of territory. Since issues had been abandoned, the Whigs decided to jettison Henry Clay, the man most closely identified with Whig principles, and instead selected Zachary Taylor (left), a former army general and hero of the Mexican War. Taylor was not identified with either party; as an army officer he had refrained from voting. Owner of a plantation in Louisiana complete with a slaves, he was the preferred candidate of southern Whigs. At the Whig national convention, Taylor's vote broke down along sectional lines, at least initially, and his selection was a harbinger of future sectional troubles for the Whig party.
Both major parties tried to obfuscate the contentious issue of slavery's expansion throughout the campaign. The Whigs did not adopt an election-year platform, while Democrats distributed regional campaign biographies of Cass, one for North and one for the South. Taylor's popularity was enough to push him into victory, as he polled 1,360,000 votes to Cass's 1,220,00 and Van Buren's 291,000. Still, the Free Soil party won 14.4 percent of votes in free states, demonstrating the potency in the North of the politics of restricting slavery.
The Compromise of 1850 was fashioned to settle the disposition of the new territory acquired in the Mexican War. Among its elements was the admission of California as a free state, a bow to the North, and a reinvigorated fugitive slave law, a sop for the South. Both political parties, the Whigs and the Democrats, pledged continued support for the Compromise as a resolution of sectional tensions. Unfortunately, those tensions continued to simmer, as there was resistance in the North to the aggressive enforcement of the fugitive slave law, and consequent resentment in the South at what was perceived as northern failure to live up to the terms end of the Compromise.
In this atmosphere, both political parties chose presidential candidates who were moderates without great political or partisan reputations for the campaign of 1852. Democrats passed over Lewis Cass, James Buchanan, and Stephen Douglas, and selected Franklin Pierce (left), a New Hampshire politician of no great distinction. For their part, the Whigs ignored Millard Fillmore, who as vice president moved up to the presidency upon Zachary Taylor's death. They chose another general, Winfield Scott (right), a man with a distinguished military career who would prove less agile on the political field than he had been on the battlefield.
Whigs were hampered in the ensuing campaign by the neutralization of their traditional economic appeals—a strong tariff, national bank, and internal improvements. The economy was in fine condition, so there was little interest in economic legislation. Stripped of their issues, Whigs chose to attack Pierce, whom they characterized as a nonentity with disabling personal faults, specifically, as a drunkard and a coward. Pierce had an undistinguished sojourn as a brigadier general in the Mexican War, in which he had a penchant for falling off his horse or becoming ill at inopportune moments. Alluding to the drunkenness charge, Whigs said Pierce was the "Hero of Many a Well Fought Bottle." For their part, Democrats charged that Scott had purposely brutalized Germans and other immigrants in army ranks, while Democratic newspapers published nativist statements Scott had uttered nearly a decade previous. To damage the general in the South, he was accused of insufficient devotion to the Compromise. Scott and the Whigs attempted to appeal to the growing population of immigrants and Catholics, but did so in a clumsy fashion. In remarks at Cleveland, Ohio, Scottenthused, "I love to hear the Irish brogue." In the end, such pleas only succeeded in alienating Scott's Protestant base.
The final result was a disaster for the Whig party. Scott won a mere four states and forty-two electoral votes, while Pierce rolled up twenty-seven states and 254 electoral votes. Another New Hampshire politician, John P. Hale, ran as the Free Soil presidential candidate, but that third party's vote declined from its showing in 1848. Many northern Democrats who had backed Martin Van Buren's Free Soil candidacy in 1848 had returned to the Democratic party in 1852.
Dramatic events preceding the election of 1856 altered the political landscape of American politics. Franklin Pierce had been a weak president whom most historians characterize as having been a tool of extreme southern politicians. He supported various expansionist schemes that accomplished little beyond poisoning the political world. Worse still was Pierce's decision to support Stephen A. Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act, a bill which organized the territories of Nebraska and Kansas and explicitly repealed the provision of the Missouri Compromise that prohibited the expansion of slavery to the northwest. Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was one of the great catastrophes in American political history. A storm of outrage crested in the North, where the antislavery provision of the Missouri Compromise was regarded as practically part of the Constitution. Sectionalism was reborn and was exacerbated when free soil and proslavery settlers began battling for control of the territorial legislature in Kansas. In the resulting turmoil, the Whig party ceased to be a national organization, as southern Whigs began to defect to the Democrats and to the nativist American party. The Democratic party was increasingly controlled by southerners, as northern Democrats who backed the Kansas-Nebraska Act were defeated at the polls, while others defected to an anti-Nebraska coalition that formed in 1854.
The anti-Nebraska political coalition was composed of former members of the various political parties disaffected with the Kansas-Nebraska Act: Democrats, Whigs, nativists of the American party, abolitionists and free soilers from the remnants of the Liberty and Free Soil parties. These disparate groups were united in their opposition to the expansion of slavery as countenanced in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In 1854, they began to call themselves the Republican party, and they formed a national organization early in 1856.
The election of 1856 pitted the new Republican party against the Democrats and a presidential candidate backed by the nativist American party and what was left of the old Whig party. Republicans nominated famed explorer and political noviceJohn C. Frémont (right) and approved a platform that opposed the expansion of slavery. Democrats abandoned the unpopular incumbent Franklin Pierce and chose veteran politician James Buchanan (left). He had the virtue of having been out of the country as minister to Great Britain while the controversy raged over the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Former president Millard Fillmore was the candidate of the nativists and Whigs.
The ongoing sectional tension shaped the campaign and the election outcome.Frémont and the Republican party did not even appear on the election ballots in most southern states, and many southern politicians vowed that their states would secede if Frémont were elected. These threats prompted many former Whigs and others of a conservative mindset to throw their support to Buchanan and the Democrats as the sole alternative to the catastrophe of disunion.
Buchanan triumphed on a tide of these sentiments, but the Republicans showed surprising strength for a new party. Though they had no presence in the South, Republicans won all but five northern states, and their vote totals revealed that if they could win over Pennsylvania and Illinois in 1860 while retaining the states they won in 1856, they would take the presidency. Such an outcome would place the nominee of a purely sectional party in the White House, an event that southerners had promised would prompt secession.
by Drew E. VandeCreek, Director of Digital Scholarship, Northern Illinois University Libraries
On May 10, 1860, a united Illinois Republican Party chose Abraham Lincoln (left) as its presidential candidate, dubbing him the "Rail Splitter," a nickname that harkened to Lincoln's humble frontier origins. The Republican National Convention subsequently turned to Lincoln after the supporters of William H. Seward of New York, Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania and Edward Bates of Missouri failed to resolve their differences at the party's Chicago convention.
The Democratic Party split into northern and southern wings, and each faction chose its own presidential candidate, Stephen A. Douglas (right) for the northerners and John C. Breckinridge (lower right) of Kentucky for the southrons. A third party candidate, John Bell, emerged to represent conservatives, mostly former Whigs, who were dissatisfied with the other parties.
The campaign of 1860 proved to be the most spectacular of the century. The deepening sectional crisis dominated public debate. Four candidates brought their diverse appeals to the voting public, yet none managed to forge a broad coalition from a badly fractured electorate.
Lincoln focused his campaign on the northern and western states, and rightly considered himself persona non grata in the slaveholding South. Breckinridgesimilarly built upon a strong base in the southern states, but was widely reviled in the North. Bell spoke for his core constituency of aging Whigs and other conservatives who believed the sectional crisis would go away if they merely ignored it. Douglas meanwhile exhausted himself by taking the unprecedented step of delivering campaign addresses on his own behalf. In this era candidates themselves maintained a dignified silence while party stump speakers delivered their message to the voters on the local level.
Douglas toured both the North (where he was a popular candidate) and the South (where fevered southern-rights advocates increasingly viewed his doctrine of popular sovereignty as a betrayal of their demands). Vainly Douglas argued that he was the only national candidate and the candidate able to avoid disunion.
Both Breckinridge and Douglas Democrats mounted a withering attack on the Republican Party's perceived advocacy of African-American social and political equality. One Democratic newspaper argued that if Lincoln was elected "hundreds of thousands" of fugitive slaves would immediately "emigrate to their friends - the Republicans - (in the) North, and be placed by them side by side in competition with white men." Other attacks employed graphic racial slurs to cow northern voters. Many Republicans found these sorts of attacks compelling, and local Republican organizations across the North often downplayed slavery as a moral issue and returned to attacks upon the familiar "slave power."
The antebellum political system's participatory pageantry reached its apex with the campaign of 1860. Close electoral competition obliged the parties to rely upon high voter turnout to secure elections. In an era before mass media politics, the parties relied upon stump speakers and mass publications like campaign song books to inspire partisan picnics, parades and rallies. These events often provided the faithful with free food and drink, served to whip up party fervor, and encouraged voter turnout.
Republicans marshalled their armies of electoral activists, many of them young men organized into groups known as "Wide Awakes." Clad in oilcloths and caps, the Wide Awakes mounted a succession of torchlight parades which took Lincoln's message to the streets. Here they often met up with Democratic flying squadrons and other rivals.
When the dust settled, Lincoln was elected president with a mere thirty-nine percent of the vote. He carried no state south of the Mason-Dixon line.