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Party over Section: The Rough and Ready Presidential Election of 1848.

Party over Section: The Rough and Ready Presidential Election of 1848. By Joel H. Silbey. (Lawrence, Kans.: University Press of Kansas, 2009. Pp. 240. $34.95.)

The recently inaugurated (no pun intended) American Presidential Elections series from Kansas has already produced such well-received works as Michael Holt's study of the 1876 Hayes-Tilden battle. This year sees several new entries in the series, including the present work by one of the masters of antebellum politics, Joel H. Silbey. Interestingly, in a series devoted to especially significant elections, Silbey argues that perhaps 1848 was not quite as significant as has often been thought. Traditionally, the 1848 campaign has been seen as the beginning of the end of the Jacksonian party system, with the long-delayed irruption of the slavery question into mainstream American politics. The end of the Mexican-American War, and the resulting massive cession of Mexican territory secured by the Treaty of Guadelupe-Hidalgo (ratified in the spring of 1848), had unleashed a national debate on the future of slavery in those new territories. This issue had been thought to have been settled by many after the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which actually had settled the issue explicitly, but only for the lands of the Louisiana Purchase. Now, many Northern politicians--mostly Whigs, but also including many Democrats--rallied behind a proposal put forward by Pennsylvania Democrat David Wilmot to ban slavery in any lands acquired from Mexico. That this Wilmot Proviso was motivated as much by politics (fear of the power the South might gain from new slave states) as by moral aversion to slavery in no way lessened the incendiary affect the Proviso had among some Southerners, many of whom realized, as some historians have not, that the desire of many Northerners to limit slavery had to be rooted in at least some unease with the Southern labor system (regardless of their own racism).

The Democrats nominated Lewis Cass of Michigan, a man long associated with the causes and needs of "the West" (mostly what we now consider the "Midwest"), especially territorial expansion; his running mate was William O. Butler of Kentucky, successful as a volunteer general in the late war. Their platform was a traditional Democratic platform of limited government and noninterference with slavery. Whigs had generally opposed the war or criticized its conduct, but, desperate for a popular candidate, nominated General Zachary Taylor, one of the two leading American generals in the conflict, and paired "Old Rough and Ready" with vice-presidential nominee Millard Fillmore of New York. As with the Democrats, the Whig platform was traditional, favoring internal improvements and opposing executive tyranny, but was necessarily equivocal on slavery expansion. They hoped Taylor's slaveholdings in Louisiana would comfort many Southerners, while implying to Northerners that he might not oppose the Proviso. These nominations and platforms elided a few pro-Proviso dissidents from both parties, who combined with the remnants of the old Liberty Party to form the new Free Soil Party. Perhaps the most important component of the new party was New York's Barnburner faction, long estranged from the more conservative and spoils-minded Democratic faction, the Hunkers, and smarting from not having been recognized as the official New York delegation at the Democratic convention. The Barnburners contributed their leader, former President Martin Van Buren, as the Free Soil nominee--a great irony, since many credited (or blamed) Van Buren for the creation of the very party system the Free Soilers sought to disrupt, especially the system's deliberate quashing of sectional controversy. As Silbey's title suggests, he argues that despite the heat generated by the Proviso, longstanding party loyalties and party issues retained sufficient hold on Whigs and Democrats to keep both parties largely intact. Even many passionate supporters of the Proviso backed Taylor, in part because it made more sense to experienced politicians to support a likely winner over a certain loser--and especially because longtime Democrat Van Buren had been second only to Andrew Jackson in Whig demonology. Historians often dismiss the "old issues" as dead, in part because, unlike slavery, they might seem irrelevant today. They were not dead or irrelevant in 1848; indeed, one of Taylor's problems gaining complete Whig loyalty was his lack of public commitment to Whig positions. Taylor, of course, won, and Silbey argues that the Free Soil vote played little role in the outcome, despite a strong showing in New York; indeed, a stronger Free Soil showing would have cost Taylor the election, rather than securing his triumph. It should be noted that Silbey's analysis of the election results sometimes draws conclusions from, but does not show details of, the quantitative techniques with which he is often associated.

This reviewer's own work on the 1850s, when the parties genuinely did fragment, suggests that Silbey is quite correct to downplay the Free Soil disruption of 1848, although the Free Soil Party did loom large in some individual careers, easing certain pro-Proviso politicians out of their old associations. Were this not part of an election-year series, this reviewer would like to have seen more discussion of these later echoes of Free Soil, such as the troubled efforts of the Barnburners to reenter New York Democracy. Silbey is also shrewd to see that antislavery politicians were usually well ahead of the voters on the slavery issue, not, as sometimes portrayed, stodgy career pols pushed into action by an enraged populace, which is evident when one compares congressional debate with the intentionally conservative line often taken in stump speeches. This short survey is not only interpretively sound, but also entertaining, as Silbey provides a lively sweep through hastily written campaign biographies, lurid editorials, and overheated campaign rhetoric--something that enriches our understanding of all antebellum campaigns, not just that of 1848.

R. Scott Burnet

University of Virginia Bookstore
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Author:Burnet, R. Scott
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2011
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