In the 11th grade I was given an assignment to write an essay explaining the elections of 1848, 1852, and 1856.
Elections of 1848, 1852, and 1856
Although many factors can (and should) be contributed to the Civil War, it is nevertheless the actions of the presidents elected in 1848, 1852, and 1856 that, in their attempts to prevent war, pushed the United States of America down the road to bloodshed, as demonstrated with Zachary Taylor’s unintentional bringing up and Millard Fillmore’s acceptance of the Compromise of 1850, Franklin Pierce’s submission to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and James Buchanan’s inability to properly handle the Dred Scott case, acceptance of the Lecompton Constitution, and his failure to calm the nation after John Brown’s stint. All 4 presidents of this 12 year time-frame faced the challenging issue of slavery, and, if you consider death a weakness, all 4 were incapable of handling this issue in a way that could save the Union.
The United States presidential election of 1848 was held with slavery as the central issue. America had just come off the Mexican-American war, and, thanks to the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, had acquired large amounts of new land. However, no where had it yet been determined how the slave status of this territory should be established, and so the stage was set for the political parties to attempt to handle the hot button issue of the election in such a way that would win them the presidency.
The Whigs nominated recent war hero Zachary Taylor as their nominee, and, hoping to strike lightening twice (in reference to William Harrison), revealed very little of his political opinion to the voters. The Democrats, though, did have a public plan to handle the issue of territorial slavery, popular sovereignty. Nominating Lewis Cass as their representative, the democrats planned to allow territorial settlers vote on whether or not to be admitted as a free or slave state. This plan worried Southerns though, because if the territories were admitted as free the power would shift into their hands, and they were likely to attempt to eliminate slavery altogether. When Cass got nominated over Martin Van Buren, Buren and his supporters, along with the Liberty Party and some anti-slavery Whigs, formed the abolitionist Free Soil party.
The Free Soil party received the least amount of votes in the entire election (10.1% of the popular vote and no electoral votes what-so-ever). Although they got many votes in NY state, they did not get enough to get the electoral vote. The Democrats did much better than the Free Soil party, but were just short of winning the electoral vote. Since the Free Soil party had divided the votes in New York, it was the Whigs, and Zachary Taylor, that won the state, and the entire election thanks to that state.
Although Taylor did have other issues, such as the Texas-New Mexico border debate where he threatened to personally lead an army to Texas if they should use force to occupy land that wasn’t necessarily theirs, Taylor’s presidency, as well as the next 3 presidencies and elections, was dominated by the issue of slavery. During his campaign and even at his inaugural address, Taylor said nothing on his intended policy regarding slavery (or anything for that matter), but since he himself owned slaves many assumed he would be for allowing it in the new territory. This would prove to be a false assumption when, only a few months into his term, Taylor urged California and New Mexico to join the Union, and they began attempting to as free states, as Taylor predicted, which would upset and tip the balance in favor of abolitionist. Feeling betrayed, Southerns planned to meet to discuss secession, and Taylor threatened to hang anyone who attempted to disrupt the Union. Attempting to handle the issue civilly, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, and William H. Saward debated how best to handle the situation. Clay pushed for passing a Fugitive Slave Law and admitting New Mexico and Utah as slave states in exchange for California being a free state. While Southerners agreed, Taylor opposed the plan strongly. However, Taylor would die only 16 months into his term on July 9th, 1850.
His Vice President Millard Fillmore succeeded Taylor and passed Clay’s Compromise, hereby known as the Compromise of 1850. Although it temporarily calmed the South, Northerners were upset at this apparent display of appeasement for the sake of the Union, and the South soon grew to believe the government would not enforce the act. Attempting to please both sides, Fillmore boosted Southern border defenses to intimidate the South, and tried to vigorously enforce the act. Unfortunately for Fillmore, he failed at pleasing anyone, and was not on the ballot in 1852.
When it came to nominations for the presidential election of 1852 the Democrats had an absurdly hard time finding a nominee, and, after an outstanding amount of potentials, named Franklin Pierce to represent them. The Whigs named Winfield Scott. Dr. H. Von Holst wrote of the election, “A presidential campaign morally and politically so empty, so far as electoral speeches and agitation in the press were concerned, had never yet taken place” (223). He goes on to say that the public did not warm up to Scott, who had been showcasing his approval of the Compromise of 1850, and that they did not know Pierce, who gave almost no effort to his campaign and even less information about his policies. Holst speculates that the voters meerly assumed that since Scott supported the Compromise, Pierce must not, and voted for him based off this. No thanks to Millard Fillmore, Scott lost the election in a landslide, earning a close 43.9% of the popular vote, but only getting 14.2% of the electoral vote (42 votes) while Pierce got 50.8% of the popular vote and 85.8% of the electoral vote. Sadly, Pierce could not enjoy his election, for two months earlier he and his wife watched on helplessly as their son died in a train accident. During his inaugural address his wife sat in a hotel room writing apologetic letters to their dead son, and there was no inaugural ball for his election.
As with all the other presidents of this time period, slavery was the heart and soul of Pierce’s presidency. Senator Stephan Douglas, for personal reasons, wanted to make the areas of Kansas and Nebraska slave areas to encourage settlement, but couldn’t due to the Missouri Compromise. To get around this, he established the democratic ideal of popular sovereignty in the area, claiming the Missouri Compromise had been unconstitutional from the beginning. Pierce urged him to let the courts settle the issue, but Douglas countered with this with an argument saying that anything less than a congressional repeal of the Missouri Compromise would result in a Southern secession. Pressured to his limit, Pierce gave in and signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act assuming it would bring some peace. Sadly, he was gravely mistaken, and the act would lead to the conflicts regarding the nickname “Bleeding Kansas”. Upset at how his term had gone, Pierce wanted a second term to fix things, but the Democratic party had abandoned all support for him.
The election of 1856 would be the last presidential election before the American Civil War, and as such, showcased the emergence of the final catalyst, the Republican party. Formed out of chunks of the, now falling apart, Whig party, the remnants of the Free Soil party, and others in opposition of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Republican party based their platform on the prevention of slavery expansion. The Whigs, oddly enough, backed previous disaster Millard Fillmore. This meant that the election would largely be decided between the Democrats and the Republicans. The Republicans chose John C. Fremont as their representative, and the Democrats chose James Buchanan. The only true surprise in the election is that the Whigs received 21.6% of the popular vote and 2.7% of the electoral vote. As would be more easily predicted though, the Republicans found large support in the North, getting 33.1% of the popular vote and 38.5% of the electoral vote. However, most Southern ballots did not even list Fremont, and had threatened to secede if he won, so it came to no surprise when the Democrats swept the south and won the election with 45.3% of the popular vote and 58.8% of the electoral vote.
Although the last 3 presidents suffered with slavery their whole term, Buchanan’s troubles started before he could even start. The Dred Scott case was being wrapped up and Buchanan got word that some Northern intervention could handle the issue of territorial slavery. Buchanan got the intervention and announced at his inaugural address that the Supreme Court would soon handle the issue and bring peace. When the results turned out to be pro-slavery, the North was outraged, and Buchanan desperately appointed moderates to his cabinet in an attempt to please them.
When the time for Kansas to become a state arrived, abolitionist formed a new state government to prevent slavery, but they were quickly overrun by pro-slavery members who drafted a pro-slavery state constitution titled Lecompton Constitution. President Buchanan quickly urged congress to pass the constitution, but congress eventually decided to send it back for a vote due to claims that it was written by a small minority of the state. With the new convention Kansas was made into a free state.
To wrap up Buchanan’s list of failures is John Brown. John Brown was a militant abolitionist who killed several pro-slave settlers and invaded a military installation. Although he was shut down within 2 days by the Marines, Buchanan was helpless to try and calm down the country as Southerners claimed that abolitionist were not above using violence to get their way.
What would follow would be the most bloody war ever fought on American soil, truly one of the darkest parts of our history, and although there were certainly other factors at play, one cannot ignore the fact that the failures of the 4 preceding presidents played a large, if not the largest, role in the build up to the American Civil War.
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