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Presidential Election of 1848: Summary, Candidates & Results

Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
The presidential election of 1848 saw Whig candidate and Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor win the presidency. After dying just two years later in 1850, Taylor was followed by his vice president, Millard Fillmore.

The United States in 1848

In 1848, major changes were occurring in the United States of America. The Mexican War was wrapping up, the country was expanding westward, and there was a presidential election. Let's learn more about that presidential race in the important year of 1848.

Background

In 1844, Democrat James Polk was elected the 11th President of the United States. Polk had run on a platform of expanding the nation westward, securing the Oregon Territory and the northern boundary of the country, and annexing Texas. Once in office, Polk led the nation to War with Mexico over issues regarding the southern boundary of the country.

The war inspired fierce opposition from Polk's political opponents, the Whig Party. The Whigs were against the war, seeing it as an unjust territorial grab by Polk. In 1848, they were determined to retake the presidency. As Polk resolved to serve for only one term, the Democrats also needed a new candidate for the presidency.

The Candidates

Ironically enough, the Whigs went with a general who became famous during the Mexican War, Zachary Taylor. During the Mexican War, Taylor had led one of the two major American armies in the country, his being in the northern part of Mexico. After the war's conclusion and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the Whigs held back on their criticism of the war and of Polk. Taylor became the party's leading figure because of his war fame and popularity. Other famous Whig leaders such as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster also vied for the candidacy, but lost out to Taylor's fame and war hero status. Millard Fillmore was selected as Taylor's running mate.

General Zachary Taylor
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On the Democrat side, because Polk was not running for re-election, the race was wide open. The two leading contenders were Lewis Cass and former president Martin Van Buren. Cass had been a brigadier general during the War of 1812, served as the governor of Michigan for many years, been the Secretary of War under Andrew Jackson, and was a Senator from Michigan at the time of the 1848 election. This impressive resume certainly meant that Cass received considerable attention in the nominating process.

Senator Lewis Cass
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Ultimately, Van Buren's desire to run as a free soil candidate, meaning that he opposed the westward expansion of slavery, hurt his candidacy. Cass was nominated by the Democrats, and Van Buren and his supporters launched a third party effort. Van Buren ran as the candidate of the Free Soil Party, based mostly in New York.

Also running for the presidency was Senator John Hale, who was nominated by the Liberty Party. Hale and his running mate eventually dropped out to consolidate support for Van Buren and the Free Soil Party.

Campaign and Election

The campaign itself focused on both national issues and the personalities of the candidates. Whigs campaigned against the legacy of Andrew Jackson and the corrupt spoils system. Taylor staked out very few specific positions, allowing his advisers and supporters to remind voters of his military record whenever possible. In opposition, Democrats attacked Taylor as a backwoods man, unable to deal with the complex challenges of the presidency. Conversely, Van Buren campaigned as the only candidate who opposed the spread of slavery.

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