Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1848

Millard Fillmore remained loyal to Henry Clay heading into the Whig nominating convention, but the presidency would elude Clay yet again. Southern proslavery forces in the party mistrusted his compromise policies. Meanwhile, the recent Mexican War had made heroes of two generals, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. Both were courted by the Whigs. Their nicknames spoke of the contrast in their styles: Taylor, an unsophisticated man of little education who had never voted, was called "Old Rough and Ready"; Scott, refined and pompous, "Old Fuss and Feathers."

Since Andrew Jackson's election to the presidency in 1828, military leaders with a rough-hewn public persona— whether genuine or not -- had been popular with voters. Helped largely by the behind-the-scenes negotiations of Thurlow Weed, Taylor led on the first ballot and clinched the nomination on the fourth. The selection of the general, a slave owner from Louisiana, enraged antislavery Whigs from the North. For a few hours it looked like the party would split between its "cotton" and "conscience" wings. As a consolation prize to slavery opponents, the party searched for a vice presidential nominee who was more aligned with their views. Daniel Webster was offered the spot but refused, growling that Taylor was nothing but "an illiterate frontier colonel." A New York ally of Millard Fillmore's brought up his name, and the Whigs selected him as their candidate. As with so many other tickets, it was hoped that Fillmore's contrast in beliefs, style, and geographic origin with the presidential nominee would broaden the ticket's appeal.

Both major parties—the Whigs and the Democrats—avoided a platform statement on the contentious slavery-extension issue in order to preserve their national unity. But the issue hung over the campaign like a great, low cloud. The United States had made massive territorial gains in the wake of the Mexican War, and an argument raged over whether slavery should be allowed in these new territories. The Wilmot Proviso, which would have forbidden it, had been defeated in the Senate two years earlier. A third party added to the turbulence. A coalition of abolitionists, "Barn Burners," Conscience Whigs, and others had formed the Free-Soil Party led by former President Martin Van Buren.

It proved to be a close, bitter race between Zachary Taylor and Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan, the Democratic candidate. Charges and countercharges flew on each man's stand on slavery. Both struggled to neutralize the hopelessly divisive issue. Van Buren siphoned off enough votes in his native New York to hand the critical state to Taylor. Farmers and other working-class voters saw in Old Rough and Ready much of what they had liked in Andrew Jackson. It proved to be just enough. Zachary Taylor won with a 5 percent margin in the popular vote and a four-to-three ratio in the electoral college.

In retrospect, the Whigs of 1848 repeated the mistake they had made with William Henry Harrison eight years earlier. They had gained the White House by running a colorful but politically undistinguished war hero, distinctly showing his age by election day. Within a year and a half, the Whigs would see the same unfortunate result with Zachary Taylor.

An Odd Match: Taylor and Fillmore

The new vice president and President were an odd match. The tall, gentlemanly, well-dressed Millard Fillmore looked every bit the statesman. Zachary Taylor stood on unusually short legs—during the Mexican War, he needed help climbing onto his horse, which he rode sidesaddle into battle; Old Rough and Ready was craggy, unkempt, and unlearned. The two had not met until after the election, and they did not hit it off when they did. Once in Washington, Taylor wasted no time shutting Millard Fillmore out of his administration. Other Whig leaders like Thurlow Weed and William H. Seward found favor with the new President and convinced him to deny Fillmore most patronage appointments in New York. The vice president's key ally, Henry Clay, was not offered a cabinet post. As vice president and thus president of the Senate, Fillmore held the tie-breaking vote in Senate sessions. In fulfilling these responsibilities, he was respected for his wisdom, humor, and ability to accommodate diverse views there. But he had virtually no role in Taylor's presidency.

Compromise of 1850

The critical issue of slavery continued to plague Taylor's administration. In particular, discussion focused on whether to adopt the Compromise of 1850. The election of 1848 had turned on the question of whether to allow slavery in the lands gained by the United States in the war with Mexico, and little had happened since Taylor's election to cool the debate on this matter. In his annual message of December 1849, he had dismayed fellow Southerners by announcing his support for admitting California and New Mexico into the Union as free states. In the Senate, Henry Clay bundled several provisions into a single omnibus bill that would attempt a compromise on the slavery issue. Clay's bill entailed the organization of Utah and New Mexico Territories on a popular sovereignty basis, California statehood, and the prohibition of public slave auctions in the District of Columbia. For slaveholders, it also offered a new fugitive slave law. This piece of legislation decreed that runaway slaves apprehended anywhere in the United States would be returned to their masters if new federally appointed commissioners decided that they were in fact fugitive slaves. It denied any due process to such slaves and allowed authorities to arrest African American suspects and return them to slave territory—whether the arrested person was an actual slave or not. Finally, it empowered federal marshals to enforce the law. The Fugitive Slave Law also cited severe penalties for noncompliance. The act horrified Americans openly opposed to slavery, and they vowed to fight its passage.

Clay urged Taylor to join the debate over the compromise, but the President wanted little part of it. Seeming to take a wait-and-see approach to the legislative fight, he simply contested some of the positions of the compromise and threatened a veto. Gradually, support in Congress for the compromise lost steam, and the omnibus bill was tied up in endless Senate debates by mid-1850. America was no closer to deciding the slavery issue than it had been before.

Fillmore watched much of the debate from the sidelines, isolated from the President's administration. Events, however, took a rapid turn. At a Fourth of July celebration in 1850 on the White House lawn, the President sought relief from the oppressive heat and humidity by gulping iced beverages and a large bowl of cherries. He suddenly began to experience intestinal cramps. It is likely that either the ice or the fruit was contaminated with cholera, a stomach ailment caused by unsanitary conditions that could—and frequently did—kill a person in scant hours in those times. Physicians, resorting to the medical practices of the day, prescribed bleedings and opiates that only made matters worse. Within five days, Zachary Taylor was dead. He had been President for just sixteen months. The presidency had suddenly fallen upon a forgotten man. Millard Fillmore, who had been all but banished from the Taylor administration and held opinions very different from the late chief executive, was suddenly the President of the United States. He immediately replaced Taylor's cabinet with proponents of the compromise and threw the full weight of his new administration behind its passage.

The Campaign and Election of 1852

Weary from the epic compromise fight and the criticism that it had drawn toward him, Millard Fillmore showed little enthusiasm for serving another term. He did no campaigning and did not even disclose his intentions on running again. In March of 1851, using an editor allied to him, Fillmore planted a report in a newspaper that he was retiring from office. Then Daniel Webster announced his candidacy. The candidacy of his own secretary of state did not greatly trouble the President; indeed, he was honestly sympathetic towards Webster's longtime ambition for the office. Webster's announcement, however, comprised the last straw for Fillmore, and the President tried to formally withdraw from consideration until others in the cabinet talked him out of it.

The Whig Party was fragmenting over slavery disputes. None of the leading candidates—Fillmore, Webster, and General Winfield Scott—greatly appealed to a majority of the Whig Party members. Fillmore was disliked by abolitionists for enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law. Webster was aged and unwell. Southern Whigs disliked Scott, who had served as President Jackson's personal emissary in 1832 when Jackson threatened to use federal troops in South Carolina in a tariff and secession dispute.

The Whigs opened their convention in Baltimore in mid-June of 1852. Fillmore led in the early balloting. Webster's cause was quickly seen as hopeless, and if he had given the President his delegates, Fillmore would have ended the argument quickly. Webster, however, stubbornly clung to his delegates, and they slowly began to defect to Winfield Scott. On the fifty-third ballot, Scott wrapped up the nomination.

The convention was the end of the Whig Party as a national force. With Southern opposition to Scott so strong, he was unelectable. Many Southern Whigs abstained and a few threw their support behind the Democratic candidate, Franklin Pierce, and the slim, moody New Englander won the election with ease.