A Reference Resource
Campaigns and Elections
The Campaign and Election of 1848
As a career officer in the regular Army, Zachary Taylor had never revealed his politics, nor had he even voted prior to 1848. Upon his victory at Buena Vista, "Old Rough and Ready" political clubs sprang up in support of Taylor's candidacy for President. Most southerners believed that Taylor supported slavery and its expansion into the new territories acquired from Mexico, which included present-day California, New Mexico, and Utah. They also thought that he was opposed to protective tariffs and government spending for internal improvements while supporting states' rights. In contrast, the Whigs hoped that Taylor was a Union man first, having fought so hard in defense of the nation. But no one knew for sure.
Taylor thought of himself as an independent. He had always disliked the Democratic Party's stand on the money issue. He favored a strong and sound banking system and thought that Andrew Jackson had foolishly destroyed the Second Bank of the United States. Jackson's use of party politics to award patronage seemed dishonest and corrupt to Taylor. And while he owned slaves, he thought it impractical to talk about expanding slavery into western lands where neither cotton nor sugar could easily be grown in a plantation economy.
Although Taylor did not like the Whigs' stand on protective tariffs and expensive internal improvements, he aligned himself with Whig governing principles. He believed that the President should not and could not use the veto unless a law was unconstitutional. Taylor also felt that the President should not interfere with Congress. A strong cabinet and collective decision making were also important to him. These were all Whig principles and a reaction to Jackson's strong presidency.
Most importantly, Taylor was a strong nationalist. Because he had seen too many of his comrades die in battle, he did not look favorably upon secession as a solution to national problems. He also carried a personal grudge against President Polk. Taylor blamed Polk for allowing General Scott to cut his forces in half at Buena Vista—a plot to set Taylor up for defeat and thus sidetrack his growing popularity with the public.
As the 1848 party nominating conventions loomed closer, Taylor let it be known that he had always been a Whig in principle, although he liked to think of himself as a Jeffersonian-Democrat. On the burning issue of slavery in the territories acquired from Mexico, Taylor took a position that angered his southern supporters: He hinted that if elected President, he might not veto the Wilmot Proviso, a controversial bill prohibiting slavery in the western lands—this was in line with Taylor's belief in the Whig principle that the President should only veto legislation that clearly violates the Constitution. Interestingly, Taylor's position on slavery did not enhance his standing with the more activist antislavery elements in the North who had wanted Taylor's strong support of the Wilmot Proviso. Furthermore, few abolitionists could bring themselves to support a slave owner.
Relying on Taylor's national appeal as a war hero, the Whigs presented him as an ideal man "without regard to creeds or principles" and ran him without any platform. This tactic attracted criticism from many directions. Some thought that Taylor had no position while others felt that he lacked political experience and knowledge. Moreover, there were people who believed that his military success was not enough to qualify him for President. Taylor's refusal to actively campaign allowed him to stand above party politics, although his supporters waged a vigorous battle on his behalf.
On November 7, the first time the entire nation voted on the same day, 2,880,572 male voters, or 72.7 percent of the eligible voters, cast their ballots. Taylor won a plurality of the popular vote, with 1,360,967 votes to 1,222,342 votes for Cass and Van Buren's 291,263. Taylor's electoral college vote came in at 163 to Cass's 127. Surprisingly, despite the hotly debated issue of slavery's expansion, the Whigs retained 90 percent of their 1844 vote in the North and 97 percent in the South while the Democrats held onto 91 percent of their 1844 vote in the South and 89 percent in the North. Party loyalty remained strong: Taylor won principally because the Free-Soil Party had drained votes from the Democrats, especially in the mid-Atlantic states. Van Buren won 120,000 votes in New York, draining votes from the Democrats and giving Taylor New York's electoral votes. Taylor had triumphed both in the North and in the South, winning 46 percent and 51 percent of the popular vote, respectively. Taylor's military renown and reputation for independence clearly helped him, but in the end, Whig loyalty in the North and disproportionate Democratic abstentions in the South helped him carry the day.