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Election of 1852
Civil War Encyclopedia >> Politics
Election of 1852
For Whig candidate Winfield Scott, the Election of 1852 began with the death of Zachary Taylor in 1850. Scott personally arranged the military escort, with himself in the lead. He moved his office from New York to Washington and began lobbying Congressmen to vote for Henry Clay's Compromise of 1850. Scott's friend, Millard Fillmore, then President of the United States, and Secretary of State Daniel Webster were all competing for the nomination. It was obvious from the start that Fillmore's reputation had been deeply damage by his support for the Compromise, and Daniel Webster was equally damaged by his Seventh of March speech.
With the three most powerful men in America (President, Secretary of State and General-in-Chief) struggling for the Whig nomination, Democrats secretly turned to a committee to win the presidency back. James Polk's friend, Gideon Pillow, joined a committee including Jefferson Davis John A. Quitman, Thomas L. Clingman and Caleb Cushman. Pillow, one of the worst general on either side in both the Mexican-American and Civil Wars, actually tried to take the nomination himself, but when the committee was done it recommended Franklin Pierce. At the Democrat Convention in Mechanics Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, Lewis Cass, Stephen A. Douglas, James Buchanan, and William L. Marcy all competed for the nomination, but none could come up with the 2/3rds majority to win. Finally, the name of Franklin Pierce was entered into the fray and on the 48th ballot he won.
At the Whig Convention, also in Mechanics Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, New Yorker Millard Fillmore enjoyed the support of the South because he signed the Fugitive Slave Law, while northern Whigs would not elect him for the same reason. Webster had backing from New England in spite of his speech while Scott was the favorite of party stalwarts William Seward and Thurlow Weed. In retrospect, the divisions that appeared at the Whig convention should have been seen as the "writing on the wall" for the Whigs, but this was politics as usual in the years before the Civil War. Scott lacked support in the South. Tennessee congressman Meredith Gantry said if he won, he would be the weakest man ever run for the Presidency. When balloting began, Fillmore was the clear leader, but when he did not win on the first round votes trickled away, not to Webster, but to Scott. A week and 53 ballots later, Scott was the party's nominee.
The Whig Party had serious internal issues stemming from the Northern Whig adherence to abolition, a concept the Southern Whigs rejected. In August, three Whigs (Charles Sumner, Joshua Giddings and Charles Francis Adams) broke with the party and held a third-party Freesoil convention. That convention nominated John Parker Hale, a U. S. Senator from New Hampshire and an avid abolitionist.
The underlying debate over slavery seemed muted, perhaps because of the Compromise of 1850 and because the free states now had firm control of both the House and Senate. Other reasons for the lack of actual political disagreement were the similarity of the Democrat and Whig party platforms and fear over alienating one wing of the party or the other.
As a result, the Election of 1852 became massive personal attacks on the candidates. Pierce was called "the fainting general" because he passed out from the pain of being shot in the ankle and remained on duty. Attacks were also made on Pierce for his excessive drinking, which he had carefully hidden. Winfield Scott was a prime target for attack, from his wound "in the rear" at Lundy's Lane to his nickname, Old Fuss and Feathers.
In the end, the three party election proved to be telling of the future division of the United States. When the election returns were tallied, the Freesoil nominee, John Parker Hale, succeeded in drawing almost 5% of the vote. This was a significant drop from Martin Van Buren's 10% of the vote as the Freesoil candidate in 1848, but it showed the abolitionist movement was still alive and well. As a result of Hale's numbers, Pierce barely won a majority of popular votes but he won all states except Tennessee, Kentucky, Vermont and Massachusetts.
This was the last election in which the Whigs were a viable force. By the time the Election of 1856 came around the Freesoilers had merged with the northern Whigs and formed the Republican Party. Some blame Scott's candidacy with the destruction of the Whig Party, but it actually had little to do with the party's downfall. A number of issues, including the inability of the party to be able to resolve the same sectional crisis that created the Civil War, were the major contributing factors.
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Election of 1852 was last changed on - November 3, 2007
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