The last election featured the first real dark horse winner, James K. Polk. He pledged to complete his agenda in one term. Is a successful, one-and-done president possible? And where does that leave the parties?
The Last Four Years
Polk entered office with four main goals: 1) re-establish the independent treasury, 2) reduce tariffs, 3) acquire Oregon from Britain, and 4) acquire California and New Mexico from Mexico.
First off the list, fiscal policy. The independent treasury had actually been President Martin Van Buren’s plan during the Panic of 1837, but had been stopped by the Whigs and conservative Democrats. It would hold the federal government’s money, but not be a true bank, in compliance with the anti-bank tenets of the Democratic Party. In 1846, Polk signed the creation of the treasury, which served as America’s financial system for the rest of the century. Also in 1846, Polk signed the Walker Tariff, which successfully reduced tariffs. As they have in the past, lower tariffs favored the high-importing South over the high-exporting North. It also improved trade relations with Britain, which proved helpful for Action Item #3.
Polk was an expansionist and a big fan of Manifest Destiny. Oregon Territory had been shared between the US and Britain since President James Monroe signed the Treaty of 1818. It was difficult to agree on a border because both sides wanted control of Puget Sound and the Columbia River. President Polk and Secretary of State James Buchanan offered to compromise at the 49th parallel, which cut straight through the Sound. Britain declined, so Polk got more aggressive. He informed Britain that he would be ending the Treaty (complying with the required one-year notice to do so). This move effectively threatened future military action. It was a huge risk, but it worked. Hoping to keep trade relations good, Britain caved and approved the border at the 49th parallel. Polk was able to establish his only territorial government in Oregon, though he allowed slavery to be banned in the territory to get it passed.
Polk’s final goal wouldn’t be quite as easy. With the set-up from President John Tyler before him, Polk brought Texas into the Union in December 1845, following its controversial annexation. Mexico was not too happy to lose land to their neighbor. Polk sent General Zachary Taylor south to defend Texas, as needed. He also sent Mexico an offer to buy the remaining Southwest. Unsurprising to everyone except Polk, Mexico firmly declined. Polk already saw this refusal as an act of war, but he really got his wish when fighting broke out against Taylor’s forces at the Rio Grande. Polk easily obtained Congressional approval to declare war.
US victory was never really in doubt, but public support for the war was relatively low, mostly because additional Southern territory meant reigniting the slavery debate. When Polk asked for money to buy the land, anti-slavery Congressmen proposed the Wilmot Proviso, which required slavery to be banned in land purchased with the money. The condition did not pass, but it highlighted a divide within both parties on slavery.
Despite Polk’s poor relationship with his generals, the US won the war. The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo was signed in 1848. Mexico kept Baja California, and the US kept Texas and purchased Alta California and New Mexico, setting most of today’s current southern boundaries. Polk had secured more land than the Louisiana Purchase, finally making America a true coast-to-coast nation. Although the California gold rush was already beginning at the end of Polk’s term, he couldn’t resolve the slavery disputes in time to form another territorial government in the new land.
James K. Polk gave four goals and said he would finish them all in four years, and he did exactly that. By that measure, Polk is probably America’s most successful president (though you have to ignore his aggression towards our neighbors and his weak stance on slavery). Unfortunately for Polk, his friend and mentor, former President Andrew Jackson, died in 1845, before he could witness the next successful Democratic president.
Get used to hearing this one, slavery is the main issue of the day. The Mexican-American War wasn’t that popular, but everyone’s concern was more on the potential expansion of slavery than the morality of taking the land. At this point in time, both parties drew support from the South, so they did their best to avoid the issue, a strategy that definitely didn’t create a powder keg.
Party Watch & The Candidates
The hero of the Mexican-American war was General Zachary Taylor. “Old Rough and Ready” was 64 years old. His parents were plantation owners, and he grew up in Kentucky, before joining the military and fighting in the War of 1812. Though he was not political at all (he had never even voted!), both major parties courted him as a candidate for 1848. He finally chose to be a Whig. Going into the convention, the Whigs had two basic strategies in their playbook: run an old military man with no solid policy views, or run Henry Clay again. Three-time presidential loser Clay didn’t support Taylor because of his lack of political experience, but it was Taylor that walked away with the nomination. It was a desperate pick, but the Whigs needed to make sure the Democrats didn’t ride any momentum from the war.
Taylor’s running mate was New York politician Millard Fillmore, an Anti-Masonic Party member turned Whig. Fillmore disagreed with slavery, but didn’t think the federal government should do anything to stop it. He was an acceptable pick for Southern Whigs, and was picked to appease Clay supporters (though many didn’t realize Fillmore hadn’t actually supported Clay for the nomination). Fillmore’s position on slavery was problematic, but luckily that wouldn’t matter because the highest position he would possibly attain was vice president, and they don’t do that much, anyway.
On the Democratic side, Polk’s decision not to seek a second term had split the party. Former President Van Buren tried yet again for the nomination, but couldn’t gather enough support because he had backed the Wilmot Proviso. He and the anti-slavery Barnburner faction were accused of trying to set the whole barn on fire, just to get rid of a few pro-slavery rats. The Hunkers, on the other hand, were ready to hunker down behind Michigan Senator Lewis Cass. After serving in the War of 1812 himself, Cass built a long political resume, from Michigan Territorial Governor, to Jackson’s Secretary of War, to Minister to France. He advocated for “squatter sovereignty,” meaning that settlers in the new Western lands should be able to decide the legality of slavery between themselves. This was the weakest stance against slavery, besides full approval. The Democratic VP candidate was General William O. Butler from Kentucky, adding some more military strength to the ticket.
The Barnburners were so displeased by Cass’ nomination that they walked out of the convention. This group, along with some former Liberty Party voters, formed the abolitionist Free Soil Party. Finally, as a Free Soil-er, Van Buren secured another nomination. Of course, he knew he wouldn’t win, but he was happy to weaken the party that had turned against him. Also on the ticket was Charles Francis Adams, son of John Quincy Adams! The Adams family lives on!
Jefferson Davis Pause!
Future Confederate President Jefferson Davis was Zachary Taylor’s son-in-law! In the 1830s, Davis served under Taylor at Fort Crawford, in what is now Wisconsin. He fell in love with Taylor’s daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor, despite her parents’ wish for her break free from the harsh military life on the frontier. To win their blessing, Davis resigned from the Army to marry Sarah. The couple traveled to Louisiana to visit Davis’ sister, where both caught malaria. Davis survived, but Sarah died only three months into their marriage. Davis married again a few years later, and then got involved in politics…
Despite their previous opposition to the war, the Whigs had to hush up and praise Taylor for leading the US to victory. Lucky for them, as the slavery issue became more heated, Taylor had no policy positions to argue against. He was a blank slate and the only pitch voters needed was that he won the war. Keep it simple! Whig Congressman Abraham Lincoln was an key campaigner in this election. He argued that Taylor’s lack of opinions meant that The People would be in charge of. He also popularized the term “Michigander,” meant as an insulting comparison of Lewis Cass to dumb geese.
For their part, the Democrats argued that Taylor would be a military autocrat like Caesar or Napoleon. They also claimed he was illiterate and said he was greedy for taking too much pay in the military.
It’s time for a big milestone that I haven’t pointed out yet! 1848 is the first election where every state voted on the same day! The new law is that Election Day falls on the first Tuesday after November 1st. Plenty of time to finish the harvest, make it into town after Sunday church, and be back before winter weather starts! Before this, election days varied wildly by state, and often ran into December.
Also, welcome to the Union, new states, Florida, Texas, Iowa, and Wisconsin (sorry you didn’t get the Upper Peninsula)!
At 163-127, it’s another close one, but Zachary Taylor gets the win and becomes America’s 12th president! The key to his success was winning support in all regions of the country. Luckily, he got some help from the Free Soil Party in the North, taking some Democratic defectors. Van Buren didn’t win any states, but his party did win a few seats in Congress, and might have a say in the newly forming coalitions.
Zachary Taylor is the last presidential winner that was not a Democrat or Republican (not counting Lincoln’s second win as the National Union ticket).
What Did It Say About America?
Everyone agreed to ignore the slavery question and elect the guy with no policy views. To Clay’s chagrin, the Whig strategy of running a famous military hero instead of a seasoned politician worked again. Ironically, the Whig general won thanks to the Democratic president’s war.
Was It The Right Decision?
Yes, Taylor was better than Cass. Too bad the Free Soil Party only served as a spoiler for the Democrats. I guess Van Buren is good now? I’ve regarded him as an opportunist, joining Jackson’s Democrats despite not really fitting their demographic. Seems like he finally had a change of heart!
James K. Polk ended his term in poor health. Just a few months after leaving office, he died of cholera. He may have been the second victim of the White House’s contaminated water supply. He had the shortest “retirement” of any US president. It’s probably best that he didn’t live to see his legacy overshadowed by the great Whig president, Zackary Taylor, who was sure to finally put the Whigs on top. He just needed to not die like William Henry Harrison!