Karl Rove's Reviews > Party Over Section: The Rough and Ready Presidential Campaign of 1848

Party Over Section by Joel H. Silbey
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Aug 03, 2011

bookshelves: read-in-2011

The University of Kansas Press has long provided a valuable service to students of the American Presidency with its terrific volumes on each of America’s chief executives. Now the University of Kansas Press has done fans of American politics a great favor by commissioning volumes on each presidential election, all by noted historians.

Cornell Professor Joel Sibley is an expert in the antebellum era and tackles the 1848 presidential election that featured a three-way contest between a southern slave-holding Whig, Zachary Taylor; a northern Democratic Senator, Lewis Cass; and former president Martin Van Buren, running as the candidate of the anti-slavery Free Soil Party.

Silbey focuses on the messages each party used to attract votes in an election where the issue of slavery in the territories was roiling opinion in both existing parties and providing energy for a new political party committed to no expansion of slavery in the vast new lands under American control as a result of the Mexican-American war.

Sibley shows, whoever, that Free Soil anti-slavery sentiments played less of a role in the outcome than might be expected. Democratic defections in New York State to Free Soil largely because of personal loyalty to home state favorite Van Buren handed the electoral votes of the largest state in the Union to Taylor and the Whigs, but Whig defections to Free Soil in Indiana and Ohio handed an equal number of electoral votes to Democrat Cass.

More important than Free Soil anti-slavery sentiment were the differing abilities of the parties to turnout their adherents. Turnout dropped to 72% from the 80% who had voted in 1844 and the Whigs did a better job of getting its supporters to vote than did the Democrats, especially in the north.

But even the variation in turnout by party doesn’t explain all the contest, Sibley argues. The Florida 2000 or Ohio 2004 of 1848 was Pennsylvania, an historically Democratic state. And there the Whigs won in the coal counties, as normally Democratic miners either crossed over or stayed home and gave this battleground state to the Whigs.

At times dry and, after the conventions, focused more on strategy and messages than events (as is perhaps necessarily the case in the age before candidates went on the campaign trail or big large national newspapers set the tone), Sibley’s volume is an easy, sharp and interesting look at an election where the stirrings of deep, irreconcilable feelings on slavery both north and south first appear.

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