Polk Succeeded by 'Old Zach' in 1848 Election
From VOA Learning English, welcome to The Making of a Nation, our weekly program of American history for people learning American English. I’m Steve Ember, in Washington.
The Mexican-American war officially ended in 1848. Mexico agreed to give California and New Mexico to the United States. And, Mexico would recognize the Rio Grande River as the southern border of Texas.
Thus, President James K. Polk had succeeded in expanding the United States. He had added Oregon, California, Texas, and New Mexico to the country. Now, the country faced the problem of what to do with slavery in the new territories.
“As soon as it became clear in the American consciousness that Polk’s aim in the Mexican War was to gain Southwestern territory—California and what’s now the American Southwest—then the slavery question becomes very, very salient in a powerful way that it had been kept under wraps for 20, 25 years.”
Robert Merry is an historian and the author of a book about James K. Polk.
“So we went through 10 years of kind of political hell in America as we struggled through that issue, which could only be settled through force of arms.”
Southerners argued that they had the right to bring slaves into California and New Mexico. Northerners opposed any further spread of slavery. But the real question was a legal one. Did Congress have the power to control or ban slavery in the territories?
Until Texas became a state, almost all national leaders seemed to accept the idea that Congress did have this power. For 50 years, Congress had passed resolutions and laws controlling slavery in U.S. territories. But Southern slave owners believed the power to control slavery remained with the states. There seemed to be no answer to the problem.
While Congress debated the issue, the country moved quickly into the presidential campaign of 1848. President Polk was old, tired and in poor health. He said he would keep his promise to serve only one term. Polk felt that he had done his duty. During the first days of his administration, he listed the goals of his presidency.
First, he wanted to reduce the tax on imports. Second, he wished to establish an independent treasury, which the Whigs, had voted out. Third, he hoped to settle the Oregon border dispute with Britain. And fourth, he wanted to make California part of the United States.
Less than four years later, he had succeeded with each item on his list. The United States and Britain agreed on a compromise in the Oregon dispute. In 1846, Polk was able to establish the independent Treasury again, where the government could keep its own funds. No longer would government money be kept in private banks.
That same year, Polk was able to get Congress to approve a bill that greatly reduced the taxes on imports. And the peace treaty with Mexico gave the United States not only California, but also New Mexico. So, the president believed he had served his country well.
Polk, however, had not served his party well. He was not a good politician. He failed to unite competing groups within the Democratic Party. What was worse, he let them move even farther apart.
There seemed to be no strong Democratic candidate who could unite the party. At one extreme were the supporters of former President Martin Van Buren -- New York Democrats opposed to slavery. They were called "Barnburners." They got this name from their opponents, who claimed they were willing to burn down the entire barn to remove pro-slavery rats.
At the party's other extreme were the Democrats of the South, led by John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. In every state, the Democrats were divided between those who supported the Polk administration and those opposed to it.
Democratic delegates met in Baltimore in May of 1848 to choose their candidate for president. On the fourth vote, the delegates chose Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan as the party's presidential candidate. Cass was 66 years old. He was considered a moderate Democrat. He was a northerner who did not oppose slavery.
On the question of slavery in the new territories, Cass believed that the people living in those areas should make the decision. The Barnburner Democrats of New York refused to accept Cass as their candidate. They walked out of the Baltimore convention.
Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky expected to be the presidential candidate of the Whig Party. The Whigs had nominated Clay as their candidate in three earlier elections. But Clay lost all three times. In 1848, older members of the party still supported him. But young Whigs felt a new candidate was needed.
Some party leaders remembered how William Henry Harrison had won the presidency for the Whigs in 1840 by campaigning as a military hero. The country now had a new military hero: "Old Zach," General Zachary Taylor. He and his men never lost a battle in the Mexican War. Several times, General Taylor defeated Mexican forces much larger than his.
Taylor was 63 years old. He had almost no formal education. He had spent almost 40 years in the West as an Indian fighter and commander of small army bases.
Some politicians did not believe Taylor had the ability to be president. But his supporters put great energy into their campaign. They tried to sell the idea that the general was the only man who could defeat the candidate of the Democratic Party. Finally, Taylor won the Whig Party's nomination.
Many Americans did not like either presidential candidate because of the candidates' policies on slavery. Lewis Cass saw nothing wrong with slavery if that was what the people wanted. And Zachary Taylor was a slave owner.
So, a group of men in Ohio decided to form a new political party. They called it the Free Soil Party, because they believed in free land for free settlers. They wanted no further spread of slavery.
The Free Soil leaders proposed a convention of all who supported their ideas. Ten thousand people went to the convention in Buffalo, New York.
For two days, the delegates debated the slavery issue and discussed their choice of a candidate for president. They also worked on a platform -- a statement of their party's purpose.
The platform declared that slavery was an institution of the states, not the nation. It said Congress had no right to help spread slavery by permitting it in the new western territories. The platform declared that the issue should be faced with firmness. No more slave states. No more slave territory. No more compromises with slavery, anywhere.
Convention delegates then voted on candidates. They chose former President Martin Van Buren as the party’s candidate.
The people of the nation voted on November 7, 1848. It was the first time a presidential election was held on the same day in all parts of the country. Zachary Taylor won both the popular and electoral votes. He became the 12th president of the United States.
Congress met a few weeks after the election, long before Taylor took office. It faced serious problems. Territorial governments were needed for the areas won in the war against Mexico.
California, especially, needed help. Gold had been discovered in California. Thousands of people were moving there. A government was needed to protect the lives and property of the new population.
Then there was the question of laws forcing northern states to return escaped slaves to their owners. The laws were not always obeyed. Southerners wanted a new law that would be easier to enforce.
Congress found it difficult to act on these problems. The House of Representatives was controlled by members of the Free Soil Party, which opposed slavery. The Senate was controlled by southerners, who supported slavery. The two sides found it almost impossible to agree on anything.
Early in January, 1849, a congressman proposed a bill to first limit, and then end, slavery in the District of Columbia. Opposition to the bill was strong. It was amended. The new bill would simply close all places in the District of Columbia where slaves were bought and sold.
Southern congressmen disliked the bill, even as amended. They organized a committee representing every one of the southern states. Senator John C. Calhoun said the committee should write a declaration explaining the position of the South. The committee agreed, and Calhoun wrote most of the declaration himself.
The southern declaration accused the North of many aggressions. The South, it said, faced many dangers. Soon there would be enough free states to control both the House and the Senate. And then the Constitution would be changed and all slaves would be freed.
And this, said the southern declaration, would lead to bitter hostility and war between North and South. The declaration called on the people of the South to unite and be firm in their opposition to the North.
With this new firmness, southern lawmakers fought to make slavery legal in the new territories. They effectively blocked proposals for territorial governments in California and New Mexico.
Congress ended its term on March 4, 1849, without any progress. Zachary Taylor was sworn-in as president that same day.
Americans hoped that the new president would be able to bring the North and South together again. But Taylor really had no policy. He could not support a bill to keep slavery out of the territories. That might start a quick revolt among the southern states. He could not support a bill to let slavery spread into the territories. That would make the North rise in anger.
Taylor tried to be neutral. He hoped the problem of slavery would solve itself. But the problem would not solve itself. The growing division between North and South will be our story next week.
I’m Steve Ember, inviting you to join us next time for The Making of a Nation — American history from VOA Learning English.