United States presidential election, 1848

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United States presidential election, 1848

← 1844 November 7, 1848 1852 →

All 290 electoral votes of the Electoral College
146 electoral votes needed to win
Turnout 72.7%[1]
  ZacharyTaylor small.png 150x150px MartinVanBuren.png
Nominee Zachary Taylor Lewis Cass Martin Van Buren
Party Whig Democratic Free Soil
Home state Louisiana Michigan New York
Running mate Millard Fillmore William O. Butler Charles F. Adams
Electoral vote 163 127 0
States carried 15 15 0
Popular vote 1,361,393 1,223,460 291,501
Percentage 47.3% 42.5% 10.1%

Presidential election results map. Blue denotes states won by Cass/Butler, Orange denotes those won by Taylor/Fillmore. Numbers indicate the number of electoral votes allotted to each state.

President before election

James K. Polk

Elected President

Zachary Taylor

The United States presidential election of 1848 was the 16th quadrennial presidential election, held on Tuesday, November 7, 1848. It was won by Zachary Taylor of the Whig Party, who ran against former President Martin Van Buren of the Free Soil Party and Lewis Cass of the Democratic Party. Incumbent President James K. Polk, having achieved all of his major objectives in one term and suffering from declining health, kept his promise not to seek re-election.

The contest was the first presidential election that took place on the same day in every state, and it was the first time that Election Day was statutorily a Tuesday.[2]

The Whigs in 1846-47 had focused all their energies on condemning Polk's war policies. They had to reverse course quickly. In February 1848 Polk surprised everyone with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War and gave the United States vast new territories (including what are now the states of California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico). The Whigs in the Senate voted 2-1 to approve the treaty. Then, in the summer, the Whigs nominated the hero of the war, Zachary Taylor.[3] While he did promise no more future wars, he did not condemn the Mexican-American War or criticize Polk, and the Whigs had to follow his lead. They shifted their attention to the new issue of whether slavery could be banned from the new territories.

The choice of Taylor was made almost out of desperation; he was not clearly committed to Whig principles, but he was popular for leading the war effort. The Democrats had a record of victory, peace, prosperity, and the acquisition of both Oregon and the Southwest. It appeared almost certain that they would win unless the Whigs picked Taylor. His victory made him one of only two Whigs to be elected president before the party ceased to exist in the 1850s; the other was William Henry Harrison, who had also been a general and war hero, but died a month after assuming office.


Whig Party nomination

File:Taylor Fillmore.png
Grand National Whig banner

Mexican-American War General Zachary Taylor of Louisiana, an attractive candidate because of his successes on the battlefield, but who had never voted in an election himself, was openly courted by both the Democratic and Whig parties. Taylor ultimately declared himself a Whig, and easily took their nomination, receiving 171 delegate votes to defeat Henry Clay, Winfield Scott, Daniel Webster and others. After Webster turned down the vice-presidential candidacy, Millard Fillmore received the party's nomination for vice-president; defeating—among others—Abbott Lawrence, a Massachusetts politician whose mild opposition to slavery led him to be dubbed a "Cotton Whig".[4]

Cass/Butler campaign poster

Democratic Party nomination

Former President Martin Van Buren once again sought the Democratic nomination, but Lewis Cass was nominated on the fourth ballot.[5] Cass had served as Governor and Senator for Michigan, as well as Secretary of War under Andrew Jackson, and from 1836 to 1842 as ambassador to France. General William O. Butler was nominated to join Cass on the ticket, garnering 169 delegate votes to defeat five other candidates, including future Vice-President William R. King and future Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

The Democrats chose a platform that remained silent on slavery, and with Cass suspected of pro-slavery leanings, many anti-slavery Democrats walked out of the Baltimore convention to begin the Free Soil Party. Van Buren had burned for the nomination, but he had wanted it on a Free Soil platform. Neither his name nor his stand received any support at the Democratic convention.

Free Soil Party nomination

Van Buren/Adams

The Free Soil Party, was organized for the 1848 election to oppose further expansion of slavery into the western territories. Much of its support came from disaffected anti-slavery Democrats, including former President Martin Van Buren. The party was led by Salmon P. Chase and John Parker Hale and held its 1848 convention in Utica and Buffalo, New York. On June 22, Van Buren defeated Hale by a 154-129 delegate count to capture the Free Soil nomination, while Charles Francis Adams, the son and grandson of two other presidents, was chosen as the vice-presidential nominee.

Van Buren knew that the Free Soilers had not the slightest chance of winning, rather that his candidacy would split the Democratic vote and throw the election to the Whigs. Bitter and aging, Van Buren did not care despite the fact his life had been built upon the rock of party solidarity and party regularity. He loathed Lewis Cass and the principle of popular sovereignty with equal intensity.[5]

Liberty Party nomination

Despite their significant showing in the prior presidential election, certain events would conspire to remove the Liberty Party from political significance.

Initially, the nomination was to be decided in the fall of 1847 at a Convention in Buffalo, New York. There, Senator John P. Hale was nominated over Gerrit Smith, brother-in-law to the party's previous nominee James G. Birney. Leicester King, a former judge and state senator in Ohio, was nominated to be Hale's running mate. Anti-slavery Democrats and Whigs, disappointed with their respective nominees, would form a new movement in conjunction with members of the Liberty Party such as John Hale and Salmon Chase to form the Free Soil Party that summer. At this point, both Hale and King withdrew in favor of a Free Soil ticket lead by former President Martin Van Buren, and the great majority of members of the Liberty Party followed. A small faction refused to support Van Buren for the presidency, however. They held another convention in June 1848 as the "National Liberty Party." Gerrit Smith was nominated almost unanimously with Charles Foote, a religious minister from Michigan, as his running-mate.

Other nominations

The Native American Party, a precursor to the Know Nothings, met in September 1847 in Philadelphia, where they nominated Zachary Taylor for president and Henry A. S. Dearborn of Massachusetts for vice-president. Taylor was nominated for the presidency by the Whig Party the following year, rendering his previous nomination moot.

General election


The campaign was fought without much enthusiasm, and practically without an issue. Neither of the two great parties made an effort to rally the people to the defense of any important principle.

Whig campaigners, which included Abraham Lincoln and Rutherford B. Hayes, talked up Taylor's "antiparty" opposition to the Jacksonian commitment to the spoils system and yellow-dog partisanship. In the South, they stressed that he was a Louisiana slaveholder, while in the North they highlighted his Whiggish willingness to defer to Congress on major issues (which he subsequently did not do).

Democrats repeated, as they had for many years, their opposition to a national bank, high tariffs, and federal subsidies for local improvements. The Free Soilers branded both major parties lackeys of the Slave Power, arguing that the rich planters controlled the agenda of both parties, leaving the ordinary white man out of the picture. They had to work around Van Buren's well-known reputation for compromising with slavery.

The Whigs had the advantage of highlighting Taylor's military glories. With Taylor remaining vague on the issues, the campaign was dominated by personalities and personal attacks, with the Democrats calling Taylor vulgar, uneducated, cruel and greedy, and the Whigs attacking Cass for graft and dishonesty. The division of the Democrats over slavery allowed Taylor to dominate the Northeast.[6]

The Free Soilers were on the ballots in only 17 of the 29 states with the popular vote, making it mathematically possible for Van Buren to win the presidency, but realistically his chances were nonexistent. Despite this, the party campaigned vigorously, particularly in the traditional Democrat strongholds in the northeast. While some Free Soilers were hopeful of taking enough states to throw the election into the House of Representatives, Van Buren himself knew this was a long shot, and that the best they could do was lay the groundwork for a hopefully improved showing in 1852.


Results by county explicitly indicating the percentage of the winning candidate in each county. Shades of yellow are for Taylor (Whig), shades of blue are for Cass (Democrat), and shades of green are for Van Buren (Free Soil).
File:Zachary Taylor - Cock of the walk.jpg
"Cock of the walk" - Zachary Taylor as victor

With Taylor as their candidate, the Whigs won their second and last victory in a Presidential election. Taylor won the electoral college by capturing 163 of the 290 electoral votes. However, the popular vote was close. Although Taylor out-polled Cass in the popular vote by 138,000 votes, he came 79,000 votes shy of a majority. Thus, with 47% of the popular vote, Taylor was elected as a minority president.

A study of the county returns reveals that Free Soil strength drawn at the expense of the major parties differed by region. In the East North Central States, it appears at least the majority of the Free Soil strength was drawn from the Whig Party.

Conversely, in the Middle Atlantic region, Free Soil bases of strength lay in the areas which had hitherto been Democratic, particularly in New York and northern Pennsylvania. The Free Soil Democrats nomination of Van Buren made the victory of Taylor nearly certain in New York. On election day, enough Democratic votes were drawn away by Van Buren to give the Whig ticket all but two Democratic counties, thus enabling it to carry hitherto impregnable parts of upper New York state. The Democrats, confronted with an irreparable schism in New York, lost the election.

In New England, the Democratic vote declined by 33,000 from its 1844 level, while the Whig vote likewise declined by 15,000 votes. The third-party vote tripled, and the total vote remained nearly stationary—a partial indication, perhaps, of the derivation of the Free Soil strength in this section. For the first time since the existence of the Whig Party, the Whigs failed to gain an absolute majority of the vote in Massachusetts and Vermont. In addition, the Democrats failed to retain their usual majority in Maine; thus only New Hampshire (Democratic) and Rhode Island (Whig) of the states in this section gave their respective victorious parties clear-cut majorities.

Of the 1,464 counties/independent cities making returns, Cass placed first in 753 (51.43%), Taylor in 676 (46.17%), and Van Buren in 31 (2.12%). Four counties (0.27%) in the West split evenly between Taylor and Cass. This was the first time in the Second Party System in which the victorious party failed to gain at least a plurality of the counties as well as of the popular vote.

As one historian remarks, somewhat sarcastically, practically the only thing it decided was that a Whig general should be made President because he had done effective work in carrying on a Democratic war.

Presidential candidate Party Home state Popular vote(a) Electoral
Running mate
Count Pct Vice-presidential candidate Home state Elect. vote
Zachary Taylor Whig Louisiana 1,361,393 47.3% 163 Millard Fillmore New York 163
Lewis Cass Democratic Michigan 1,223,460 42.5% 127 William Orlando Butler Kentucky 127
Martin Van Buren Free Soil New York 291,501 10.1% 0 Charles Francis Adams, Sr. Massachusetts 0
Gerrit Smith Liberty New York 2,545 0.1% 0 Charles C. Foote Michigan 0
Other 285 0.0% Other
Total 2,879,184 100% 290 290
Needed to win 146 146

Source (Popular Vote): Leip, David. "1848 Presidential Election Results". Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. Retrieved July 27, 2005.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Source (Electoral Vote): "Electoral College Box Scores 1789–1996". National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved July 31, 2005.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (a) The popular vote figures exclude South Carolina where the Electors were chosen by the state legislature rather than by popular vote.

Popular vote
Van Buren
Electoral vote

Results by state

This was the first election where the two leading candidates each carried half of the states. As of 2012, it has subsequently happened just once, in 1880. Source: Data from Walter Dean Burnham, Presidential ballots, 1836-1892 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1955) pp 247-57.

Zachary Taylor
Lewis Cass
Martin Van Buren
Free Soil
State Total
State electoral
#  % electoral
#  % electoral
#  % electoral
Alabama 9 0001361830,482 49.44 - 0004866931,173 50.56 9 no ballots 61,655 AL
Arkansas 3 7,587 44.93 - 9,301 55.07 3 no ballots 16,888 AR
Connecticut 6 30,318 48.59 6 27,051 43.35 - 5,005 8.02 - 62,398 CT
Delaware 3 6,440 51.80 3 5,910 47.54 - 82 0.66 - 12,423 DE
Florida 3 4,120 57.20 3 3,083 42.80 - no ballots 7,203 FL
Georgia 10 47,532 51.49 10 44,785 48.51 - no ballots 92,317 GA
Illinois 9 52,853 42.42 - 55,952 44.91 9 15,702 12.60 - 124,596 IL
Indiana 12 69,907 45.77 - 74,745 48.93 12 8,100 5.30 - 152,752 IN
Iowa 4 9,930 44.59 - 11,238 50.46 4 1,103 4.95 - 22,271 IA
Kentucky 12 67,145 57.46 12 49,720 42.54 - no ballots 116,865 KY
Louisiana 6 18,487 54.59 6 15,379 45.41 - no ballots 33,866 LA
Maine 9 35,273 40.25 - 40,195 45.87 9 12,157 13.87 - 87,625 ME
Maryland 8 37,702 52.10 8 34,528 47.72 - 129 0.18 - 72,359 MD
Massachusetts 12 61,072 45.32 12 35,281 26.18 - 38,333 28.45 - 134,748 MA
Michigan 5 23,947 36.80 - 30,742 47.24 5 10,393 15.97 - 65,082 MI
Mississippi 6 25,911 49.40 - 26,545 50.60 6 no ballots 52,456 MS
Missouri 7 32,671 44.91 - 40,077 55.09 7 no ballots 72,748 MO
New Hampshire 6 14,781 29.50 - 27,763 55.41 6 7,560 15.09 - 50,104 NH
New Jersey 7 40,015 51.48 7 36,901 47.47 - 819 1.05 - 77,735 NJ
New York 36 218,583 47.94 36 114,319 25.07 - 120,497 26.43 - 453,399 NY
North Carolina 11 44,054 55.17 11 35,772 44.80 - no ballots 79,826 NC
Ohio 23 138,359 42.12 - 154,773 47.12 23 35,347 10.76 - 328,479 OH
Pennsylvania 26 185,313 50.28 26 171,976 46.66 - 11,263 3.06 - 368,552 PA
Rhode Island 4 6,779 60.77 4 3,646 32.68 - 730 6.54 - 11,155 RI
South Carolina 9 no popular vote no popular vote 9 no popular vote - SC
Tennessee 13 64,321 52.52 13 58,142 47.48 - no ballots 122,463 TN
Texas 4 4,509 29.71 - 10,668 70.29 4 no ballots 15,177 TX
Vermont 6 23,132 48.27 6 10,948 22.85 - 13,837 28.87 - 47,922 VT
Virginia 17 45,265 49.20 - 46,739 50.80 17 no ballots 92,004 VA
Wisconsin 4 13,747 35.10 - 15,001 38.30 4 10,418 26.60 - 39,166 WI
TOTALS: 290 1,360,235 47.28 163 1,222,353 42.49 127 291,475 10.13 - 2,876,818 US
TO WIN: 146

Electoral college selection

Method of choosing Electors State(s)
Each Elector appointed by state legislature South Carolina
Each Elector chosen by voters statewide (all other States) *

* Massachusetts law provided that the state legislature would choose the Electors if no slate of Electors could command a majority of voters statewide. In 1848, this provision was triggered.

See also


  1. "Voter Turnout in Presidential Elections". The American Presidency Project. UC Santa Barbara.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. http://presidentelect.org/trivia.html
  3. "About Zachary Taylor". What is USA News. February 12, 2014. Retrieved June 16, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Luthin, Richard H. (December 1941). "Abraham Lincoln and the Massachusetts Whigs in 1848". The New England Quarterly. 14 (4): 621–622.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 5.0 5.1 Stone, Irving (1966). They Also Ran: The Story of the Men who were Defeated for the Presidency. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. p. 262.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "TheyAlso" defined multiple times with different content
  6. Silbey (2009)
  7. Library of Congress


  • Blue, Frederick J. The Free Soilers: Third Party Politics, 1848–54 (1973).
  • Boritt, G. S. "Lincoln's Opposition to the Mexican War," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society Vol. 67, No. 1, Abraham Lincoln Issue (Feb. 1974), pp. 79–100 in JSTOR
  • Earle, Jonathan H. Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Free Soil, 1828–1854 (2004).
  • Eyal, Yonatan. "The 'Party Period' Framework and the Election of 1848", Reviews in American History Volume 38, Number 1, March 2010, in Project Muse
  • Graebner, Norman A. "Thomas Corwin and the Election of 1848: A Study in Conservative Politics." Journal of Southern History, 17 (1951), 162-79. in JSTOR
  • Hamilton, Holman. Zachary Taylor: Soldier in the White House (1951)
  • Holt; Michael F. The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War. (1999). online edition
  • Morrison, Michael A. "New Territory versus No Territory": The Whig Party and the Politics of Western Expansion, 1846-1848," Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Feb. 1992), pp. 25–51 in JSTOR
  • Nevins, Allan. Ordeal of the Union: Volume I. Fruits of Manifest Destiny, 1847-1852 (1947).
  • Rayback, Joseph G. Free Soil: The Election of 1848. (1970).
  • Silbey, Joel H. Party Over Section: The Rough and Ready Presidential Election of 1848 (2009). 205 pp.

External links