Party over Section
The Rough and Ready Presidential Election of 1848
Joel H. Silbey
Choice Outstanding Title
The presidential campaign of 1848 saw the first strong electoral challenge to the expansion of slavery in the United States; most historians consider the appearance of the Free Soil Party in that election a major turning point of the nineteenth century. The three-way race capped a decade of political turmoil that had raised the issue of slavery to unprecedented prominence on the national stage and brought about critical splits in the two major parties.
“Eminent political historian Silbey has produced a definitive account of the pivotal U.S. presidential election of 1848 in this briskly written but thoroughly researched book. He provides a thorough introduction to both the issues and the candidates that defined this three-way struggle between Democrats, Whigs, and the emergent Free-Soil coalition. Students and scholars of the antebellum U.S. will benefit greatly from Silbey’s accessible yet sophisticated and nuanced study. Highly recommended.”
“A brisk and cogent analysis of an election campaign that many historians have seen as a harbinger of the breakdown of the two-party system and the coming of the Civil War. Eminently useful for scholars of this momentous campaign in particular and students of nineteenth-century political history in general.”
—Civil War HistorySee all reviews...
“The book has an excellent description of the nature and mechanics of an antebellum presidential election. . . . Silbey rejects the Civil War synthesis that the sectional animosity of the 1848 campaign is central to the political debate and further a sign of impending civil war. . . . for Silbey, party affinity trumps sectionalism in 1848.”
—Journal of Illinois History
“New in this book is Silbey’s convincing refutation of the thesis that 1848 clearly marked the rise of the slavery issue, the beginning of the second party system’s demise, and a temporary pause in partisanship. Silbey argues that the election revealed an enduring partisanship among most Americans, with sectionalism taking hold only among elite party leaders. . . . For a political history of how partisanship stifled sectional tensions in 1848, readers can do no better than this fine book.”
—Journal of American History
“Throughout this account, one gains a sense not only of the flow and contingency of events, but also of the basic structure and practice of politics at the time: the torchlight parades, public rallies, campaign biographies, party newspapers accusatory debates, and fund-raising strategies. Silbey depicts an exuberant mass democracy with ingrained customs and rituals.”
—Reviews in American History
“Gracefully written, cogently documented, and exceedingly well argued, this book is sure to hold continuing deep interest for all who study antebellum politics and puzzle over the causes of the Civil War.”
—James Brewer Stewart, author of Joshua Giddings and the Tactics of Radical Politics and Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery
“Silbey shines a brilliant light on the issues, party maneuverings, and outcome of the 1848 presidential campaign. He tells a riveting, complex tale with engaging clarity and discernment and makes a powerful case that—despite growing sectional divisions over slavery—the contest was less a harbinger of a new political order than an assertion of traditional political loyalties.”
—Richard Carwardine, author of LincolnSee fewer reviews...
In the first book in four decades devoted to the 1848 election, Joel Silbey clarifies our understanding of a pivotal moment in American history. The election of Whig Zachary Taylor, hero of the Mexican War, over Democrat Lewis Cass and Free Soiler Martin Van Buren followed a particularly bitter contest, a fierce political storm in an already tumultuous year marked by the first significant attempt by antislavery advocates to win the presidency.
Silbey describes what occurred during that election and why it turned out as it did, offering a nuanced look at the interaction of the forces shaping the direction of politics in mid-nineteenth century America. He explains how the Free Soilers went about their reform movement and why they failed as they ran up against the tenacious grip that the existing two-party structure had on the political system and the behavior of the nation's voters.
For Whigs and Democrats it was politics as usual as they stressed economic, cultural, and ideological issues that had divided the country for the previous twenty years. Silbey describes the new confrontation between the force of tradition and a new and different way of thinking about the political world. He shows that ultimately, when America went to the polls, northerners and southerners alike had more on their minds than slavery. Nevertheless, while Van Buren managed to attract only 10 percent of the vote, his party's presence foreshadowed a more successful challenge in the future.
Emphasizing both persistent party commitments and the reformers' lack of political muscle, Silbey expertly delineates the central issues of an election framed by intense partisanship and increasing sectional anger. If 1848 did not yet mark the death rattle of traditional politics, this insightful book shows us its importance as a harbinger of change.