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Party over Section

The Rough and Ready Presidential Campaign of 1848

Joel H. Silbey

March 2009
224 pages, 14 illustrations, 1 map, 5-3⁄4 x 9-1⁄4
American Presidential Elections
Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-1640-4, $34.95

Book cover imageThe 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.

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.

“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.”—Choice

“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 Lincoln

JOEL H. SILBEY is President White Professor of History, Emeritus, at Cornell University and author or editor of more than twenty books, most recently Storm over Texas: The Annexation Controversy and the Road to Civil War.


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