1848 Federal Election

Date: From 1848-08-07 to 1849-11-11

Coming after the Mexican War, the presidential election of 1848 partly centered on the question of slavery's status in the new territorial cessions in the southwest. Honoring his promise not to run for a second term, incumbent James K. Polk left the field wide open for the Democrats, and delegates to the Democratic National Convention selected Lewis Cass as their candidate. Going into the election, it seemed as though Democrats would surely win due to Polk's success in the war and the Whigs' well-publicized opposition but the Whigs gained a sizable advantage by selected Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor as their candidate. Much as William Henry Harrison had won the presidency for the Whigs in 1840 without openly supporting the party's philosophy, so too did Taylor carry the 1848 election primarily on his personal popularity. The election was also noteworthy for the emergence of the Free Soil Party. It nominated Martin Van Buren as its candidate, who carried about 10% of the vote. The Liberty Party also fielded a candidate, Gerrit Smith, but garnered little support because most of their members had joined the Free Soil Party.

Although the 1848 election was the first held on the same day, November 7, throughout the nation, the states still elected House representatives on different days. In the Congressional returns, the Whigs lost their majority to the Democrats, although neither party controlled the majority of total House seats. The former Whig seats were largely lost to the Free Soil Party, which won nine.

David M. Potter and Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper, 1976), 76-82.