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. The Whigs nominated Zachary Taylor for president and Millard Fillmore for vice-president. The election was also noteworthy for the emergence of the Free Soil Party. It nominated Martin Van Buren as its presidential candidate. The Liberty Party also fielded a candidate, Gerrit Smith, but garnered little support because most of their members had joined the Free Soil Party.

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 nominating Taylor, a popular hero of the Mexican War. 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. Taylor defeated Cass and his other rivals, winning 163 electoral votes to 127 for Cass. Taylor carried fifteen states, eight in the South and seven in the North, while Cass won the remaining fourteen states. Taylor garnered 47.3 percent of the popular vote to 42.5 percent for Cass, 10.1 percent for Van Buren, and a miniscule 0.1 percent for Smith.

Although the 1848 election was the first held on the same day, November 7, throughout the nation, the states still elected members of the U.S. House of Representatives on different days. In the congressional returns for the Thirty-First Congress, the Whigs, who held the majority of the seats in the House during the Thirtieth Congress, lost eight seats and their majority to the Democrats, who gained three seats. Neither party gained a majority of total House seats. The former Whig seats were largely lost to the Free Soil Party, which picked nine seats in the House. The Democrats retained their majority in the Senate, though the Whigs and Free-Soilers chipped away at this majority. The Democrat majority declined from 63.3 percent in the Thirtieth Congress to 56.5 percent in the Thirty-First.

David M. Potter and Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 76-82; Holman Hamilton, "Campaign of 1848," Dictionary of American History, rev. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976), 1:420; John L. Moore, Jon P. Preimesberger, and David R. Tarr, eds., Congressional Quarterly’s Guide to U.S. Elections, 4th ed. (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2001), 1:650; Kenneth C. Martis, The Historical Atlas of Political Parties in the United States Congress, 1789-1989 (New York: MacMillan, 1989), 101, 103