by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on July 15, 2016.
The bane of summer vacation for children of the 1970s was the two weeks of gavel to gavel TV blackout caused by the party conventions. Politics was for grown-ups (and perhaps my wonkish eldest sister) and without our steady supply of Gunsmoke and Mary Tyler Moore reruns most of us became unbearable. And after the turmoil of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, the rules for choosing candidates changed and conventions became even less, shall we say, exciting? State primary elections and caucuses now decide the candidates before the convention, so gone are the days of endless roll-call votes and dark horse candidates. Too bad, some of our earlier political conventions would have made great TV.
In 1848, the party in power called themselves Democrats. Their president, James K. Polk, had been elected in 1844 as a dark-horse candidate. A slave-owning southerner with expansionist ambitions, Polk had supported the annexation of Texas, plunged the U.S. into the Mexican War and enlarged the country by gaining the entire southwest at the close of the war. Then he basically quit. By refusing a second term, he left his party with new territory and no real guidance on how to govern it. Except for some hand-wringing over Puerto Rico and Guam, we no longer expend a lot of political energy on territorial expansion, but back in the 1840s, this was a real and difficult issue due to the issue of slavery. At the time the constitution was written, it was assumed that slavery was on the way out. It was also notable, of course, that of the first 11 presidents, 9 of them had been slave owners at some time.
The Democrats held their convention in Baltimore in May. They chose Lewis Cass – an Exeter native and former governor of Michigan. Cass loved the idea of expanding the United States, but more than anything else in the entire world, Lewis Cass loved the U.S. Constitution, which he felt allowed slavery. One of his earliest memories was watching the celebration bonfires in Exeter’s downtown following the adoption of the Constitution. He was also devoted to his party. Of him Amos Tuck said, “General Cass was a genial gentleman, of genuine patriotism, modified by the erroneous belief that the Democratic Party was the country, and that whoever served that party served God and is fellow beings in the best possible manner.” Cass was also quite comfortable with slavery and didn’t object to its spread to the new territory. Because of this, a sizeable faction of the Democrats bolted after the convention in search of a new less slavery loving candidate.
The Whigs met in Philadelphia in early June. Still stinging from their defeat in 1844, they were determined to nominate a winner. Although they had a barn full of capable politicians, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay among them, after four ballots the nomination went to Zachary Taylor. Wait, who? Was this guy even a Whig? Taylor was a career soldier, having served in the U.S. Army since he was a teenager. He had no interest in politics and had to be coaxed into running after he received the nomination. But he was a war hero, and the Whigs needed a war hero. His running mate was Millard Fillmore, a disagreeable former member of the “Know Nothing” American party, which opposed immigrants and Catholics. Taylor hailed from Nashville. In attempting to make him seem likeable, the editor of the Exeter News-Letter, noted, “It is said that Gen. Taylor lives at the South and is a slaveholder. This is true. Slavery is wrong, a great evil, all know. Yet we should not lose our reason when we speak of it. The South, and those who live there are a part of this republic.” Unsurprisingly, there were members of the Whig party dissatisfied with this candidate.
Angry Whigs and anti-slavery Democrats found their way to a single-issue hippie party called the Free-Soilers. They’d already held a convention the previous year and nominated John P. Hale of New Hampshire (and Phillips Exeter Academy graduate, like Lewis Cass) as their candidate. They were persuaded to hold a new convention where they were joined by the disaffected Democrats and Whigs. Here they created a platform that opposed expanding slavery into new territory basing this on the Northwest Ordinance, which admitted new states without slavery back in 1787. The Free-Soil platform was a long list of anti-slavery planks. At the very bottom, someone must have realized they only had one issue, so they added “cheap postage for the people” almost as an afterthought. At this second convention, Hale was persuaded to step down and the nomination went to Martin Van Buren. Free-Soilers back home reacted with a collective, ARE YOU KIDDING ME??? Van Buren was a Democratic party man to the core, having served under Andrew Jackson as Secretary of State, minister to Great Britain and vice-president before being elected president himself in 1836. Sure he was something of an abolitionist, his only slave ran away long before the election, but voters still blamed him for the depression of 1837. Still, he seemed sincere so the Free Soil party decided to risk it anyway.
The 1848 election between three unpopular candidates was held that November. New Hampshire threw all of its electoral votes to Lewis Cass. He was one of the devils we knew and at least he hadn’t tanked the economy and wasn’t Zachary Taylor. Taylor’s name was enough to win him the election. He died just over a year later and Milliard Fillmore served out his term. The slavery issue remained unresolved – compromises were tried, tempers flared, boundaries were set and then relinquished. It was a complicated turbulent time in American politics. It would have made great TV.
Image: Political conventions, and local meetings like the one advertised here, frequently had unanticipated outcomes, unlike our party conventions today.