Campaign of 1852

by R.D. Monroe, PhD.


Two years before the 1852 election, a great legislative accord, the Compromise of 1850, was fashioned to settle the disposition of the new territory acquired in the Mexican War. Among its elements was the admission of California as a free state, a bow to the North, and a reinvigorated fugitive slave law, a sop for the South. Both political parties, the Whigs and the Democrats, pledged continued support for the Compromise as a resolution of sectional tensions. Unfortunately, those tensions continued to simmer, as there was resistance in the North to the aggressive enforcement of the fugitive slave law, and consequent resentment in the South at what was perceived as northern failure to live up to the terms end of the Compromise.

In this atmosphere, both political parties chose presidential candidates who were moderates without great political or partisan reputations. Democrats passed overLewis Cass, James Buchanan, and Stephen Douglas, and selected Franklin Pierce, a New Hampshire politician of no great distinction. For their part, the Whigs ignored Millard Fillmore, who as vice president moved up to the presidency uponZachary Taylor's death. They chose another general, Winfield Scott, a man with a distinguished military career who would prove less agile on the political field than he had been on the battlefield.

Whigs were hampered in the ensuing campaign by the neutralization of their traditional economic appeals—a strong tariff, national bank, and internal improvements. The economy was in fine condition, so there was little interest in economic legislation. Stripped of their issues, Whigs chose to attack Pierce, whom they characterized as a nonentity with disabling personal faults, specifically, as a drunkard and a coward. Pierce had an undistinguished sojourn as a brigadier general in the Mexican War, in which he had a penchant for falling off his horse or becoming ill at inopportune moments. Alluding to the drunkenness charge, Whigs said Pierce was the "Hero of Many a Well Fought Bottle." For their part, Democrats charged that Scott had purposely brutalized Germans and other immigrants in army ranks, while Democratic newspapers published nativist statements Scott had uttered nearly a decade previous. To damage the general in the South, he was accused of insufficient devotion to the Compromise. Scott and the Whigs attempted to appeal to the growing population of immigrants and Catholics, but did so in a clumsy fashion. In remarks at Cleveland, Ohio, Scottenthused, "I love to hear the Irish brogue." In the end, such pleas only succeeded in alienating Scott's Protestant base.

The final result was a disaster for the Whig party. Scott won a mere four states and forty-two electoral votes, while Pierce rolled up twenty-seven states and 254 electoral votes. Another New Hampshire politician, John P. Hale, ran as the Free Soil presidential candidate, but that third party's vote declined from its showing in 1848. Many northern Democrats who had backed Martin Van Buren's Free Soil candidacy in 1848 had returned to the Democratic party in 1852.