Conscience & Cotton: The Divided Whigs

Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor

Yesterday I described how alienated Van Burenite Barnburners, seeing their Hunker rivals seated alongside them and their Wilmot Proviso platform voted down in Baltimore quit the Democrats and teamed up with the Liberty Party to become the Free Soilers.

Across the aisle, the Whigs hoped to avoid the slavery hot button by simply not passing a platform and nominating Zachary Taylor, hero of the war they spent much of the previous few years opposing. Taylor offered a blank slate where voters could read whatever they liked. He owned plantations and slaves, but had no real political record. The Whigs needed to carry at least a few states where voters approved of Texas annexation and the war, so why not the war hero to draw them in? Taylor’s southern credentials won him Southern votes at the convention, displacing party founder and frequent failed candidate Henry Clay.

Passing over the slaveholding Clay’s long record of compromise and moderate antislavery politics for the much larger slaveholder from the Deep South of unknown politics displeased many, but not all, Northern Whigs just as much as it pleased their Southern counterparts. Thus the Northern branch of the party split, with Conscience Whigs like Charles Sumner and Charles Francis Adams reading proslavery politics on Taylor’s blank slate and refusing to support the his ticket. Against them, Cotton Whigs (named for their involvement in textiles) insisted they still opposed the war and favored the Wilmot Proviso even as they tried to help their Southern compatriots who stood embattled because of just those party positions. How serious could the Cotton Whigs be about antislavery policy when their partisan strategy required courting proslavery politicians?

The Conscience Whigs left the party, defecting to the new Free Soil ticket. They held their noses at Van Buren’s proslavery past and supported his antislavery present, which included not just the Wilmot Proviso but also abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia. Conscience Whig Charles Francis Adams (son of John Quincy Adams and a third-generation foe of slavery) became Van Buren’s running mate.

Of course, removing from the Whig party many of its most committed antislavery leaders, especially at a time when the rest of the party wanted to shield its Southern members from accusations of being soft on abolitionism, hardly shifted the party’s position to the liking of Conscience Whigs. Instead, one imagines that to many voters Democrat and Whig seemed very close in 1848. Both supported expansion. While the Whigs opposed the war, they went on to nominate one of its generals. As the war had been the great issue of the past few years and both parties not appeared to agree, what remained to argue about?

Just what the Free Soilers wanted and the Democrats and Whigs hoped to avoid: the still unsettled status of slavery in the territories.

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