The Old Order’s Last Hurrah

The Free Soil Party did not make much of a triumphant return in 1852. Just four years before, the combination of Barnburner Democrats, Conscience Whigs, and Liberty Party alumni took over the opposition role in three Northern states and held the balance of power in divided legislatures. They used that influence to put some of their own into the Senate. But Martin Van Buren’s New York Barnburners returned to the Democracy in 1849, taking almost half of the Free Soil party’s support back into the party of Jackson. They, and Van Buren, cared more about settling scores with their fellow Democrats than they did about antislavery politics.

The collapse of the nation’s only avowed antislavery party might seem like good news for a system built on keeping slavery out of the political limelight. Without Free Soiler agitation, the election could revolve around other issues and the parties could return to the usual equivocations on slavery that helped keep the sectional peace both in the parties and in the Union as a whole. But by siphoning off the more dedicated antislavery voices into a separate movement, the Free Soilers had also removed much of the need for the Whigs and Democrats to appease them. Their return could meant they no longer conceded the old parties to politicians who stressed party unity over ideological purity on slavery.

The Barnburners and their ulterior motives did not account for all Free Soil men, however. Those with purer intentions remained in the party or returned to their old still committed to antislavery. Furthermore, their return reunited them with other antislavery men who preferred to work within the old parties. The Second Party System suffered either way. The Free Soilers temporarily lessened the sectional strains within the old parties by removing some of their more diehard antislavery elements. Their return to the fold might have helped make stands on slavery less of an imperative for the parties, but the circumstances of the Armistice made those stands and their costs unavoidable regardless.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

In the short-term, however, the old order had one last triumph in it. In November, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire won fourteen free and twelve slave states. Winfield Scott, the Whigs general of the moment, claimed only two states of each section. The Second Party System, if strained, came roaring back to deliver a resounding win to the choice of both sections just as the nation almost always had before. Only four times had the choice of just one section won the White House and the last of those came in 1828. Furthermore, the Democrats’ choice of Pierce sidelined candidates who had just the sectional constituencies that could have struck against the precedent: Lewis Cass for the North and James Buchanan for the South.

Looking at just the most obvious data, one could conclude that whatever the Whigs’ troubles the old order endured. The Democracy had, after all, always dominated the Second Party System. Maybe the past four years had strained it, but the system withstood that strain. We have the benefit of hindsight to tell us otherwise, but those who looked deeper at the time could have noted troubling signs too.

Pierce’s 254 electoral votes the fact that he carried many states by slim margins. He won five states with less than 51% of the vote: New York (50.18%), Iowa (50.23%), North Carolina (50.43%), Michigan (50.45%), and Maine (50.63%). Four more came in under 52%: Pennsylvania (51.20%), Rhode Island (51.37%), Illinois (51.87%), and Louisiana (51.94%). He just barely won the national popular vote (50.83%) even with two parties to split his opposition. He won only a plurality of the North’s popular vote and those close brushes with defeat concentrate heavily north of the Ohio and the Mason-Dixon line.

But no president would do even that again until 1912 when Woodrow Wilson won the Southern popular vote and enjoyed electoral college majorities in both sections just as Pierce had. None would both win the popular and electoral majority of both sections until 1932.

The collapse of the Whigs, who contested the presidency for the last time in 1852, yielded the White House to the Democrats for the remainder of the decade. But the fall of the party did not mean that the men who filled its offices, sought its patronage, believed its values, and voted its ticket evaporated. Many would quit politics for a time, but nothing like the decade of one party politics that preceded the Second Party System ensued. The new Republican Party organized just two years later.

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