1848 United States presidential election

← 1844 November 7, 1848 1852 →

290 members of the Electoral College
146 electoral votes needed to win
Turnout72.7%[1] Decrease 6.2 pp
Nominee Zachary Taylor Lewis Cass Martin Van Buren
Party Whig Democratic Free Soil
Home state Louisiana Michigan New York
Running mate Millard Fillmore William O. Butler Charles F. Adams
Electoral vote 163 127 0
States carried 15 15 0
Popular vote 1,361,393 1,223,460 291,501
Percentage 47.3% 42.5% 10.1%

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Presidential election results map. Buff denotes states won by Taylor/Fillmore and blue by Cass/Butler. Numbers indicate the number of electoral votes cast by each state.

President before election

James K. Polk

Elected President

Zachary Taylor

The 1848 United States presidential election was the 16th quadrennial presidential election, held on Tuesday, November 7, 1848. In the aftermath of the Mexican–American War, General Zachary Taylor of the Whig Party defeated Senator Lewis Cass of the Democratic Party.[2]

The contest was the first presidential election that took place on the same day in every state, and it was the first time that Election Day was statutorily a Tuesday.[3]

Despite Taylor's unclear political affiliations and beliefs, and the Whig opposition to the Mexican–American War, the 1848 Whig National Convention nominated the popular general over party stalwarts such as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. For vice president, the Whigs nominated Millard Fillmore, a New York Whig known for his moderate views on slavery. Incumbent President James K. Polk, a Democrat, honored his promise not to seek re-election, leaving his party's nomination open. The 1848 Democratic National Convention rejected former President Martin Van Buren's bid for a second term, instead nominating Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan. Van Buren broke from his party to lead the ticket of the Free Soil Party, which opposed the extension of slavery into the territories.

The Whig choice of Zachary Taylor was made almost out of desperation; he was not clearly committed to Whig principles, but he was popular for leading the war effort. The Democrats had a record of prosperity and had acquired the Mexican cession and parts of Oregon country. It appeared almost certain that they would win unless the Whigs picked Taylor. Taylor won a plurality of the popular vote and a majority of the electoral vote, while Van Buren won 10.1% of the popular vote, a strong showing for a third party candidate.

Taylor's victory made him the second of two Whigs to win a presidential election, following William Henry Harrison's victory in the 1840 presidential election. Like Harrison, Taylor died during his term, and he was succeeded by Fillmore. Discounting Republican Abraham Lincoln's 1864 re-election on the National Union ticket, Taylor is the most recent individual who was not a member of the Democratic or Republican parties to win a presidential election.


Whig Party nomination

Main article: 1848 Whig National Convention

Whig Party Ticket, 1848
Zachary Taylor Millard Fillmore
for President for Vice President
Major General
New York State Comptroller
Grand National Whig banner

Mexican–American War General Zachary Taylor of Kentucky, an attractive candidate because of his successes on the battlefield, but who had never voted in an election himself, was openly courted by both the Democratic and Whig parties. Taylor ultimately declared himself a Whig, and easily took their nomination, receiving 171 delegate votes to defeat Henry Clay, Winfield Scott, Daniel Webster and others.

After Webster turned down the vice-presidential candidacy, Millard Fillmore received the party's nomination for vice-president, defeating—among others—Abbott Lawrence, a Massachusetts politician whose mild opposition to slavery led him to be dubbed a "Cotton Whig".[4]

Democratic Party nomination

Main article: 1848 Democratic National Convention

Democratic Party (United States)
Democratic Party (United States)
Democratic Party Ticket, 1848
Lewis Cass William O. Butler
for President for Vice President
U.S. Senator from Michigan
Former U.S. Representative
for Kentucky's 13th
Cass/Butler campaign poster

Former President Martin Van Buren once again sought the Democratic nomination, but withdrew before balloting began due to a dispute over the seating of the New York delegation, which culminated in the convention voting that half of the state's delegates be made up of the anti-slavery "Barnburner" faction lead by Van Buren, with the remaining half from the pro-slavery "Hunker" faction. Van Buren, knowing he had no feasible path to winning the nomination without the full support of the New York delegation, lead the Barnburners in withdrawing from the convention. The Hunkers, upset that they were not allowed to take the vacated seats of their Barnburner counterparts, likewise withdrew.

As a result of Van Buren's withdrawal, Senator Lewis Cass and incumbent Secretary of State James Buchanan were seen as the only serious contenders for the nomination, with a draft effort also focusing on Supreme Court associate justice Levi Woodbury. In stark contrast to the highly contested and protracted convention at the previous (and subsequent) election, Cass held a wide lead on all four ballots, only being denied victory on the third due to the convention rules stipulating that the votes of the absent New York delegates still counted towards the required two-thirds majority, before the Buchanan and Woodbury campaigns quietly released enough delegates to allow Cass victory on the fourth ballot.[5] Cass had served as Governor and Senator for Michigan, as well as Secretary of War under Andrew Jackson, and from 1836 to 1842 as ambassador to France. General William O. Butler was nominated to join Cass on the ticket, garnering 169 delegate votes to defeat five other candidates, including future Vice-President William R. King and future Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Though he had made few public statements on the matter, Cass had long been suspected of pro-slavery leanings (Butler was known to be a moderate abolitionist, albeit he still owned slaves himself), and the convention agreed on a platform that made no mention of the issue. This failed to mollify Van Buren's supporters, most of whom bolted to form the Free Soil Party, eventually followed by Van Buren himself.

Free Soil Party nomination

Main article: 1848 Free Soil & Liberty national conventions

Free Soil Party Ticket, 1848
Martin Van Buren Charles Francis Adams
for President for Vice President
President of the United States
Former Massachusetts State Senator
Van Buren/Adams

The Free Soil Party was organized for the 1848 election to oppose further expansion of slavery into the western territories. Much of its support came from disaffected anti-slavery Barnburner Democrats and Conscience Whigs, including former President Martin Van Buren. The party was led by Salmon P. Chase and John Parker Hale and held its 1848 convention in Utica and Buffalo, New York. On June 22, Van Buren defeated Hale by a 154-129 delegate count to capture the Free Soil nomination, while Charles Francis Adams, whose father (John Quincy Adams) and grandfather (John Adams) had both served as president, was chosen as the vice-presidential nominee.

Van Buren knew that the Free Soilers had not the slightest chance of winning, rather that his candidacy would split the Democratic vote and throw the election to the Whigs. Bitter and aging, Van Buren did not care despite the fact that his life had been built upon the rock of party solidarity and party regularity. He loathed Lewis Cass and the principle of popular sovereignty with equal intensity.[6]

Liberty Party nomination

Main article: 1848 Free Soil & Liberty national conventions

Despite their significant showing in the prior presidential election, certain events would conspire to remove the Liberty Party from political significance.

Initially, the nomination was to be decided in the fall of 1847 at a Convention in Buffalo, New York. There, Senator John P. Hale was nominated over Gerrit Smith, brother-in-law to the party's previous nominee James G. Birney. Leicester King, a former judge and state senator in Ohio, was nominated to be Hale's running mate. Anti-slavery Democrats and Whigs, disappointed with their respective nominees, would form a new movement in conjunction with members of the Liberty Party such as John Hale and Salmon Chase to form the Free Soil Party that summer. At this point, both Hale and King withdrew in favor of a Free Soil ticket led by former President Martin Van Buren, and the great majority of members of the Liberty Party followed them into the new political party. A small faction refused to support Van Buren for the presidency, however. They held another convention in June 1848 as the "National Liberty Party." Gerrit Smith was nominated almost unanimously with Charles Foote, a religious minister from Michigan, as his running-mate.

Other nominations

The Native American Party, a precursor to the Know Nothings, which had split from the Whig Party in 1845, met in September 1847 in Philadelphia, where they nominated Zachary Taylor for president and Henry A. S. Dearborn of Massachusetts for vice-president. However, when the Whig Party nominated Taylor for the presidency with Millard Fillmore as his running mate the following year, this rendered his previous nomination moot and the Native American Party failed to make an alternate nomination.

General election


The campaign was fought without much enthusiasm, and practically without an issue. Neither of the two great parties made an effort to rally the people to the defense of any important principle.

Whig campaigners, who included Abraham Lincoln and Rutherford B. Hayes, talked up Taylor's "antiparty" opposition to the Jacksonian commitment to the spoils system and yellow-dog partisanship. In the South, they stressed that he was a Louisiana slaveholder, while in the North they highlighted his Whiggish willingness to defer to Congress on major issues (which he subsequently did not do).

Democrats repeated, as they had for many years, their opposition to a national bank, high tariffs, and federal subsidies for local improvements. The Free Soilers branded both major parties lackeys of the Slave Arm, arguing that the rich planters controlled the agenda of both parties, leaving the ordinary white man out of the picture. They had to work around Van Buren's well-known reputation for compromising with slavery.

The Whigs had the advantage of highlighting Taylor's military glories. With Taylor remaining vague on the issues, the campaign was dominated by personalities and personal attacks, with the Democrats calling Taylor vulgar, uneducated, cruel and greedy, and the Whigs attacking Cass for graft and dishonesty. The division of the Democrats over slavery allowed Taylor to dominate the Northeast.[7]

The Free Soilers were on the ballots in only 17 of the 29 states with the popular vote, making it mathematically possible for Van Buren to win the presidency, but he had no real chance. Still, the party campaigned vigorously, particularly in the traditional Democrat strongholds in the northeast.

While some Free Soilers were hopeful of taking enough states to throw the election into the House of Representatives, Van Buren himself knew this was a long shot and that the best that his party could do was lay the groundwork for a hopefully improved showing in 1852.

1848 campaign artwork


Results by county explicitly indicating the percentage of the winning candidate in each county. Shades of yellow are for Taylor (Whig), shades of blue are for Cass (Democrat), and shades of green are for Van Buren (Free Soil).
"Cock of the walk" - Zachary Taylor as victor

With Taylor as their candidate, the Whigs won their second and last victory in a Presidential election. Taylor won the electoral college by capturing 163 of the 290 electoral votes, while the popular vote was close: Taylor out-polled Cass in the popular vote by 138,000 votes, winning 47% of the popular vote, and was elected president.

A shift of less than 6000 votes to Cass in Georgia and Maryland would have left the electoral college in a 145–145 tie, while a shift of less than 27,000 votes to Van Buren in Connecticut, Maine and Massachusetts would have left both Taylor and Cass short of the 146 electoral votes required to win, forcing a contingent election in the House of Representatives.

A study of the county returns reveals that Free Soil strength drawn at the expense of the major parties differed by region. In the East North Central States, it appears at least the majority of the Free Soil strength was drawn from the Whig Party.

Conversely, in the Middle Atlantic region, Free Soil bases of strength lay in the areas which had hitherto been Democratic, particularly in New York and northern Pennsylvania. The Free Soil Democrats nomination of Van Buren made the victory of Taylor nearly certain in New York. On election day, enough Democratic votes were drawn away by Van Buren to give the Whig ticket all but two Democratic counties, thus enabling it to carry hitherto impregnable parts of upper New York state. The Democrats, confronted with an irreparable schism in New York, lost the election.

In New England, the Democratic vote declined by 33,000 from its 1844 level, while the Whig vote likewise declined by 15,000 votes. The third-party vote tripled, and the total vote remained nearly stationary: a partial indication, perhaps, of the derivation of the Free Soil strength in this section. For the first time since the existence of the Whig Party, the Whigs failed to gain an absolute majority of the vote in Massachusetts and Vermont. In addition, the Democrats failed to retain their usual majority in Maine; thus only New Hampshire (Democratic) and Rhode Island (Whig) of the states in this section gave their respective victorious parties clear-cut majorities.

Of the 1,464 counties/independent cities making returns, Cass placed first in 753 (51.43%), Taylor in 676 (46.17%), and Van Buren in 31 (2.12%). Four counties (0.27%) in the West split evenly between Taylor and Cass. This was the first time in the Second Party System in which the victorious party failed to gain at least a plurality of the counties as well as of the popular vote.

As one historian remarks, somewhat sarcastically, practically the only thing it decided was that a Whig general should be made President because he had done effective work in carrying on a Democratic war.

This was the last election in which Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island voted for the Whigs. It was also the last time that Georgia voted against the Democrats until 1964, the last time Delaware and Louisiana did so until 1872, the last time Florida and North Carolina did so until 1868, and the last time New Jersey and Pennsylvania did so until 1860.

Electoral results
Presidential candidate Party Home state Popular vote(a) Electoral
Running mate
Count Percentage Vice-presidential candidate Home state Electoral vote
Zachary Taylor Whig Louisiana 1,361,393 47.28% 163 Millard Fillmore New York 163
Lewis Cass Democratic Michigan 1,223,460 42.49% 127 William Orlando Butler Kentucky 127
Martin Van Buren Free Soil New York 291,501 10.12% 0 Charles Francis Adams, Sr. Massachusetts 0
Gerrit Smith Liberty New York 2,545 0.09% 0 Charles C. Foote Michigan 0
Other 285 0.01% Other
Total 2,879,184 100% 290 290
Needed to win 146 146

Source (Popular Vote): Leip, David. "1848 Presidential Election Results". Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. Retrieved July 27, 2005. Source (Electoral Vote): "Electoral College Box Scores 1789–1996". National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved July 31, 2005. (a) The popular vote figures exclude South Carolina where the Electors were chosen by the state legislature rather than by popular vote.

Popular vote
Van Buren
Electoral vote

Geography of results

Cartographic gallery

Results by state

This was the first election where the two leading candidates each carried half of the states. As of 2018, it has subsequently happened just once, in 1880. Source: Data from Walter Dean Burnham, Presidential ballots, 1836–1892 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1955) pp 247–57.

Zachary Taylor
Lewis Cass
Martin Van Buren
Free Soil
Margin State Total
State electoral
# % electoral
# % electoral
# % electoral
# % #
Alabama 9 0001361830,482 49.44 - 0004866931,173 50.56 9 no ballots -691 -1.12 61,655 AL
Arkansas 3 7,587 44.93 - 9,301 55.07 3 no ballots -1,714 -10.14 16,888 AR
Connecticut 6 30,318 48.59 6 27,051 43.35 - 5,005 8.02 - 3,267 5.24 62,398 CT
Delaware 3 6,440 51.80 3 5,910 47.54 - 82 0.66 - 530 4.26 12,423 DE
Florida 3 4,120 57.20 3 3,083 42.80 - no ballots 1,037 14.40 7,203 FL
Georgia 10 47,532 51.49 10 44,785 48.51 - no ballots 2,747 2.98 92,317 GA
Illinois 9 52,853 42.42 - 55,952 44.91 9 15,702 12.60 - -3,099 -2.49 124,596 IL
Indiana 12 69,907 45.77 - 74,745 48.93 12 8,100 5.30 - -4,838 -3.16 152,752 IN
Iowa 4 9,930 44.59 - 11,238 50.46 4 1,103 4.95 - -1,308 -5.87 22,271 IA
Kentucky 12 67,145 57.46 12 49,720 42.54 - no ballots 17,425 14.92 116,865 KY
Louisiana 6 18,487 54.59 6 15,379 45.41 - no ballots 3,108 9.18 33,866 LA
Maine 9 35,273 40.25 - 40,195 45.87 9 12,157 13.87 - -4,922 -5.62 87,625 ME
Maryland 8 37,702 52.10 8 34,528 47.72 - 129 0.18 - 3,174 4.38 72,359 MD
Massachusetts 12 61,072 45.32 12 35,281 26.18 - 38,333 28.45 - 22,739 16.87 134,748 MA
Michigan 5 23,947 36.80 - 30,742 47.24 5 10,393 15.97 - -6,795 -10.44 65,082 MI
Mississippi 6 25,911 49.40 - 26,545 50.60 6 no ballots -634 -1.20 52,456 MS
Missouri 7 32,671 44.91 - 40,077 55.09 7 no ballots -7,406 -10.18 72,748 MO
New Hampshire 6 14,781 29.50 - 27,763 55.41 6 7,560 15.09 - -12,982 -25.91 50,104 NH
New Jersey 7 40,015 51.48 7 36,901 47.47 - 819 1.05 - 3,114 4.01 77,735 NJ
New York 36 218,583 47.94 36 114,319 25.07 - 120,497 26.43 - 98,086 21.51 455,944 NY
North Carolina 11 44,054 55.17 11 35,772 44.80 - no ballots 8,282 10.37 79,826 NC
Ohio 23 138,359 42.12 - 154,773 47.12 23 35,347 10.76 - -16,414 -5.00 328,479 OH
Pennsylvania 26 185,313 50.28 26 171,976 46.66 - 11,263 3.06 - 13,337 3.62 368,552 PA
Rhode Island 4 6,779 60.77 4 3,646 32.68 - 730 6.54 - 3,133 28.09 11,155 RI
South Carolina 9 no popular vote no popular vote 9 no popular vote - - - SC
Tennessee 13 64,321 52.52 13 58,142 47.48 - no ballots 6,179 5.04 122,463 TN
Texas 4 4,509 29.71 - 10,668 70.29 4 no ballots -6,159 -40.58 15,177 TX
Vermont 6 23,132 48.27 6 10,948 22.85 - 13,837 28.87 - 9,295 19.40 47,922 VT
Virginia 17 45,265 49.20 - 46,739 50.80 17 no ballots -1,474 -1.60 92,004 VA
Wisconsin 4 13,747 35.10 - 15,001 38.30 4 10,418 26.60 - -1,254 -3.20 39,166 WI
TOTALS: 290 1,360,235 47.28 163 1,222,353 42.49 127 291,475 10.13 - 2,876,818 US
TO WIN: 146

Electoral college selection

Method of choosing electors State(s)
Each Elector appointed by state legislature South Carolina
Each Elector chosen by voters statewide (all other States) *

* Massachusetts law provided that the state legislature would choose the Electors if no slate of Electors could command a majority of voters statewide. In 1848, this provision was triggered.

See also


  1. ^ "Voter Turnout in Presidential Elections". The American Presidency Project. UC Santa Barbara.
  2. ^ Allan Nevins, Ordeal of the Union: Volume I. Fruits of Manifest Destiny, 1847–1852 (1947).
  3. ^ President Elect – Previous Trivia Of The Week, archived from the original on August 11, 2017, retrieved September 17, 2017
  4. ^ Luthin, Richard H. (December 1941). "Abraham Lincoln and the Massachusetts Whigs in 1848". The New England Quarterly. 14 (4): 621–622. JSTOR 360598.
  5. ^ Stone, Irving (1966). They Also Ran: The Story of the Men who were Defeated for the Presidency. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. p. 262.
  6. ^ They Also Ran, Irving Stone, pg. 263
  7. ^ Silbey (2009)
  8. ^ weber, balmer and; h., weber, c. "Image 1 of Fort Harrison march". Archived from the original on July 10, 2012.((cite web)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)


Primary sources