Historical Figures Series: Military as Celebrity Part 3

David B Morris
21 min readJun 7, 2024

How The Role of the General as Political Candidate Played A Critical Role In The Years Leading Up to The Civil War

In the leadup to the 1836 presidential election the brand new Whig Party was unsure of their best strategy to defeat the Democratic nominee for President Martin Van Buren, Jackson’s Vice President for his second term and his anointed successor. They were still not organized at a national level, so they attempted to compel a contingent election in the House by denying the Democrats and electoral majority.

To that end they ran multiple candidates based on the section of the country they were the strongest. In the South they ran two candidates Hugh Lawson White of Tennessee. For New England, they chose Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. And in the North and the Border States their candidate was William Henry Harrison. (Each candidate had his own vice President: Harrison and Webster ran with Francis Granger, while White ran with John Tyler.)

All three of the candidates had their own merits to them. Webster by 1836 was known throughout New England and the country as one of the greatest orators in the Senate. He had galvanized the nation with his famous replies to William Hayne during the sectional crisis, famously ending the second with the stirring phrase: “Liberty and the Union, inseparable, now and forever!” Like Henry Clay, many saw the White House as an inevitability for him.

Hugh White had been named to succeed Andrew Jackson in the Senate in the Tennessee. He had been one of Jackson’s most trusted allies during his administration throughout many of the most prominent battles. But like many prominent politicians he became suspicious of Jackson’s imperial Presidency and realigned himself with the Whigs in 1836. Jackson took this, like so much else, as a betrayal and would campaign prominently against White.

William Henry Harrison

William Henry Harrison had a long career in both public and military service. At the age of 25 he had been elected as the non-voting delegate for the Northwest Territory and became the governor of the Indiana Territory when it was established in 1801. In that role he had negotiated multiple treaties with American Indian Tribes, being critical to the nation’s acquisition of territory. He was elected to the House to represent Ohio’s first district in 1816 and named to the Senate in 1824, though he left his term to become Minister Plenipotentiary to Gran Columbia in 1829.

Prior to this, he had served in the military since the age of 18, serving under Mad Anthony Wayne. During 1810 he returned to military service and would lead an Army north in what would become known as the Battle of Tippecanoe. While Harrison became famous for this, at the time Harrison was held in a negative aspect by the War Department. In the War of 1812, he would eventually be named command of the Army and was order to retake Detroit which had been held siege by the British. Harrison constructed a defensive position, would win victories in the Indiana Territory as well as Ohio and defeated the British as at the Battle of the Thames. Unlike Andrew Jackson, Harrison military accomplishments in the War of 1812 were not manufactured and he would be responsible for negotiating the Treaty of Springfield in June of 1815.

The Whigs strategy failed in 1836. Van Buren received a majority of the popular vote with 51 percent and 170 electoral votes. Webster got only Massachusetts 14 electoral votes, while White carried 26, Tennessee and Georgia. William Magnum had carried South Carolina and eleven votes. Harrison did the best of the three candidates, getting more than half a million popular votes and carrying 73 electoral votes. Still the strategy came closer to working than it appeared at first glance. Van Buren’s margin of victory in Pennsylvania, which carried 30 electoral votes was barely four thousand votes over Harrison. Had Harrison won the state, he would have been eight votes short of the electoral college.

That Harrison had done the best of the three candidates was duly noted by many political figures.

When the Panic of 187 hit, Van Buren took the brunt of the abuse for it even though, as I wrote in the previous article, much of the fault was on Jackson for its coming. After making major gains in the midterms in 1838, the Whigs felt that they had a winning hand going into the 1840 election. So much so that they decided they wanted to hit the ground running.

In December of 1839, the Whigs would hold their Presidential nominated convention. (They began the habit of the long campaign early.)Webster dropped out of the race early, which left three major candidates for the race: Harrison, Henry Clay and General Winfield Scott. (He will be discussed further down.) Clay, who was the ideological founder of the party led on the first two ballots but circumstances, including the rules of the convention and bad management caused his support to slowly erode. On the fifth ballot, after shifts in delegates from most Scott’s backers caused Harrison to win the nomination. Both Clay and Webster were offered the Vice Presidential nomination but declined believing it a meaningless position. Tyler, a Virginia senator who had been the Vice Presidential nominee for White four years earlier, took the second spot.

Considering the economic situation as well as Harrison’s prominent political and military history the 1840 campaign could have been one of the philosophies. Instead the Whigs chose to model their campaign off the ones that the Jacksonians had used to success in 1828. Indeed the Whig Party had absolutely no platform — they were afraid to have one would tear the fragile party apart. (See there was precedent for it.) Their sole goal was to win through public enthusiasm, and they succeeded in that extent.

Campaign poster from 1840.

The Whig campaign slogan is known throughout history even for those who know little about William Henry Harrison: “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” It should be mentioned that several Northern Whigs had severe doubts about Tyler being on the ticket in the first place, one being quoted as: “There was rhyme but no reason to it.” (This would later turn out to be prophetic.) The second part was how the campaign was framed.

Van Buren’s campaign managers tried to frame Harrison as an out of touch man who among other things, was known for drinking ‘hard cider’. The Whigs managed to turn the slur into a badge of honor and that used to it make Harrison into a Jacksonian man of the people. To this they claimed he was a man of humble origin having been born and lived in a long cabin. This was a political fiction: Harrison was as much a man of privilege as Andrew Jackson had been when he ran for office and may never have even owned a log cabin, much less lived in one. But what worked for Jackson worked just as well for Harrison and the campaign was framed as that of log cabins and hard cider.

This would work as well for Harrison as it had for Jackson: in November he won the Presidency with 234 electoral votes to Van Buren’s 60. Due to Van Buren’s policies, the Whigs would win a sizable majority in Congress, taking control of both houses of Congress by a considerable margin. Prominent Whigs took critical positions in Harrison’s cabinet and Webster was named Secretary of State. Clay served as a key adviser when it came to filling the Cabinet with their supporters and allies and it looked like the Whigs would have smooth sailing.

If you have just a casual knowledge of history, you know that Harrison who was sixty eight, chose to give the longest inaugural speech of all time — it clocked at over an hour and forty minutes and that was after Webster edited it profusely — in a pouring rain without a coat. He developed pneumonia and 31 days after being sworn in succumbed the first President to die in office and leading to John Tyler ascending to the Presidency.

Less well known is just how disastrous President Tyler was when it came to aggravating the sectional crisis, although the fact that he has been ranked as one of the worst Presidents in history should give you a clue. I will deal with the major problems with Tyler’s presidency in another series which I am working on, but it’s worth noting many of the Whigs who had supported Harrison, most importantly Henry Clay, didn’t consider him a ‘legitimate President’. Within the end of six months all of Harrison’s cabinet within the except of Webster offered Tyler their resignations. Most of his own nominees for the Cabinet were rejected by Congress as were two vacancies on the Supreme Court that he tried to repeatedly fill. Congress repeated refused to acknowledge his authority, so Tyler would set a record for vetoes and became the first President to have one of his vetoes overridden An inquiry for impeachment was formed in the House but it was rejected. By the time Tyler’s first term was half over, he had been rejected by both the Whigs and Democrats.

By far the most consequential part of his Presidency was his attempts to annex Texas. He spent the better part of two years attempting to do so, despite the fact that it was such a toxic issue neither party wanted anything to do with it. He would manage to do so under tragic circumstances and major political blunders (I will detail them in a later article as well) but by April of 1844, there was a treaty before Congress and he ordered his new Secretary of State, the controversial John C. Calhoun to begin negotiations with the Republic of Texas.

Tyler would attempt to run for President as a third party candidate, but it failed. It still affected the Presidential race. Henry Clay was nominated by the Whigs as their Presidential nominee but Martin Van Buren, the front-runner for the nomination before the annexation, lost popularity and eventually the nomination went to James K. Polk, a loyal Jacksonian who supported annexation. After the treaty was rejected by the Senate, Polk was persuaded by Jackson to welcome Tyler back into the party. His endorsement of Polk would help him win a narrow victory in November and it was seen by Tyler as a mandate for completing the resolution. The Senate narrowly approved the treaty and Tyler signed it into law on the last day of his Presidency. Immediately after Mexico broke off diplomatic relations with America, and the Mexican war began not long after — another milestones on the way to the Civil War. The Mexican War would also play a critical role in future Presidential elections for the next decade.

Polk refused to run for reelection in 1848 (he was in ill-health and would die less than three months after he left office) the Democratic nomination would come down to James Buchanan (Polk’s Secretary of State) and Lewis Cass, Senator from Michigan who despite his norther roots believed in the ideals of popular sovereignty which was code for states’ rights. Van Buren wanted the nomination badly but a dispute over the New York delegation led to a break in the Democratic party. Cass earned the nomination on the fourth ballot. (I will deal with the consequences of this in a different series.)

In the eight years since Harrison’s death the Whigs had been suffering as a national party. They had narrowly regained control of the House in 1846 after four years being out of power but they had not controlled the Senate since the 1842 midterms.

As early as 1847 General Zachary Taylor, a hero for his victories over Santa Anna was considered a strong favorite for President. No one knew his political views but many Whigs believed he was their strongest possible candidate.

Clay who been nominated for President three times and lost all three was 71 in 1848 and not in the best health, but still had a strong following in the party he’d helped found. Taylor’s prominence led Clay to run for the nomination. Winfield Scott, who had also fought in the Mexican War, ran for the nomination again as did Daniel Webster.

The South largely united around Taylor on the first ballot with 111 votes. Clay was a strong second with 97 and Scott had 43. But after that ballot Clay’s support eroded. On the fourth ballot Taylor took the nomination. Daniel Webster declined the Vice Presidency so Millard Filmore a state office holder from New York won it on the second ballot. There was little of a platform in 1848 and most of it was praise for Taylor rather than specific policies. (Hmm. A political party that was entirely praising its candidate rather than focusing on relevant issues to the nation. History may not repeat but it does rhyme.)

Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor was the first man to run for President who had neither political experience nor held public office before being nominated. He had served in the military for forty years, distinguished himself as a captain in the War of 1812 and had fought in nearly every military war since then. During the Mexican War, his victory over superior numbers at the Battle of Palo Alto had made him a military hero, and his humane treatment of Mexican soldiers, both those wounded and those who died made him a popular hero and earned him the rank of major general. As early as 1846, he was being compared to Washington and Jackson, but he denied interest in the Presidency. His credibility increased with a stunning victory as the Battle of Buena Vista and he earned three Congressional Gold medals. Ulysses Grant, who served under him, would say: “A better army, man for man, probably never faced an enemy that the one commanded by Taylor.”

Taylor was apolitical and had never voted prior to 1848, indeed, he had a negative view of most politicians. While a native Virginian and a slave owner himself, he did not think it practical to expand slavery into the West and was a prominent opponent of secession. Those believes put him closer to the Whig perspective than the Democrats.

When it came to the most prominent issue of the day — the Wilmot Proviso, which proposed against the expansion of slavery — Taylor angered some southerners when he said he would not veto it. This was a stand that few Presidential candidates willing to take but it didn’t satisfy abolitionists because they wanted him to support it.

In the campaign Taylor largely ignored direct participation and said little about the issues itself. His positions were so vague that a Whig Congressman from Illinois Abraham Lincoln made a superb satirical speech in Congress in which he argued Taylor’s vagueness on the issues were a virtue, not a sin. In truth Taylor kept his principles private. He didn’t believe in the ideas of the national bank or restoring a protective tariff, that land sales would not fund the budget and internal improvements would continue despite the veto. He thought the Whig’s economic program was dead.

Thanks to highlighting Taylor’s military victories and the division among the Democrats, Zachary Taylor became President with 163 electoral votes to Cass’s 127. While he received only 47 percent of the popular, his victory was not sectional. He won seven slave states and eight free states. But the victory was a triumph more for Taylor than the Whigs: they would lose ten seats in Congress, losing their majority in the House and could not gain a majority in the Senate. Taylor therefore became the first President to win election to have both Houses of Congress controlled by the opposing party.

Many Southerners had believed that Taylor would support the expansion of slavery. Instead Taylor governed as a Unionist, opposing its expansion and increasingly siding with anti-slavery Northerners. Similarly he maintained a distance from Clay who had returned to the Senate in the 1848 elections. By doing so, he was increasingly becoming politically isolated and became a non-factor in the negotiation of the Compromise of 1850.

I will deal with the Compromise of 1850 in my series on abolitionists but it’s worth noting while it was being negotiated he was not notably in favor of it. But while negotiations were going on he would attend a July 4th celebration where he consumed cherries and iced milk. He developed a digestive ailment that worsened so rapidly that he died just six days later. Millard Filmore ascended to the White House and a few days later signed the Compromise of 1850 into law.

Those actions led many to hope that the crisis over slavery had ended. But the Whig Party was in a crisis of its own. They suffered major losses in the 1850 midterms, losing 24 seats in the House and lost more seats than the Democrats in the Senate. By the time of the 1852 Presidential campaign the party, never strong on a national level, was begin to deteriorate internally as well. The Compromise of 1850 had torn it apart sectionally. Millard Filmore, the incumbent had the support of Southern Whigs, while the North was divided between Winfield Scott and Daniel Webster.

On the first ballot Fillmore had a narrow lead of Scott with Webster far behind. Scott took the lead after eight ballots but the two remained deadlocked for forty six ballots. It took 52 ballots for Scott just to get to half the delegates and he finally was nominated on the next one.

The previous week the Democrats had needed just as long. The North wanted Cass to run again. James Buchanan was popular in the South and Pennsylvania and a relatively new face in politics Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas was popular with expansionists.

For nineteen ballots, Cass was ahead but the two-thirds rule stopped him from winning the nomination. Buchanan pulled ahead on the twentieth ballot. After thirty five ballots, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire was offered as a compromise choice by the Virgnia delegation. After 49 ballots everyone decided to step aside for Pierce.

At the time Franklin Pierce was the youngest man to be nominated for President by a major party; he was 47. He’d been active in New Hampshire politics from a young age serving in both the House and Senate for New Hampshire. A member of the New Hampshire militia, he had passed on an offer to become Polk’s attorney general to fight in the Mexica War. But though he was named brigadier general, his tenure was disastrous, he was thrown from his horse in one of his first major battles and injured his knee. At the battle of Churubusco, Winfield Scott, his commanding officer ordered him to the rear to convalesce. He refused, and entered the fight tied to his saddle. The pain was so great he passed out on the field. While his military exploits made him popular in New Hampshire, his injuries gave him a reputation for cowardice that shadowed him.

Winfield Scott.

Scott had been an early favorite for the Presidential nominee by the Whigs ever since 1840. Like Taylor before him, his entire career was in military service and his history in the U.S military showed him performing with distinction and triumph in every war America fought in the first half of the 19th century. His experience in the War of 1812 was a far greater distinction than any major U.S. military figure during the war, and he was severely wounded at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane. He was a rival of Jackson during their service but Jackson would trust him in critical situations, such as the Black Hawk war and moving public support away from secession during the Nullification Crisis. He had been entrusted by Van Buren in a crisis involving the United Kingdom and Canada in 1837, negotiating a truce to stop it from spreading to America. When Polk became President, Scott was considered with distrust by a man whose political allegiance was not aligned with his own. (A president thinking the army had gotten too political. Ahem.) However when the Mexican War broke out Scot was entrusted with the expansion of the Army and its supply. Scott drew up an invasion plan of Mexico and Scott would lead it. Many of those who joined in the campaign were among the most prominent leaders in the Civil War including Captain Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant Ulysses Grant. Scott’s troops managed to press forward to Mexico and after defeating Santa Anna, he negotiated a truce with Scott. But when negotiations slowed and he came into conflict with Polk, the President removed him from command.

Scott was a ‘conscience Whig’ who as a Northerner was opposed to slavery but the Whigs had voted for the slaveholding Taylor as their nominee. He managed to win the nomination in 1852, mainly due to the support of the Northern Whigs who opposed the Compromise of 1850. The battle of the platform was won by Southern Whigs who said that the Compromise of 1850 was the last word on the question of Slavery.

When Scott won the nomination, Filmore accepted his defeat and endorsed Scott but when he chose to endorse the platform the Northern Whigs were dismayed. Southern Whigs didn’t trust Scott on the slavery question and most Southern Whigs would either for Pierce or skip the election altogether. Anti-slavery Whigs would vote for the Free Soil party instead. Scott’s long military career left numerous openings for the Democrats to attack Scott on and his reputation of ‘Old Fuss and Feathers’ led many to think he was too stiff to be President.

As a result the election was a debacle for both Scott and the Whigs. Pierce won twenty seven states and 254 electoral votes to only four for Scott; he carried only Massachusetts, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Vermont.

Scott would be able to handle his defeat better than the party. He returned to the military and spent the next decade in uniform. The Whigs would begin to collapse not long after. It didn’t help that many of the original leaders were dead or dying. Daniel Webster died not long after the convention and Henry Clay would die the following year. The Democrats would have a majority of two-thirds in the House of Representatives after the election and a similar majority in the Senate. By 1854 the Whig Party would be dead.

Despite this increasing anti-slavery sentiment in the North and dissatisfaction with aspects of the Compromise of 1850 held by both free and slave states, some still hoped that with the Whigs gone and the Democrats firmly in charge the issue might remain dormant. But when Stephen Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act in Congress — an act done more to improve his prospect for the Presidency among Southerners than any realistic attempt to resolve the slavery question nationally — he not only reignited the flames but poured gasoline on them. This was one of the major actions that led to the foundation of the Republican Party in 1854. Made up a coalition of abolitionists, former Whigs, free Soilers and Northern Democrats it entered the political area that year and won 18 seats in the House and 3 in the Senate. By 1855 most of the remnants of the Whigs and Free Soil Party were involved and by January of the following year it had enough members to call for an ‘informal convention’ to perfect the national organization and nominate a Presidential ticket. The central platform of the party was the repeal of slavery.

The Anti-slavery rump part of the convention met initially. For ten ballots they couldn’t agree on a candidate. Many wanted Nathaniel Banks, a prominent Massachusetts Republican and currently the Speaker of the House, to stand but eventually they settled on a different kind of politician and military celebrity.

John C. Fremont had been one of the critical explorers of the American West during the 1840s, making scientific explorations through the Rocky Mountains, the Oregon Trail and eventually all the way to the Pacific where he would eventually make a settlement in California. With the coming of the Mexican war, he fought several battles in defense of it that would lead to the negotiation of the Treaty of California. However, due to his disobeying orders, he was court-martialed and dishonorably discharged. Nevertheless Fremont was immensely popular among the public.

In an attempt to restore his honor, he engaged in two more explorations of the West in conjunction with his father-in-law Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton. His fourth expedition ended in disaster but when California became a state, he served first as a shadow Senator, then its first Senator, though he only served less than six months in office. Two years he embarked on another expedition to identify a viable route for a transcontinental railroad through the Santa Fe trail. His success led him to believe a railroad through the Rocky Mountains was possible something that would be proven more than a decade later.

Fremont’s popularity was such among the public that Democrats had sought him out for the nomination in 1854. But Fremont had served as a Free Soil Democrat and was opposed to the Fugitive Slave Act. The Republicans wanted a fresh face for their party and decided that Fremont was their best choice. After winning in the rump convention, the party overwhelmingly nominated him on the first ballot.

The Republican Party’s first ever campaign slogan was one of the most memorable in campaign history: “Free Soil, Free Men, Fremont and Victory.” At 43, Fremont had the benefit of being a young face compared to the other two candidates for President.

When Franklin Pierce stood for renomination in 1856, he faced a divided party almost entirely on sectional lines. From the start of the convention his chief rival was James Buchanan. Buchanan had been a democratic contender since 1844 and did have a distinguished resume including Senator from Pennsylvania and Polk’s Secretary of State. But his biggest qualification in the eyes of many dissatisfied Democrats was he had been Pierce’s Ambassador to Britain and unlike other alternatives, such as Stephen Douglas and Lewis Cass, he couldn’t been stained by both the Kansas Nebraska act and the near civil war that had unfolded during it.

Pierce would eventually throw his support to Douglas. However, the 43 year old Douglass believed he could be nominated in 1860 if he let the sixty-five year old Buchanan be nominated this time. Buchanan’s campaign managers basically assured him of this and he withdrew his name, giving Buchanan the nomination on the seventeenth ballot.

Just as critical in the race would be the Know-Nothing Party, a nativist party that had existed in some form since 1855. Both anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant, they would supplement their xenophobic views with often progressive stances that included labor rights, regulation of industry and support of the working class. Considering the Republican Party had no support in the South, it kept quiet on the issue and was the main alternative to the Democrats among slaveholding states. In 1856, they nominated their own Presidential candidate in history, former President Millard Fillmore, though he never acknowledged his support for it on the campaign trail. In truth Filmore was running because he believed the election of Fremont might divide the country and he was hoping to run as a moderate alternative, hoping to preserve the Union.

Fremont’s wife, Jessie, was essentially his campaign manager and became more prominent in the campaign then he did: As Benton’s daughter, she had been raised in Washington and understood politics better than him. However her own father, a loyal Democrat, chose to support Buchanan.

The Republicans hoped to win the Presidency through four of the swing states: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Indiana and Illinois. The Democrats very aware of this targeted these states hard. The campaign quickly turned ugly and involving dirty slurs. The Democrats would attack Fremont for being born illegitimately (hmm), alleged he was Catholic to win over Know-Nothing voters and claimed that he would illegally naturalize thousands of immigrants in Pennsylvania. (Try to remember that Democrats.) Democrats also made rumors out of whole cloth, saying he would take charge of a large army that would support slave insurrections, widespread lynching of slaves and offered hopes to slaves for freedom and political equality. (Again Democrats, this was your campaign strategy to win in 1856. Just saying.)

In what was a three-way raise, Buchanan would win with 19 states and 174 electoral votes to Fremont’s 11 and 114 and Filmore’s 8 (he would only carry Maryland.) The popular vote told a different story. Buchanan won only 45 percent of the vote to Fremont’s 33 percent, while Filmore carried 21 percent of the vote. The Democrats carried all four of the states the Republicans had tried to target. But it was troubling that Fremont had received only a few thousand votes in the entire South. The Know Nothings which had done well in the previous two years in the House severely collapsed and the Republicans doubled their number in the House to 90 representatives and had gained seven seats in the Senate to put their number at 22. None of their elected representatives were even close to below the Mason-Dixon line.

In hindsight, the Republicans might have blundered when they choice Fremont’s running mate. They had chosen the conservative William Dayton of New Jersey in hope he would help them carry both his home state and possibly Pennsylvania. However on the first ballot their had been immensely strong support for a one-term former Congressman from Illinois.

Had Abraham Lincoln been chosen for vice president, he might have been able to help Fremont carry both his home state and Indiana, states that the Party needed desperately to win. But despite early support he had withdrawn his name from consideration in favor of party unity. Many remembered that.

The choices of military candidates had mixed success politically during the quarter of a century between the end of Jackson’s turn and the start of the Civil War. The two who won died in office, leading to their Vice Presidents ascending to the White House. The former was disastrous for the Union; the latter did his best to preserve it. The final candidate the Whigs ran was a more than qualified leader but had no party behind him and the first candidate for the Republicans had the problems of being part of a sectional party.

In the next part I will deal with the Civil War generals who would ascend to political prominence in the aftermath of Appomattox and how their service and a deliberate campaign strategy by one party affected politics until the start of the 20th century.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.