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The University of Kansas Press has a wonderful series of books (for political junkies and potus_geeks) about American Presidential Elections. I just finished reading Party Over Section: The Rough and Ready Presidential Election of 1848 by Joel H. Silbey. There is much to be learned from Professor Silbey's recounting of the US Presidential election of 1848 and the author covers all of the bases. He discusses the political climate going into the election, the issues of the day, the divisions within the two major political parties (leading to formation of the third party, the Free Soil Party), the battles within each party for the presidential nomination, and the campaign for the presidency.


Elections were much different in the antebellum period, long before the electronic media and the 24 hour news cycle, and this is what I especially enjoyed about this book - the author's description of what living in the times was like: what it was like to attend a convention, to campaign, to get out the vote and to actually cast one's ballot in 1848. The era had its still spin doctors and campaign managers, but at a time when candidates did not make speeches, and when their message was spread through letters published in partisan newspapers, the author gives the reader a wonderful flavor of the 1848 presidential election experience.

In 1848, the United States had undergone great expansion following the Mexican War and the treaty with Britain settling the boundaries of the Oregon Territory. The issue on everyone's mind was slavery. Would the newly acquired territories become free states or slave states, that was the question on everyone's minds. This issue divided parties geographically and led to the formation of a significant third party. National campaigns of the two parties had to walk a tightrope on this issue, trying to maintain support in all areas of the country, while avoiding defections to the Free Soil movement.

Professor Silbey's analysis of this historically overlooked campaign (which pitted General Zachary Taylor for the Whigs, Senator Lewis Cass for the Democrats, and former President Martin Van Buren for the anti-slavery Free Soil Party) and his post mortem of the election results are fascinating. He gives the reader an understanding of what significance to place on voting patterns in the various states and regions, the importance of issues nationally and regionally and how each party spun their own candidate as well as their opponents. He ably makes the case for why the election of 1848 was a pivotal one for the future of the nation, and how conditions at the time were the kindling for what would later become the national crisis of the Civil War.

In 156 pages, Professor Silbey gives the reader a tremendous understanding of the issues and the times. His analysis is brilliant and his detail is fascinating. This book will delight anyone with an interest in antebellum United States. It is also enlightening for anyone curious about what it was like to politic over 160 years ago.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 14th, 2014 12:00 pm (UTC)
It appears that politics haven't changed too much, except gender issues are now the big dividing issue.
Jul. 15th, 2014 02:22 am (UTC)
It's still about getting out your message and getting out the vote, but it's how those things change over time that is fascinating.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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