to the MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English.
The Whig Party considered four candidates
for the presidential election of eighteen forty-eight: Senator Henry Clay of
Kentucky, General Zachary Taylor, General Winfield Scott and Senator Daniel
Webster of Massachusetts.
Clay was seventy years old. He knew it
would be his last chance to get into the White House. He worked hard to get the
support of party leaders. But they did not give Clay their support. They wanted
to win the election, and they felt they had a better chance for victory with a
military hero like General Taylor.
Now, with this week's program in our
series, here are Doug Johnson and Gwen Outen.
Taylor was sixty-three years old. He had
almost no formal education. He had spent almost forty years in the West as an
Indian fighter and commander of small army posts.
A number of politicians did not believe he
had the ability to be president. General Taylor's supporters put great energy
into their campaign for his nomination. They tried to sell the idea that the
old general was the only man who could defeat the candidate of the Democratic
On the first vote of the convention, Taylor
got the most votes. But no candidate got the necessary majority. On the fourth
vote, all of Webster's supporters and many of Clay's supporters gave their
votes to Taylor. He finally won the Whig Party's nomination for president.
The Democratic Party's candidate for
president was Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan. Many Americans did not like
either candidate, because of the candidates' policies on slavery. Lewis Cass
saw nothing wrong with slavery if that was what the people wanted. Zachary
Taylor was a slave owner.
In Ohio, a group of men decided to form a
new political party. They called it the Free Soil Party, because they believed
in free land for free settlers. They wanted no further spread of slavery.
The Free Soil leaders proposed a convention
of all who supported their ideas. Ten thousand people went to the convention in
Buffalo, New York.
For two days, the delegates debated the
slavery issue and discussed their choice of a candidate for president. They
also worked on a platform -- a statement of their party's purpose.
The platform declared that slavery was an
institution of the states, not the nation. It said Congress had no right to
help spread slavery by permitting it in the new western territories. The
platform declared that the issue should be faced with firmness. No more slave
states. No more slave territory. No more compromises with slavery, anywhere.
Convention delegates then voted on
candidates. They chose former President Martin Van Buren as candidate for
The people of the nation voted on November
seventh. It was the first time a presidential election was held on the same day
in all parts of the country. Zachary Taylor won both the popular and electoral
votes. He became the twelfth president of the United States.
Congress met a few weeks after the
election, long before Taylor took office. It faced serious problems. Territorial
governments were needed for the areas won in the war against Mexico.
California, especially, needed help. Gold
had been discovered in California. Thousands were moving there. A government
was needed to protect the lives and property of the new population.
The dispute over slavery had prevented
Congress from acting earlier. Southerners wanted the right to take slaves into
the new territories. Northerners wanted to keep slavery out.
Then there was the question of laws forcing
northern states to return escaped slaves to their owners. The laws were not
always obeyed. Southerners wanted a new law that would be easier to enforce.
Congress found it difficult to act on these
problems. The House of Representatives was controlled by members of the Free
Soil Party, which opposed slavery. The Senate was controlled by southerners,
who supported slavery. The two houses found it almost impossible to agree on
Early in January, eighteen forty-nine, a
congressman proposed a bill to first limit, and then end, slavery in the
District of Columbia. The bill would free all slaves in the district who were
born after a certain time. It would permit the federal government to buy slaves
and then free them.
Opposition to the bill was strong. It was
amended. The new bill would simply close all places in the District of Columbia
where slaves were bought and sold.
Southern congressmen disliked the bill,
even as amended. They organized a committee representing every one of the
southern states. Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina said the committee
should write a declaration explaining the position of the South. The committee
agreed, and Calhoun wrote most of the declaration himself.
The southern declaration accused the North
of many aggressions. The South, it said, faced many dangers. Soon there would
be enough free states to control both the House and the Senate. And then the Constitution
would be changed and all slaves would be freed.
And this, said the southern declaration,
would lead to bitter hostility and war between North and South. The declaration
called on the people of the South to unite and be firm in their opposition to
With this new firmness, southern lawmakers
fought to make slavery legal in the new territories. They effectively blocked
proposals for territorial governments in California and New Mexico.
Congress ended its session on March fourth,
eighteen forty-nine, without any progress. Zachary Taylor was sworn-in as
president that same day.
The new president believed it would be
easier to get statehood for California and New Mexico than to create
territorial governments for them. Taylor, as we have said, was a slaveholder.
But he believed that both California and New Mexico should be free states.
During these years around eighteen fifty,
the people of the United States were becoming more and more involved in the
dispute over slavery. In the North, more people joined the anti-slavery
campaign. Even those who did not wish to end slavery in the South felt that
slavery should not spread further.
In the South, many people felt that the
constitutional equality of fifteen southern states was being questioned.
Sixteen hundred million dollars worth of slave property was threatened by
Abolitionists. Southerners felt that if the campaign against slavery was
successful, everything they believed in would be destroyed.
People hoped that President Taylor would be
able to bring the North and South together again. But his message to Congress
showed no signs of such leadership.
Taylor asked Congress to give statehood to
California immediately. He reported that California leaders had written a state
constitution. The constitution banned slavery. Settlers from both the North and
South supported the document.
The president also reported that the people
of New Mexico would be asking for statehood soon. He said it would be best to
let the people themselves decide if New Mexico would be a slave or free state.
Taylor's opponents described these proposals as his "no action plan."
President Taylor really had no policy. He
could not support a bill to keep slavery out of the territories. That might
start a quick revolt among the southern states. He could not support a bill to
let slavery spread into the territories. That would make the North rise in
Taylor tried to be neutral. He hoped the
problem of slavery would solve itself. But the problem would not solve itself.
The division between North and South grew wider. That will be our story next
Our program was
written by Frank Beardsley. The narrators were Doug Johnson and Gwen Outen. Transcripts,
MP3s and podcasts of our programs, along with historical images, are at
voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- an
American history series in VOA Special English.
is program #75 of THE
MAKING OF A NATION