Why did Pierce beat Scott in 1852?

Question about an election, but historical, so I’ll put it here rather than Elections.

Why did Pierce beat Scott in the 1852 election?

Scott was one of the most significant military leaders in the US at the time. He had commanded forces in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, the Mexican–American War, and the Second Seminole War. He was instrumental in winning the Mexican-American War just a few years before.

Pierce seems a much more political light weight; two terms in the House of Representatives, one term as Senator. Not in Congress when he ran for election. He had alcoholism issues (one comment was that he “was the victor of many a bottle”).

Yet Pierce won the election handily, 254 to 42 in the electoral votes. And his support came from all over the country, so it didn’t look like a slavery-abolition split.

Why did Scott do so poorly against someone who appears to have been a nonentity?

US elections, after the early days, have been more about party than personality. Pierce wasn’t a non-entity, he was the Democratic nominee, and Scott was the Whig. The Whigs were collapsing, under the same slavery-abolition tensions that tore the Democrats apart not much later, and probably couldn’t put together a good enough ground game. But fill in almost any other respectable names as the candidates and the results would probably have been similar.

I think slavery did play into it as it was well known Scott was antislavery. The Wiki article suggests this caused problems for the Whigs in the Southern states and also mentions there was low voter turnout in that election as well.

In 1852 the Whig Party was on the brink of collapse so if you are looking for one major cause I would suggest that may in fact be it. It would likely have hampered the party on the local level if people were looking to alternatives. There were a number of minor parties enjoying a limited amount of success at that time - the Free Soil party alone was able to get nearly 5% of the total vote. A substantial number of those votes came from former Whigs.

Also, Scott was pretty much a geezer at that point and Pierce was a handsome younger man. I have no idea how much voters 164 would have been influenced by that but it could have been a minor factor.

In the paintings of their debates, Scott looked old and tired while Pierce looked young and vital.

Doesn’t McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom also suggests that Scott struggled to get the immigrant vote?

The Whigs had torn themselves apart pretty badly during the Taylor and Fillmore administrations. Taylor had supported the admission of California and New Mexico as free states, which infuriated the South. Fillmore demanded countervailing concessions in the Compromise of 1850, and enforced the resulting fugitive slave law with a fanatical vengeance, which infuriated the North. The North dumped Fillmore for Scott at the 1852 convention, which again infuriated the South.

So, the Whigs pretty much kissed off the South, and didn’t run well in the North either, because committed anti-slavery Northerners voted for the Free Soil party.

Scott’s status as a war hero didn’t really help him, because his troops didn’t like him; they considered him a pompous windbag and called him Old Fuss and Feathers. He never had Zachary Taylor’s common touch.

Scott’s age has been only slightly mentioned so far. He was 66 in 1852. He would have been the 3rd-oldest person ever inaugurated. He was also quite fat. There would have been serious questions about his chances of living a full term.

Heck, that didn’t stop the Whigs from nominating the 68-year-old William Henry Harrison (who got elected, and died after one month in office) in 1840.

Well, the pro-Pierce press outlets used a lot of stippling and burnt umber to make it appear, under the heavy gas lights of the debate hall, that Scott had not shaved.

In 1840, the danger that the President would die in office was a purely hypothetical thing (if anybody had really worried about it, there’s no way Tyler would have gotten the Vice Presidential nomination). In 1852, it had happened twice in the past dozen years, which would make the issue of Presidential physical fitness loom a bit larger in the minds of the electorate.

Other than their positions on slavery, there wasn’t much to choose between the two candidates. Scott was an actual war hero, but that advantage was lost because of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s largerly fictional campaign biography of Pierce. Hawthorne was the most popular writer of the day and possibly the most famous man in America at the time, so his “endorsement” counted for rather a lot. The candidates did not “campaign” at that time - it was seen as crass - so they relied on others to speak for them.

Thing is, people receiving transcripts of the debates via telegraph thought Scott had won.

So was slavery the major issue dividing the Whigs from the Democrats, or were there other issues at the time that distinguished the parties?

When the Whigs split, the anti-slavery Whigs went to the Republicans; where did the slavery-agostic Whigs migrate to? The Dems?

What was holding the Democrats together then in the 1850s, that failed later under the pressures of the Civil War?

He’s bearded, fattened up, and ready - Scott in 1856!

No, both parties were split on that. The major alignment was along the broad urban/activist government (then Whigs, now Democrats) vs. rural/small government (then Democrats, now Republicans) lines that came back into being after the war. But there was a realignment along slavery/abolition lines with the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, the Dred Scott case, and other factors that brought it to the forefront, and arguably made the Civil War inevitable.

Pretty much. There were conventions in most states in 1854 of the abolitionist factions of all the parties, to work out how they’d deal with the problem. The one in Wisconsin decided they had to be an actual party, not a coalition, founded the Republican Party, and inspired the rest of the free states to do the same. The Republicans’ largest source of members was the “Conscience Whigs”, then the abolitionist Northern Democrats, and the bulk of the Know-Nothings (Irish-bashing anti-immigration beforehand, then anti-slavery because all that unpaid labor brought down wages for honest working men - yes, our parties have always been coalitions of interests). The “Cotton Whigs” did typically join the pro-slavery Southern Democrats, who kept the name and party structure.

AIUI, their rural/small government attitude meant the southerners had the power there, and the northerners weren’t abolitionist enough to push the issue above the economic ones. Remember that slavery had a lot of passive support in the North well into the war itself. The economy of the North depended on The Peculiar Institution too, just as hypocritically as it always did.

Some did. Others, especially in the Southern and border states, drifted into the American (1856) and Constitutional Union (1860) parties. The American party is often treated as synonymous with the Know-Nothings, and it originated with the Know-Nothing anti-immigrant movement in 1854, but by 1856 it became something of a generic home for former Whigs. Millard Fillmore, dropped by the Northern Whigs in 1852, was the American Party candidate in 1856.

Support for “popular sovereignty” in the territories–the notion that white settlers to a territory would determine for themselves whether to allow slavery, thus absolving Congress of having to make the determination.

Two events in 1857 blew apart popular sovereignty. First, pro-slavery settlers in Kansas resorted to naked force and fraud to shove through the Lecompton Constitution, which would have made Kansas a slave state. The fraud was so barefaced that even slavery-neutral northerners like Stephen Douglas could not support it.

Second, the Supreme Court issued the Dred Scott decision, which held that Congressional restrictions on slavery were unconstitutional, and in an obiter dictum, opined that territorial restrictions would be unconstitutional as well. The South no longer had any reason to support popular sovereignty; they no longer wanted half a loaf when the Supreme Court had given them everything. The Supreme Court had said that slavery was legal in any territory at any time and there was nothing anybody could do about it.

By 1860 Southern Democrats were demanding a federal “slave code” to enforce their Supreme-given “rights” in the territories, and Northern Democrats said no. The party split at the 1860 convention, just as the Whigs had six years earlier.

Pierce did serve in the Mexican War as a brigadier general although he suffered an unfortunate accident which made him look like a coward and a drunk. This is unfair. Ulysses Grant in his memoirs says although he didn’t support Pierce politically, he knew him to be a gentleman and a man of courage.

 Scott was one of these people who could be very charming in person. But in writing letters, a main form of communication, he came off as petulant and easily offended  (John Eisenhower says in his biography of him). He had one letter which he starts off with "As I set down to a eat a hasty bowl of soup" which caused derision such as Dukakis riding in a tank in 1988 or Ford saying Eastern Europe wasn't dominated by Russians in 1976.

I believe Scott was actually a slave holder. He did remain loyal to the Union in 1861 though. But most Presidents back then were. I think even Grant owned one slave (thru his wife’s family) although he freed him in 1859 when he moved back North.

 Both candidates were nominated after a whole bunch of ballots, which was common back then. Pierce was a compromise candidate, a surprise. Scott had been in a close race with President Millard Fillmore. I don't know if that had any repercussions on the voting.

Scott was probably respected nationally but I think the voters wanted someone they had warmer feelings towards, even if he was an unknown. And the Democrats were probably better organized…I get the impression many of the Whigs would better be called Anti-Jackson…as Andrew Jackson dominated politics for a generation: you either loved him or hated him.

My sources say that what won it for Pierce, (unfairly, many people say) was his constant harping about the “Flintlock Gap”.