The Shitty 1852 Candidacy of Daniel Webster, Know-Nothing Party, Massachusetts.
Quick Bio: Born a British subject in the New Hampshire colony in 1772, Daniel Webster was a lifelong American statesman. Like many politicians (and over half of U.S. Presidents), he was a lawyer, arguing cases as high as the Supreme Court. He negotiated the treaty that established the border between the USA and Canada, and served in both houses of Congress (representing, at various times, New Hampshire and Massachusetts). He was Secretary of State under three Presidents (Harrison, Tyler, and Fillmore) and ran for the White House three times himself. The first two times, he even knew about it.
Background of the 1852 Election: Modern readers are used to the idea of a first-term incumbent President automatically running for re-election. This has always been the case during my entire lifetime (Ford ’76, Carter ’80, Reagan ’84, G. H. W. Bush ’92, Clinton ’96, G. W. Bush ’04, Obama ’12). Prior to the World Wars, though, political parties were far more ruthless (believe it or not) and would jettison standing office holders at the drop of a hat. Zachary Taylor, a Whig elected President in 1848, died of natural causes in 1850, and Vice President Millard Fillmore succeeded him. The Whig Party felt their best chance to keep the White House lay not in the shilly-shallying Fillmore but in Winfield Scott, who (like Taylor) was a former general and war hero. The Democrats countered with Franklin Pierce, a former senator from New Hampshire. (The Republican Party didn’t exist yet.)
Among the smaller parties were the fledgling American Republicans, who appealed to middle and working class “native” Americans (that is, descendants of British colonists, not American Indians). The American Republicans opposed the influx of immigrants from Ireland and Germany and were openly hostile to those people’s religions, Catholicism in particular. Their greatest fear was a Catholic President, ruling as a proxy for the Pope.
The American Republicans later called themselves the Native American Party to further identify with its base. Their opponents derisively named them the “Know Nothings.” For whatever reason, party officials warmly took to the name, added a hyphen, and went with it.
Details of Webster’s Candidacy’s Shittiness: Every nominee in these articles could be called the “worst candidate ever,” but in this case, you can’t blame the candidate himself. See, the Know-Nothings nominated Daniel Webster without his permission ... and didn’t inform him of the news directly. Webster wasn’t even a member of the Know-Nothings; he had, in fact, just tried (like a month before) to gain the nomination in his own party, the Whigs. (He finished third). To make an analogy to this year’s election, it’s the equivalent of the Libertarian Party nominating Jeb Bush for President out of the blue.
So the Know-Nothings tapped Daniel Webster, who at first knew nothing of it. Then Webster further pissed on their plans by dropping dead nine days before the election. Hustling and breathless, the Know-Nothings put up a new man, Jacob Broom, a party bigwig who later was a Congressman from Pennsylvania.
Despite being in the ground, Daniel Webster gained nearly 7,000 votes, while Jacob Broom got two and a half thousand. Franklin Pierce won the election in a landslide.
Conclusion: In 1856, the party selected former Whig President Fillmore as their candidate — this time, with full permission and cooperation. When they suffered another big defeat, the Know-Nothings dissolved, their anti-slavery faction joining the new Republican Party and helping out one of the least shitty Presidential candidates: Abraham Lincoln. But in 1852, the Know-Nothing Party had rather lived up to their name. There have been reluctant candidates for the Presidency of the United States, and others who openly ran against their will, but Webster’s oblivious “run” takes the cake.
What a shitty candidate for President of the United States.
This series started with William Howard Taft and will continue. For my list of Four Presidents Who Actually Got Shit Done, click here. To support me, buy my books. To insult me, a popular place to start in my last name. It rhymes with “cock.”