“Shooting The Christmas Turkey”: Another Look at Slavery, Expansion, & The 1848 Election

There’s nothing quite like a 19th Century political cartoon. I stumbled across this one a week or two ago on the Library of Congress website and it was an interest reminder of 1840’s political events leading to the Civil War.

Depicting candidates and pundits of that era as characters at a turkey shoot, the artist, James S. Baillie, made quite a few statements about the election of 1848. In that election, there were three candidates for the presidency: Zachery Taylor (Whig), Lewis Cass (Democrat), and Martin Van Buren (Free Soiler).

Spoiler alert: Taylor won.

Since the text is a little hard to read and decipher, here are some notes.

At the left center, Cass (facing front) debates with Taylor. Taylor says: “I tell you, Cass, that I prefer coming to close quarters. It will be as fair for you as for me.” Meanwhile, Cass retorts: “But I prefer long shots. It will give more chance for the exercise of skill and ingenuity.”

At the very far left, Millard Fillmore, Taylor’s vice presidential candidate, sounds the alarm: “Blood and thunder! I thought that infernal fox was dead: but he has come out of his hole and carried off the prize, while we have been disputing about the preliminaries.”

In the center, Martin Van Buren appears as a fox, trying to snatch the presidency (or the prize turkey). Van Buren had already been in the executive office as the eighth U.S. President from 1837 to 1841. However, he made a political comeback, breaking with his Democrat party and joining forces with the Free Soil Party which opposed the expansion of slavery. Van Buren spoke out against slavery while the other candidates preferred to side-step around the issue.

Behind “the fox”, David Wilmot cheers, “Huzza! Huzza! Victory! Victory!” while brandishing the Wilmot Proviso which tried unsuccessfully to curb the expansion of slavery into territory gained by the United States during the Mexican-American War.

Meanwhile, at the center of it all, Horace Greeley sits with his tally sheet, counting for Taylor and Cass. He says: “Well, Gentlemen, my place has become a sinecure. I need not keep tally for you now.” Greeley, already a successful newspaperman publishing the Tribune in New York, took his time endorsing Taylor in this election and is seen thumbing his nose at the arguing candidates.

As the history books tell us, Van Buren did not sneak off with a presidential victory in 1848. Zachery Taylor won the presidency.

However, the 1848 election and the rise of the Free Soil Party continued to keep the question of slavery as a key issue in American politics. Van Buren’s bid for the presidency was unsuccessful in winning office, but he and his supporters took a stand on the national stage against the expansion of slavery with a short-lived political party dedicated to that goal. Within a decade, the Free Soil Party would merge into the newly formed Republican Party, continuing to advocate against the expansion of slavery within the territories and new states…leading to the 1860 election and into four years of conflict over issues that the artist drew so humorously twelve years earlier.

2 Responses to “Shooting The Christmas Turkey”: Another Look at Slavery, Expansion, & The 1848 Election

  1. Interesting! I recently read the U of Kansas published book about the 1848 election but can’t remember if that image was in it or not. I enjoyed their 1876 book “By One Vote”(Team Hayes! I was assigned Hayes in 3rd grade) and hope to read the 1860 and 1880 ones soonish.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!