Chinese Museum: Whig Convention 1848
9th and Sansom Street
On June 7th of 1848, Philadelphia hosted a political party convention for the first time in the city's history. To this day, these conventions are when party officials select the presidential and vice presidential candidate, and also compose an official party platform. It may be surprising that Philadelphia’s first convention in 1848 was for neither Republicans nor Democrats, but rather for the Whig Party. Over the years, the numerous assemblies have played a decisive role in shaping political party agendas, which has allowed Philadelphia to remain a central political arena in the United States.
The convention took place in a building on the corner of Ninth and George (now Sansom) Streets. The building was originally the Chinese Museum of Philadelphia, founded by British merchant Nathanial Dunn in 1838. The exhibition closed in 1841 when Dunn moved the remaining artifacts back to England. Looking to make use of the impressive space, organizations in the surrounding areas continued to host a wide variety of events in the building: anything from extravagant balls, to the annual Philadelphia Horticultural Society flower show. Long after the building existed to exhibit and sell foreign artifacts, it remained a hub for cultural exchange.
As a result, the most natural location for the Whigs to hold their national convention was in the Upper Saloon of the former Chinese Museum in Philadelphia. The ideal venue, however, did not ensure that the convention would go smoothly. In fact, the process of electing a nominee revealed growing divisions within the Whig party.
In 1833, the Whig Party was founded in opposition to the politically dominant Jacksonian Democrats. Economic reforms were the main part of the Whig platform. The party sought to change the banking system in order to reduce the economic power of the Federal government. As a coalition with mostly financial concerns, the Whig party attracted support from the North and South alike. In turn, there was a diverse array of political beliefs surrounding other issues. A large number of Northern Whigs were against the pro-slavery, pro-war Democratic Party. By contrast, many Southern voters were attracted to the Whig platform that promised to limit presidential power, because Southerners sought to protect local state power in the interest of maintaining slavery. As a result, the convention hosted both abolitionists and slave-holding politicians. Additionally there was a wide variety of opinions regarding the Mexican American war of 1846: some favored it, while others denounced it.
The debate over potential candidates made these divisions within the party more pronounced. The two main competitors were General Zachary Taylor and Henry Clay. Clay was a well-known Whig who helped found the party in 1833, who was in opposition to the Mexican-American War and the expansion of slavery. By contrast, Zachary Taylor was an outsider to the Whig party establishment for most of his life. Born in the backwoods of Kentucky, Taylor gained political recognition through his military achievement in the Mexican-American War. Taylor’s broader political experience outside of the military was minimal to say the least: prior to his nomination, Taylor had never even voted. Additionally he owned 200 slaves. While no one could contest his impressive battle record, many Whig delegates found Taylor’s past troublesome. There was great disunity on whether or not Taylor represented Whig ideals—and more importantly, Taylor’s nomination called into question what exactly those ideals were.
After two days of deliberation, the party leaders announced Taylor’s victory with 171 votes.
Newspapers at the time reported delegates jumping to their feet and hissing in disgust at Taylor’s nomination. A delegate from Massachusetts loudly protested, claiming Southern interests would prevail under a President Taylor. The delegate from Massachusetts was one of many who left the Whig party after Taylor’s selection. The US electorate chose Zachary Taylor for president of the United States later that year in spite of this opposition.
While the convention was ultimately successful in selecting an electable presidential candidate, the Whig party could not withstand the divisions that had developed over the years, particularly with President Taylor. Neither the Whig Party nor the Chinese Museum building lasted past 1854: in the same year that the Whig party dissolved, the Chinese Museum building caught fire and burnt to the ground. Today, neither establishment exists, however Philadelphia remains one of the most important political arenas in the United States—just as it did in 1848--as it is set to host the 2016 democratic convention.