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Our First Presidential Candidate | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Our First Presidential Candidate

The Rise and Fall of Isaac Walker

Our First Presidential Candidate | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeQuarter-length oval portrait of George H. Walker, who was born in Lynchburgh, Campbell County, Virginia, October 5th, 1812.

George H. Walker, 1856

Quarter-length oval portrait of George H. Walker, who was born in Lynchburgh, Campbell County, Virginia, October 5th, 1812. He emigrated to Wisconsin in October 1833. He located first in what is now Racine County, and was the first settler in the county. He later moved to Milwaukee and took up his residence there on March 20, 1834. View the original source document: WHI 9523

The first Wisconsin resident considered as a presidential candidate was Isaac P. Walker. His story has a strange twist.

History and Election to Legislature

Isaac P. Walker (1813-1872) was the younger brother of George H. Walker, one of the founders of Milwaukee. Isaac was born in Virginia but trained in the law in Illinois. Although they belonged to opposing parties, Walker and Abraham Lincoln were legal colleagues in Springfield. He came to Wisconsin in 1841 to practice law and entered Democratic politics.

Walker was soon elected to the Territorial legislature and when Wisconsin became a state in 1848, his colleagues chose him as one of the state's first two senators. Though born in the South and a member of the same party as Jefferson and Jackson, he did not support slavery: "I am uncompromisingly opposed to the extension of chattel slavery into territory either now owned or which may hereafter be acquired by the United States," he said in 1848. It was a view supported by many Wisconsin voters. Walker served as a Wisconsin senator in Washington until 1855.

Nomination for President

EnlargePolitical drawing for the Democratic Presidential Campaign, which included Buchanan and Breckenridge.

Tammany Hall Presidential Campaign, 1856

Political drawing for the Democratic Presidential Campaign, which included Buchanan and Breckenridge. November 8, 1856. View the original source document: WHI 56911

Two of Walker's legislative priorities were election of senators by the people, instead of in party conventions, and direct taxation of citizens according to their wealth. He also supported women's rights. His chief concern, however, was to enable the easy acquisition of frontier land by immigrants and homesteaders. He fought against the interests of large real estate speculators and urged that tracts up to 160 acres be given free to the landless. He became the preeminent advocate for radical land reform. His ideas would bear fruit in 1862, after he had left the Congress, in the famous Homestead Law.

In 1850 land reformers in New Jersey urged his nomination as the 1852 Democratic candidate for president. The New York political machine known as Tammany Hall followed suit, as did a nationwide reform organization called the National Industrial Congress. But Walker's presidential bid was undermined by a stand he'd taken on conscience, which cost him the support of Wisconsin party leaders.

New Slave States

During his term, the Congress was trying to avoid a national conflict over slavery by alternately admitting new states where the practice was permitted and states where it was prohibited: every new slave state was followed by a new "free soil" one. Congress' intention was to keep a balance between pro- and anti-slavery lawmakers in Washington. In Wisconsin, however, public opinion was firmly against extending slavery to any new states at all.

When the case of California and New Mexico came up early in 1849, Wisconsin Democrats instructed the state's Congressional delegation to oppose the bill admitting them to the U.S. because slavery was not explicitly outlawed in it. Walker broke party ranks and didn't follow their instructions. He was afraid that the controversy might break apart the Union. If the choice was between preserving the Constitution and stopping the possible spread of slavery, Walker would support the Constitution.

Walker's Unpopular Opinion

"If the Constitution will extend slavery to the land," he wrote in explanation, "then let it go. If by the Constitution slavery is extended, I am willing to stand by that Constitution. If we cannot put a check on slavery without doing violence to the Constitution, I say let it be unchecked. For slavery and the opposition to it are creating a feeling disastrous — a state of things from which our country can reap nothing but disaster, in my opinion, and the agitation of which must enhance that disaster." Abolitionists called him a traitor, and Wisconsin Democratic leaders tried to recall him from Washington, though he wouldn't come home. His colleagues and constituents never forgave him.

Because of the controverrsy Walker had aroused, when New Jersey and New York reformers suggested him as a possible candidate for president two years later, Wisconsin's leaders refused to support him. "Good Lord deliver us!" wrote the "Watertown Register." "There is less chance of his getting the nomination by the people of this state than there is for his being struck by lightning."

He served out his Senate term and in 1856 returned home to a farm near Eagle, in Waukesha County. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the Union cause during the Civil War, and repeatedly argued that he'd never intended to support slavery. In 1864 he resumed his law practice in Milwaukee, where he died in obscurity in 1872.

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