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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Our First Presidential Candidate


Rep. Paul Ryan's selection as the presumed Republican vice-presidential nominee prompted us to investigate the first Wisconsin resident whose name was floated for vice-president or president. That appears to have been Milwaukee attorney Isaac P. Walker (1815-1872) and, as is often the case, his story has some strange twists.

Anti-Slavery Southerner

Walker was born in Virginia but came west and received his legal training in Illinois, where he debated Abraham Lincoln during the 1840 presidential campaign between Harrison and Van Buren. In 1842 he moved to Milwaukee, opened a law office, and entered local Democratic politics.

When Wisconsin became a state in 1848, his colleagues chose him as one of our first two senators. Slavery polarized the nation at the time and Walker, though born in the South, wanted to see it ended: "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 wrote.

He also campaigned to have senators elected by the people rather than chosen in party conventions, advocated direct taxation proportionate to the taxpayer's wealth, and supported women's rights. He fought against large real estate speculators and urged that tracts up to 160 acres be given free to landless citizens and immigrants who agreed to cultivate them. These were all radical ideas that challenged the political status quo.

Presidential Aspirations

In 1850, land reformers in New Jersey urged Walker's nomination for president on the Democratic Party ticket. The New York political machine known as Tammany Hall and the National Industrial Congress, a nationwide reform organization, both jumped on the bandwagon. But Walker's presidential bid was undermined by a stand he'd taken on conscience, and it cost him the nomination.

Congress was admitting new states according to whether they tolerated slavery: every new slave state was followed by a new "free soil" one. By alternating, they hoped 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.

Soon after Walker arrived in Washington, California and New Mexico applied to join the Union. Because the bill admitting them was silent about slavery, Wisconsin Democrats instructed the state's Congressional delegation to oppose it. Walker broke party ranks and didn't follow their instructions.

He was convinced that ending the compromise would tear apart the Union. If the choice had to be made between preserving the Constitution and stopping the possible spread of slavery, he supported the Constitution.

"If we cannot put a check on slavery without doing violence to the Constitution," he explained, "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."

Abolitionist agitators, in contrast, burned the Constitution in the streets because it supported slavery.

Rejected by His Own Party

Anti-slavery advocates called Walker a traitor, and Wisconsin Democratic leaders tried to recall him from Washington. He refused to come home, but they never forgave him. Two years later, when East Coast reformers suggested Walker as a presidential candidate, his own state'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."

National party leaders concluded that a candidate who couldn't carry his own state was a liability and turned their attention elsewhere. Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire, a former Congressman and Senator, ultimately secured the Democratic nomination and was elected President in November 1852.

Last Years

Walker 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 relative obscurity in 1872.


:: Posted in Odd Lives on August 13, 2012
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