Martin Van Buren's inability to bridge the distance between the "Conscience," or abolitionist, Whigs and conservative Democrats is portrayed as his downfall in the 1848 presidential race. Van Buren led the Free Soil party coalition of antislavery Whigs, Liberty party abolitionists, and "Barnburner" Democrats as a presidential candidate in that race, opposing regular Democratic candidate Lewis Cass.
In "The Modern Colossus," Cass (far right) stands on the "Democratic Platform," a solid embankment, with running mate William O. Butler (in uniform, arms folded), South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun (behind Butler), and a fourth man, probably John Van Buren. An American eagle perches at their feet. Van Buren has one foot on the Democratic ledge and stretches the other across Salt River toward the eroding "Whig-Abolition Platform."
Calhoun: "Poor devil! he'll plump into Salt River, directly."
Cass: "That will be no hardship. He was in Salt River before. He only goes back to his old place."
From the left New York "Tribune" editor Horace Greeley (long coat) and fiery antislavery advocate Abby Folsom reach out toward Van Buren.
Folsom: "Come to these arms, thou chiefest of ten thousand!"
Greeley: "Oh! that his legs were a little longer!"
Behind Greeley are Massachusetts abolitionist and Van Buren running mate Charles Francis Adams, and (far left) a third man (possibly William Lloyd Garrison) who exclaims, "O Lordy! Lordy! I'm afeared he [Van Buren] can't fetch it."
Van Buren, indeed about to fall, exclaims, "O! I'm gone! I'm gone! I can't stretch myself asunder!" In the distance is a smoking volcano.