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The Contenders


The Presidential Election Of 1856

For the presidential election of 1856, the Democrats
nominated James Buchanan and John Breckenridge, the newly
formed Republican party nominated John Fremont and William
Drayton, the American [or Know-Nothing] party nominated
former president Millard Fillmore and Andrew Donelson, and
the Abolition Party nominated Gerrit Smith and Samuel
Buchanan started his political career as a state
representative in Pennsylvania, was elected to the U.S.
House of Representatives in 1821, appointed minister to
Russia in 1832, and elected US Senator in 1834. He was
appointed Secretary of State in 1845 by President Polk and
in that capacity helped forge the Treaty of Guadalupe
Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War. He was appointed by
President Polk as minister to Great Britain in 1853. As
such, he, along with the American ministers to Spain and
France, issued the Ostend Manifesto, which recommended the
annexation of Cuba to the United States. This endeared him
to southerners, who assumed Cuba would be a slave state. He
was one of several northerners supported over the years by
southern Democrats for being amenable to slaveholders'
interests, a situation originating with Martin van Buren.
Buchanan's two major rivals for the nomination, Franklin
Pierce and Stephen Douglas, were both politically tainted
by the bloodshed in Kansas. Buchanan was untainted, since
he had been abroad during most of the controversy. Even so,
he did not secure the nomination until the seventeenth
Fremont was best known as an explorer and a war hero. He
surveyed the land between the Mississippi and Missouri
Rivers, explored the Oregon Trail territories and crossed
the Sierra Madres into the Sacramento Valley. As a captain
in the Army, he returned to California and helped the
settlers overthrow Mexican rule in what became known as the
Bear Flag Revolution, a sidebar to the Mexican War. He was
elected as one of California's first two Senators.
The infant Republican party was born from the ashes of the
Whig party, which had suffered spontaneous combustion as a
result of the slavery issue. The party's convention was a
farce; only northern states and a few border slave states
sent delegates. Sticking to their Whig roots, they
nominated a war hero, albeit a minor one. William Drayton's
runner-up for the VP slot was Abraham Lincoln.
Fillmore, having been the thirteenth president following
the death of Zachary Taylor, found himself representing the
American party after many northern delegates left the
convention over a rift caused by the slavery issue. Their
objection was that the party platform was not strong enough
against the spread of slavery. The party's vice
presidential nominee was a nephew of Andrew Jackson and the
editor of the Washington Union. The party, also known as
the Know-Nothings, was extremely antagonistic towards
immigrants, Catholics and other assorted minorities. The
party was born in 1850, when several covert "Native
American" societies joined together, their secret password
being "I know nothing."
Smith was nominated by the Abolition party in New York,
which had nominated Frederick Douglass for New York
secretary of state the year before under the label New York
Liberty Party.
The Campaign: Neither Buchanan nor Fremont campaigned
themselves. Republicans declared Buchanan dead of lockjaw.
Fremont, however, had a splendid campaign substitute, his
beautiful wife Jessie, prompting "Oh Jessie!" campaign
buttons. The Democrats tried desperately to avoid the
slavery issue altogether, opting instead to pursue the
conservative effort to preserve the Union. The Republicans,
on the other hand, actively attacked slavery. Their
campaign slogan was "Free Soil, Free Men, Freedom,
Fremont". [Shields-West, pgs 78 & 80]
The self-serving efforts of Stephen Douglas did more to
mold the campaign of 1856 than did any other single event.
Although he did not intentionally destroy the North-South
balance created by the Compromise of 1850, his focused
quest for the White House caused him to make some foolish
choices. Douglas coveted a rail head in Chicago for the new
transcontinental railroad. This would make Chicago a major
trade center for the country, not unlike New York City when
the Erie Canal was completed. He knew increased economic
power for his home state would translate as increased
political power for him.
The South, on the other hand, wanted the rail head located
in St. Louis, or even New Orleans. In order to secure
southern support for his plan, Douglas chose to win them
over by proposing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a bill that
would divide the Nebraska Territory into two separate
territories, each having popular sovereignty. This would
amount to nullification of the Missouri Compromise. Using
the power of his new southern allies, Douglas wheeled and
dealed the Kansas-Nebraska Act through Congress.
By doing so, Douglas alienated his northern colleagues. The
anti-slavery movement had become a formidable force in
northern politics. Douglas mistakenly believed popular
sovereignty had become more acceptable to the general
public than it actually had. In July of 1856, 'Conscience
Whigs", northern Democrats and Free Soilers met in Jackson,
Michigan, to form the Republican party for the specific
purpose of opposing slavery.
In the meantime, pro-slavery factions, many from across the
Missouri border, held a bogus election in the newly formed
Kansas Territory, adopting a pro-slavery constitution and
electing a pro-slavery state government. When anti-slavery
citizens learned what had happened, they organized their
own elections. President Pierce, in a serious error of
judgement, recognized the first government as the official
one, prompting widespread bloodshed throughout the
territory. This new territory, born of such dubious
beginnings, became known as "Bleeding Kansas". Pierce and
Douglas, from that moment forward, would be scarred
Buchanan ultimately won the election in the electoral
college, although he did not garner a popular majority. It
was an uneasy victory, with sectionalism clearly present in
the vote tallies.
Normally, a period of relative calm follows a presidential
election, but the political rhetoric of this campaign and
the unrelenting tension between the North and the South
would not allow it. On December 1, Pierce sent a bitter and
highly partisan message to Congress. He pointedly blamed
the continuing Kansas problems on northern propogandists
and outside "agents of disorder". He accused the
Republicans of preparing the country for civil war. Many in
Congress were understandably outraged, reversing the
charges of sectionalism right back at Pierce. Some blamed
the Kansas situation directly on the outgoing president. In
all, it was an unnecessarily unmagnanimous annual message.
The Buchanan Presidency: In their attempt to find a
non-controversial presidential candidate, the Democrats
instead found themselves with a weak president. Buchanan
tried to appease both sides by appointing a mix of northern
and southern politicians to his cabinet, but each side
accused him of favoring the other for the important
Buchanan never married, so the social duties of the White
House were handled by his niece, Harriet Lane. During a
state visit by the Prince of Wales, an orchestra performed
the premiere of a new song dedicated to Miss Lane, titled
"Listen to the Mockingbird." [Saturday Evening Post, pg 57]
Two significant events took place shortly after Buchanan's
inauguration, both of them having a terrible affect upon
the nation and neither one attributable to Buchanan.
Two days after taking office, the Taney supreme court
handed down its infamous Dred Scott decision, or rather
non-decision. The supreme court basically decided that
slaves were property and, therefore, had no rights in the
court system. The court cited the Fifth Amendment in
refusing to meddle in disputes involving slaves. In the
larger sense, though, the ruling declared the Missouri
Compromise unconstitutional. Buchanan supported the
The second event was the Panic of 1857. Though not as
severe as the Panic of 1837, it did cause widespread
unemployment. A drop in crop exports to Europe, caused by
the unexpected end to the Crimean War, caused a glut on the
US market with corresponding price drops. Bank failures led
the way, starting with the Ohio Life Insurance & Trust
Company, which was actually one of the most respected
financial institutions in the country. Lack of specie on
hand led to many more bank closures. Secretary of the
Treasury Cobb had another $4 million in gold coins minted
to increase the supply, but the effort was fruitless.
[Stampp, pgs 223-4] The industrialized Northeast was
hardest hit by the depression and northern manufacturers
and bankers naturally blamed southern Democrats.
Sectionalism continued to worsen.
The Kansas controversy continued to plague the Buchanan
administration. He favored the admission of Kansas as a
slave state. The territorial government [the pro-slavery
one recognized by Pierce] held a statehood constitutional
convention in Lecompton, which anti-slavery factions
refused to recognize. As a result, the pro-slavery forces
won control with only about ten percent voter
participation. Anti-slavery forces regained control of the
territorial legislature in the next election and voted down
the document. [Brinkley, pg 375]
Buchanan, against clear evidence to the contrary, decided
to side with the Lecompton proposal. Stephen Douglas, in
another bizarre moment of political suicide, argued against
the Lecompton document. The statehood constitution was
ultimately submitted to the general population of Kansas,
who overwhelmingly defeated the illegitimate document.
However, Kansas was not admitted to the union, as a free
state, until the closing days of the Buchanan
administration. By then several southern states had already
seceded. Buchanan had failed. 

Bergman, Peter M. The Chronological History of the Negro in
America. New York: Harper & Row, 1969. 

Black, Earl and Black, Merle. The Vital South: How
Presidents Are Elected. Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1992. 

Brinkley, Alan. American History, A Survey, Vol. 1. New
York: McGraw-Hill,1995. 

Meltzer, Milton. Milestones to American Liberty: the
Foundations of the Republic. New York: Cromwell, 1961. 

Saturday Evening Post. The Presidents. Indianapolis: Curtis
Publishing, 1980. 

Shields-West, Eileen. World Almanac of Presidential
Campaigns. New York: Pharos Books, 1992. 

Stamp, Kenneth M. America in 1857. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1990. 



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