Guest Essayist: James D. Best


1856 Race for President—James Buchanan defeats Millard Fillmore and John C. Fremont

The political scene in 1856 was chaotic. The Whig Party had collapsed because of a regional dispute over slavery. The American Party (Know-Nothings) had scooped up Whig remnants to rail against immigrants and Catholics. The new Republican Party, formed to fight slavery, feverishly pulled together abolitionists from wherever they could find them. Democrats, the last functioning national party, worked hard to stifle their own riff between the free and slave states. These three parties, one wounded and two newborn, would fight for the presidency. A dubious prize since seven presidents in a row had served a single term or less.

The country was close to dissolution. Senator Stephen A. Douglas aggravated the disharmony by engineering the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854). The Missouri Compromise (1820) held the slavery conflict in check for over three decades by drawing a line of demarcation at 36°30´. The act allowed slavery only below that latitude. Douglas had other ideas. The Kansas/Nebraska Act was couched in virtuous language which asserted that the people in the territories had the right to choose their own path. Despite the high-minded rhetoric, the real purpose was to repeal the Missouri Compromise to retain the balance between free and slave states. Tempers erupted with passage of the act, and then Kansas violence and corruption flung kerosene onto this firestorm. Bitterness imbued the nation as the parties searched for candidates that could cobble together a majority of the electoral vote.

The American Party nominated Millard Fillmore, the 13th president in the hope that he would attract votes because he had held the position once before. When nominated, Fillmore was out of the country and had never attended an American Party meeting.

Desperate for acceptance, the Republican Party nominated a celebrity. John C. Frémont, known as The Pathfinder, was a renowned war hero and frontiersman.

Franklin Pierce, the sitting president, sought re-nomination by the Democrats, but was rejected by his party. James Buchanan, called Old Buck, won the Democratic Party nomination partly because he had been out of the country for years as an ambassador, and had thus escaped a partisan taint by taking a side on slavery. Buchanan was also popular in the Democratic Party because he had advocated buying Cuba or taking it by force. Cuba was contemplating freeing its slaves, which American slaveholders could not abide, especially so close to home.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act was the overriding issue of the campaign. Republicans vehemently opposed the act with the slogan “Free speech, free press, free soil, free men, Frémont and victory!” Republicans argued that if the Missouri Compromise could be ignored, the Kansas/Nebraska Act could be ignored as well. Democrats, on the other hand, steadfastly supported the act. A persuasive element of the Democrat campaign was to fan fears that a Republican victory would cause southern states to succeed. They argued Buchanan could hold the Union together. The American Party, meanwhile, insisted that they were the only true “national party”, because Democrats drew their strength mostly from the South and Republicans came primarily from the North. The Know-Nothings railed against immigrants and Catholics, but fear of the Pope and other foreign influences couldn’t suppress their own internal conflicts over slavery.

In the free states, there was a three-way campaign, which Frémont won. The Republicans did not compete in the slave states, making it a two way race, which ended up delivering a majority of electoral votes to Buchanan.

Buchanan had served five terms in the House, a decade in the Senate, been Secretary of State, and Minister to Russia and Great Britain. His curriculum vitae and untarnished reputation were not nearly enough. Buchanan became the eighth president in a row to serve a single term.

At Buchanan’s inaugural ball, the Russian minister Baron de Stoeckl supposedly told the wife of the French minister that the gala reminded him of the ball he attended just before the French Revolution of 1830—at which Talleyrand had said, “Sire, we are dancing on a volcano.”

James D. Best, author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Principled Action, and the Steve Dancy Tales.

2 replies
  1. Barb Zakszewski
    Barb Zakszewski says:

    The Republicans nominated a celebrity.. sounds familiar.. The Nation was in much chaos in the 1850’s and 1860’s but survived by unifying. I pray we can do the same now, 150 years later. If not, we may not survive this crush of celebrity and cult of personality where issues no longer matter.

  2. Publius Senex Dassualt
    Publius Senex Dassualt says:

    Mr. Best, thank you for this well written, enjoyable, and educational essay.

    Losing this election was a blessing the Republicans, not only because it resulted in Lincoln being nominated in 1860, but because in hindsight we can see that no one was prepared for session and the chaos that ensued.

    Being a new party without cohesion, they would likely have failed to preserve the Union. Leadership would have been fragmented, as it was in 1860. Except Lincoln proved to be a master at uniting factions, as Doris Kearns Goowin captures so well in Team of Rivals. Even with Lincoln’s mastery of people, politics, and vision, the country’s future was often in doubt.

    As Solomon wrote, everything has a season. In hindsight 1856 was the season for Buchanan and the Democrats setting the stage for 1860 when GOD’s season to address slavery in America via Lincoln and the the Republicans.


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