Guest Essayist: Professor Joerg Knipprath


The 1850s was, for the American political party system, a decade of “creative destruction,” to borrow a concept from the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter. This process of collapse and rebirth, sometimes referred to as a political “realignment,” was triggered by the internal contradictions of a constitutional order resting simultaneously on the animating principle of liberty and the continued protection of slavery. The catalyst was the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Lewis Cass-Henry Clay-Stephen Douglas “popular sovereignty” approach to slavery in the territories, and the resultant spectacle of “Bleeding Kansas” as the preface to the Civil War.

The electoral drubbing the Whigs received at the hands of the Democrats in 1852, when General Winfield Scott—he of Mexican War glory—lost to the handsome, but politically untested Democratic dark-horse nominee Franklin Pierce, shattered the party. Their nation-oriented perspective was made unfashionable by Americans’ devolution to sectional identity. The Democrats had done their best to remain silent about slavery and had been rewarded with the political support of a majority of Americans unified temporarily only by their weariness after the latest row over slavery had culminated in the Compromise of 1850.

This false peace lasted but two years, before slavery and sectionalism once more burst their chains. During this interlude, another issue distracted Americans. Large-scale immigration in the late 1840s caused by crop failures in Ireland and revolution in Germany alarmed many. That a portion of the German “forty-eighters” were radicals who preached the “gospel according to St. Marx,” in the words of Samuel Eliot Morison, did not help matters.

The aroused nativist (and, to a degree, anti-Catholic) mood was vented in ways political and “extra-parliamentary.” Regarding the latter, native-born Protestants formed a secret “Order of the Star-Spangled Banner.” They became known as the “Know-Nothings.” When asked by outsiders about their group, its passwords, or its rituals, they were to say, “I know nothing.” More ominously, during the 1854 election season, bands of “plug-uglies” violently harassed Baltimore voters who did not have the proper password of nativist groups and who, therefore, likely were not supportive of the anti-immigrant agenda. In St. Louis, battles between gangs of Americans and Irish Catholics had to be put down by a force of 700 specially hired men after the police were unable to do so.

The political impetus could not find an outlet in a Democratic Party traditionally in favor of immigration and otherwise preoccupied with muffling the slavery controversy. Nor was there for Americans focused on the immigration issue a home in the disintegrating Whig Party or in a not-yet-conceived Republican Party. Rather, the Know-Nothing societies became an eponymous party in several states, though in some of them it changed its name to the Native American Party. In 1854, the Know-Nothings won control of the state government of Massachusetts and almost did likewise in New York. In coalition with several other parties, it gained control of the U.S. House of Representatives and elected as Speaker one of its leaders, Massachusetts’s Nathaniel Banks. By 1855, the movement went national as the American Party, held a convention dominated by Southerners, adopted a proslavery platform, and decided on former President Millard Fillmore, late of the Whig Party, as their nominee for the election of 1856. Ironically, Fillmore never joined the American Party and was an anti-slavery moderate, to boot. He was abroad when nominated. The pro-Southern tilt of the convention prompted a schism, with the anti-slavery faction forming its own party and eventually fusing with the Republicans.

The chimerical national peace over slavery dissolved spectacularly when that issue once more took center stage in American politics as a result of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas now sought to paper over the Democrats’ factional cleavages by unifying the party through a grand vision of western expansion, starting with Nebraska Territory. This was the last unorganized portion of the old Louisiana Purchase. The territory’s location also happened to provide an ideal transit route for a much-discussed transcontinental railroad from Illinois to the Pacific. There were competing proposed routes for the railroad, such as a southern route urged by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. Douglas was deeply invested in Chicago real estate and Western land, so the central route was critical to his fortune. But Nebraska Territory could only be organized if Southern opposition could be blunted by concessions on slavery.

As three months of debate raged over a series of Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska compromise bills, the sectional positions became more entrenched. Practical reality mattered less and perceived honor more. In the words of Morison, “Everyone forgot about the railroad. The South had not asked for Kansas, did not want Kansas; but ‘Southern rights’ were involved. Few slaveholders planned to carry [their slaves] further west, but Southern honor demanded that slavery follow the flag.” Northern threats about non-enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act fanned the flames from that end.

The Democratic majority in Congress forced the bill through, and President Pierce eagerly signed it. The language was sufficiently ambiguous to enable the Democratic factions to read into the bill their own interpretations of its moving principle, “popular sovereignty.” The Democratic Party’s façade of unity was maintained—for the moment.

On February 23, 1854, in response to the controversy over the looming adoption of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a meeting was held in Ripon, Wisconsin. The purpose was to consider political means to oppose the extension of slavery. The meeting resolved that a new, “Republican” party be formed. Similar meetings were held in other Midwestern states throughout the year. Anti-slavery leaders, particularly Northern Whigs, were yet loath to jump ship from the established parties or from the older anti-slavery party, the Free Soil Party. Thus, Republican Party organizing outside the Midwest initially was slow. Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the resulting turmoil in Kansas accelerated the process. By June, 1856, the Republicans had coalesced into a sectional anti-slavery party.

The first Republican nominating convention in Philadelphia attracted many well-known men of politics and business. The party selected John C. Fremont, the “Great Pathfinder” and former Senator from California, as its presidential nominee over such men as Senator William Seward of New York, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, and Supreme Court Justice John McClean. The nominee for the vice presidency was former Senator William Dayton, who got the nod over former Congressman Abraham Lincoln.

Fremont was a former explorer who had led several expeditions to survey California and Colorado. He had a powerful political and financial backer for those explorations in Missouri’s Senator Thomas Hart Benton (“Old Bullion,” so nick-named because of his hard-money views), whose daughter Jessie had married Fremont. Despite earlier having shot Jackson in a street brawl, Benton became a political ally of Andrew Jackson and a useful conduit for Fremont to Washington politicians.

Fremont had a brief (and contested) tenure as military governor of California during the Mexican War. As a military officer, he had accepted the surrender of Mexican troops at Cahuenga Pass that, effectively, ended the war in California. In 1849, a massive lode of gold was discovered on Fremont’s otherwise useless property in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The discovery made Fremont very wealthy, indeed. After participating in the first California constitutional convention, he was elected the first Senator from the new state, as a free-soil Democrat. He served only briefly. California was deeply split over slavery, and Fremont was defeated for re-election in 1851.

The Democrats nominated as their presidential candidate James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, an old political war-horse from the Andrew Jackson wing of the party. Buchanan and Martin Van Buren had been crucial in laying the foundation for the Democrats to evolve into a cohesive national party under the titular leadership of the charismatic Jackson. As early as the contested election of 1824, Buchanan had sought to broker a deal between Henry Clay and Jackson to have the House elect the latter as President, instead of John Quincy Adams. Unsuccessful in that task, Buchanan had concocted the charge that the Adams-Clay alliance was the result of a “corrupt bargain,” an innuendo that had helped cripple the Adams administration. That had been the opening salvo in Jackson’s successful 1828 campaign.

By 1852, Buchanan was one of the “Big Four” at the Democratic convention, along with Lewis Cass (the party’s unsuccessful nominee in 1848), Stephen Douglas, and William Marcy. None of them had been able to prevail at the convention, which, on the forty-ninth ballot, turned to the dark horse Franklin Pierce. In 1856, Buchanan again was one of four candidates for nomination, the others being Cass, Douglas, and Pierce. Pierce, as incumbent President, should have been the odds-on favorite. He was hurt by the Democrats’ catastrophic defeat in the 1854 congressional elections that cost them nearly half their seats in the House for a loss to the Know-Nothings and their coalition allies. Hampered by the party’s 2/3 vote rule for nomination, it took 17 ballots to select Buchanan.

The candidates personified their parties: Buchanan, the 65-year-old political wheeler-dealer, represented the latest installment of the same threadbare and predictable political balancing act over slavery being replayed yet again; Fillmore, removed from American politics, represented the vocal anti-immigrant groups who were distracted from the political drama over slavery that gripped the majority; and Fremont, the 42-year old can-do “glamour boy” from exotic and distant California, represented a new and energetic party in no mood to compromise on the extension of slavery. The election was anticlimactic; the old order carried the day. However, it was a harbinger of things to come.

The Republicans were too strident for many and lacked the thorough organization needed to compensate for their sectional appeal. Fremont could not carry his home state; indeed, he placed third. He also lost the entire South, where Democrats, in a dress rehearsal for the next election, ominously warned of secession should Fremont be elected. The Republicans were not even on the ballot in the 12 Southern and border states, and South Carolina’s legislature predictably voted for Buchanan. Still, campaigning under the slogan, “Free soil, free speech, and Fremont,” the Republican candidate received 1,342,000 votes and carried 11 Northern and Midwestern states with 114 electoral votes. Fillmore won only Maryland’s 8 electoral votes, but received 873,000 popular votes and placed second in 14 states.

The winner, Buchanan, received 1,836,000 votes and carried 19 states with 174 electoral votes. A purely sectional result was avoided because Buchanan carried 5 non-slave states, with 62 electoral votes. The next election would have no such electoral fig leaf to hide the corrosive sectionalism that had eaten away the country’s foundation.

An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums. Read more from Professor Knipprath at:

1 reply
  1. Publius Senex Dassault
    Publius Senex Dassault says:

    Another very interesting essay. Thank you.

    I wish we would have a decade of realignment. Oh for a Party to be “TRUTHful.” Although different in philosophy, the Ds & Rs govern the same way. We need a Party that will actually respect and honor the Constitution instead of circumvent it via Executive Orders, Omnibus bills, and attaching entire Bills as amendments to can’t fail Bills.

    Apparently a lot of Americans have grown tired of the establishments [D&R]. Hence the unbelievable assent of Trump and Sanders. Americans want America back. I hope we get it.


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