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 McFarland.
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
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
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 politically.
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 positions.
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 decision.
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.
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Black, Earl and Black, Merle. The Vital South: HowPresidents Are Elected.
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Brinkley, Alan. American History, A Survey, Vol. 1. NewYork: McGraw-Hill,
Meltzer, Milton. Milestones to American Liberty: the Foundations of the
Republic. New York: Cromwell, 1961.
Saturday Evening Post. The Presidents. Indianapolis: CurtisPublishing, 1980.
Shields-West, Eileen. World Almanac of Presidential Campaigns. New York: Pharos
Stamp, Kenneth M. America in 1857. New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 1990.