Tensions were rising in America and things were looking pretty grim. The Whigs got obliterated in the last election. Could the remnants of their party pick up the pieces before the Southern Democrats enacted their pro-slavery vision?
The Last Four Years
After witnessing the death of his young son, Franklin Pierce began his presidential term in a state of depression. He took the oath of office on a law book instead of the Bible. He did his best to balance his political appointments among the varyingly radical factions of his party, but mostly just left every side angry at him. He could have leaned on Vice President William Rufus King, but King died only a few weeks after taking office. The position went vacant for the remainder of Pierce’s term.
The “peace” of the Compromise of 1850 only lasted for a few months until another heated dispute replaced it. Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas brought the slavery expansion debate to the Nebraska Territory. Douglas wanted to kickstart the process of forming states in order to build a transcontinental railroad from his home state to California. Statehood would lead to land surveys, which would lead to land purchasing by the railroad companies, which would lead to happy Chicagoans. In his Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the territory would be split into two new ones, aptly named Kansas and Nebraska. Although both of these new territories should have remained free of slaves, as they were north of the Missouri Compromise Line, Democrats felt that agreement was now invalid thanks to the Compromise of 1850. Instead, the Act followed the rule of popular sovereignty, meaning the new settlers would vote on the legality of slavery. President Pierce supported the plan and signed it into law.
Knowing the future of slavery in America rested on the votes of the new settlers, both free and slave state supporters rushed into Kansas territory. Things quickly got violent between the groups. Over 200 people were killed in what became known as Bleeding Kansas. Pro-slavery Missourians crossed the border to rig the voting in their favor. Although a Congressional committee eventually found the election to be illegitimate, President Pierce still backed the initial results. In protest, the free-staters set up their own government and drafted the Topeka Constitution, which banned slavery. Pierce called it an act of rebellion and sent federal troops to break up their second government. Looking back, it’s clear that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was the point of no return for the Civil War.
I’m going to go with slavery for this one. Most Northerners still didn’t want to end slavery in the South. They knew that would break up the Union. But they were still intent on stopping its expansion into the West. Those with moral concerns were aided by Northern businessmen and farmers would did not want to compete with rich plantation owners for land in the new territory.
To punctuate the political divide in America, violence even reached the floor of Congress. In 1856, Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts gave a highly controversial speech, decrying Bleeding Kansas and slavery, and personally insulting Democrat Andrew Butler from South Carolina, a co-author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Sumner went so far as to mock the speech impediment Butler had after a recent stroke. Representative Preston Brooks, another South Carolinian politician and Butler’s cousin, was extremely offended by Sumner’s comments. A couple days later, he ambushed Sumner in the Senate chambers and mercilessly beat him with his cane. By the time others were able to intervene, Brooks’ cane had been broken into pieces and Sumner was unconscious. Of course, Sumner was seen as a martyr in the North and Brooks was a hero in the South. Brooks was convicted of assault but did not serve jail time and eventually returned to the House. Sumner survived, though he suffered from PTSD. He was absent from the Senate for three years to mentally recover. During that time, Massachusetts still re-elected him, believing that his vacant chair was a powerful anti-slavery symbol.
Party Watch & The Candidates
With the stain of Bloody Kansas on Democrats’ agenda, they lost big in the 1854 midterms. At their convention, they passed on re-nominating Franklin Pierce, sensing his vulnerability. Also in the running were Stephen Douglas and former nominee Lewis Cass, but they instead agreed upon James Buchanan. Buchanan started his political career in Pennsylvania and was instrumental in campaigning for Andrew Jackson’s first win. From there, the success of his career followed the success of the Democratic Party. He served as Minister to Russia, Secretary of State, and Pennsylvania senator. Despite his Northern roots, most of his political friends were Southerners and he remained loyal to them throughout his career. Luckily for him, Pierce sent Buchanan to Europe to be Minister to the United Kingdom, freeing him from the heated debate of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This made him the least controversial candidate the Democrats had. His running mate was John C. Breckinridge, a pro-slavery representative from Kentucky.
On the other side of the aisle, well, there’s been a bit of a shake-up. Following General Scott’s huge presidential loss, the deaths of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, and the divisive debate over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the national Whig Party was no more. In its wake, a group of anti-slavery Whigs, Democrats, and Free Soilers met in 1854 to protest the events in Kansas. Their conclusion was that a new political party needed to be formed. A few months later, in Jackson, Michigan, the Republican Party was born. In their platform, they directly called slavery “the great moral, social, and political evil” of the day. They demanded the repeal of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Fugitive Slave Act, as well as the end of slavery in the District of Columbia. They also promoted Whig-like internal improvements (aka infrastructure) such as increased railroads. The Republican Party was intended to be sectional. They were a coalition of Northern businessmen and Western farmers, directly opposed to the goals of the South. They had no Southern support beyond the border states.
At their nominating convention, the Republicans chose John C. Frémont, one of the first two senators from California, as their nominee. Although he was raised in the South, Frémont was best known for his adventures in the far West. His many passage-finding expeditions earned him the moniker, “Pathfinder.” He had fought in the Mexican-American War, though he often acted impulsively. He had encouraged the rebellion of American settlers in then-Mexican-owned California, known as the Bear Flag Revolt (the group who originally flew the “California Republic” flag). Frémont was also court martial’ed for insubordination after a misunderstanding over who was to be California’s military governor. Notably, Frémont named the Golden Gate Strait in San Francisco, a reference to a similar feature in Constantinople (hence, the name of the red bridge). In 1856, the Republicans chose former New Jersey Senator William L. Dayton as his running mate.
But we’re not done yet! The anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party was at it again. The end of the Whig Party had provided an opportunity for them to be the main opposition to the Democrats. They did fairly well in recent local elections, winning a few seats in Congress, some governorships, and even the Speaker of the House! The Know Nothings wanted to ignore the slavery issue and focus American racism towards foreigners instead. They did lose some support to the Republicans when their convention voted to support the Kansas-Nebraska Act. For the election, they nominated former president Millard Fillmore! Oddly enough, Fillmore was not a party member and never made any references to them in his speeches. He wasn’t even in the United States when he received the nomination! He quietly accepted the role just to see what would happen. Fillmore shared his ticket with Andrew Jackson’s nephew and adopted son, Andrew J. Donnelson.
For what it’s worth, the remnants of the Whig Party also endorsed Fillmore. Although, the sons of Clay and Webster supported Buchanan and denounced the Republicans for threatening to destroy the Union.
William Rufus King Pause!
James Buchanan was a bachelor for his entire life. In his late-20s, he courted a woman named Ann Coleman. When rumors circulated that he was cheating on her, she broke off the engagement and died soon after, supposedly of a broken heart. Buchanan begged her father to let him attend her funeral, but he refused. It seemed like Buchanan would never love again. When he moved to Washington, however, he met Alabama politician William Rufus King. Buchanan and King ended up living together for ten years. It was well documented that the two were extremely close. Andrew Jackson referred to them by an old-timey slur, “Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy.” Although they both destroyed most of their correspondence, one reference to their romantic relationship survives in a letter from Buchanan who laments his loneliness while King was away overseas, going on to say, “I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them.” As I mentioned above, King went on to become Franklin Pierce’s vice president, but died of tuberculosis before he could perform any official functions. Romantic or not, Buchanan’s close relationship with King was likely the main reason for his sympathy towards the South. Without that trait, he would have been a very different president.
There were two realities of the 1856 election. In the North, there were three candidates fighting for different visions of the country. In the South, there was only James Buchanan vs Millard Fillmore. The Republicans knew they didn’t have support in the South and they didn’t try to win it. Instead, they focused on Northern swing states like Pennsylvania. Their slogan was “Free speech, free press, free soil, free men, Frémont, and victory!” It was already clear that Southerners would revolt if the Republicans won.
The Know Nothings accused Frémont of being a secret Catholic. He wasn’t, though he had been hastily married by a Catholic priest in order to circumvent his disapproving father-in-law. Frémont didn’t publicly argue the charges, believing that there should be no religious test for the presidency and wanting to avoid alienating immigrant voters.
The lines were drawn. Buchanan won every slave state except for Maryland, which happened to be Fillmore’s only win. Frémont received less than 1,000 votes in the entire South. The Democrats also won a few swing states, plus Frémont’s California.
James Buchanan became America’s 15th president. He earned 174 electoral votes to John Frémont’s 114. However, he only carried 45.3% of the popular vote.
What Did It Say About America?
Despite all the terrible things that were happening in America, preservation of the Union was voters’ #1 concern. Unlike the Whigs, the Republicans were not interested in pandering to the South. They saw a moral line and they stuck to it, though it meant being labelled as the party of division. They weren’t too disappointed, though. A two-year-old party won eleven states in its first election! Not too shabby. Many Republicans considered it to be a “victorious defeat.” Of course, it was clear that, if they ever won, there would be some issues…
Was It The Right Decision?
Nope! I didn’t know anything about John C. Frémont going into the post, but he’s a very interesting figure! I mean, he made some negligent decisions during the war (it will continue in the Civil War, too!), but Pathfinder is a pretty great nickname. And finally, America had a party with the moral high ground, something that could not truly be said about the Whigs.
I’ll be frank, Pierce and Buchanan are probably the two worst presidents in American history, and they were back-to-back! I guess we’ll need somebody really great for the next one…