Title: The Contenders
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