Printable Version

The 1856 Presidential Campaign
Digital History ID 319

Author:   Gideon Welles


No single piece of legislation ever passed by Congress had more far-reaching political consequences than the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The act's opponents denounced it as "a gross violation of a sacred pledge" and part of a secret plot "to exclude from a vast unoccupied region, immigrants from the Old World and free laborers from our own States, and convert it into a dreary region of despotism inhabited by masters and slaves."

In almost every northern state, protest groups joined together and adopted the name "Republican." A combination of diverse elements, the Republican party favored the exclusion of slavery from the western territories. It contained antislavery radicals, free soilers, political abolitionists, Whigs, Jacksonian Democrats, nativists opposed to foreign immigration, and antislavery immigrants.

In the fall of 1854, the new party contested congressional elections for the first time and won 46 seats in the House of Representatives. It included a number of men, such as William H. Seward (1801-1872) of New York, who believed that African Americans should receive full civil rights including the right to vote. But the new party also attracted many individuals like Abraham Lincoln who favored African-American colonization as the only workable solution to slavery. Despite their differences, all these factions believed that the western territories should be saved for free labor.

In June 1856, the Republican party held its first national convention in Philadelphia, nominating the dashing young explorer and Mexican war hero John C. Frémont (1813-1890) for president. A romantic figure who had led more than a dozen major explorations of the Rocky Mountains and the Far West, he had played a critical role in refuting the myth that the West was a "great American desert," "wholly unfit for cultivation." Instead he had depicted the West as a paradise of plenty.

In the presidential campaign, the Democrats described Frémont as a "black abolitionist" who would destroy the Union, while Know Nothings called him a "Papist" (since his wife was Catholic and he sent his children to a Catholic school). Despite these attacks, the Republicans made an extraordinarily impressive showing. Eleven free states voted for Frémont. If only two more states had voted in his favor, the Republicans would have won their first campaign in a presidental election.

Gideon Welles, an organizer of the Republican party and editor of the Republican newspaper the Hartford Evening Press, later served as Secretary of the Navy under Presidents Lincoln and Johnson. In this letter, he discusses Frémont's prospects in the 1856 campaign against the Democrat James Buchanan and the Know Nothing, Millard Fillmore. "Free labor, free soil, free men, Frémont" was the Republican slogan.


Whatever of good was to be accomplished by the American party [the Know Nothings] has been effected, and it has ceased to be useful. I have no idea that it has ever been so formidable in numbers as has been generally supposed; but of those who have been connected with it, a very long proposition, in my opinion four-fifths, wish the whole thing abandoned.... It is mortifying and disgraceful to witness our state [Connecticut] put in jeopardy by the offensive & narrow exclusiveness of these feeble, mischief makers--feeble in mind and feeble in numbers.

If our papers would take a firm and manly stand, the whole difficulty would be ended. It is not necessary to attack them, or have any controversy with them but to ignore them.

The truth is, most of the papers that have connected themselves with the American party have lost, in a degree, their independence, and are afraid to offend even the abuses of the order. But the order is no longer formidable, and would pass into insignificance but for the press over which they exercise this arbitrary control. The few leaders...humbug the public, making the editors the servile tools of their mischievous purposes....

This state can be made certain for Frémont, and placed in a condition to sustain the cause of freedom for years, unless prevented by the bad conduct of the few leaders of the American party, who in their selfish purposes, would sacrifice the great principles in issue.... The time is short--the season is busy--no efficient organization can be perfected, and the cause is embarrassed & put in jeopardy to gratify Americans, at the expense and on the popularity of the rising feeling for Frémont & the cause. The people are not with them--public sentiment is disregarded--and they could do nothing, if the public press was faithful to public opinion, instead of being subservient to the little intriguers who are trifling with great questions and grave subjects....

My impression is that a general convention of all "the friends of Frémont and Freedom" should be called....

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: Gideon Welles to James F. Babcock

Copyright 2021 Digital History