Digital History

The Impending Crisis

The Election of 1856 Previous Next
Digital History ID 3281



The presidential election of 1856 took place in the midst of Kansas's civil war. President Pierce hoped for renomination to a second term in office, but the Democrats wanted a less controversial candidate, and selected James Buchanan, a 65-year-old Pennsylvania bachelor, who had been minister to Great Britain during the struggle over the Kansas-Nebraska bill.

The Republican Party held its first national convention in Philadelphia and adopted a platform denying the authority of Congress and of territorial legislatures "to give legal existence to slaveryquot; in the territories. The convention nominated the dashing young explorer and soldier John C. Fremont for president as young Republicans chanted, quot;Free Speech, Free Soil and Fremont.quot; Fremont was a romantic figure who had led more than a dozen major explorations of the Rocky Mountains and Far West.

The election was one of the most bitter in American history and the first in which voting divided along rigid sectional lines. The Democratic strategy was to picture the Republican Party as a hotbed of radicalism. Democrats called the Republicans the party of disunion and described Fremont as a Catholic, a drunkard, a bastard, and a quot;black abolitionistquot; who would destroy the union.

A Republican representative from Ohio responded by calling for slave insurrection: quot;I look forward to the day when there shall be a servile insurrection in the South; when the black man ... shall assert his freedom and wage a war of extermination against his master.quot;

Buchanan won 174 Electoral College votes to 114 for Fremont. Fremont did not receive a single vote south of the Mason-Dixon Line, but he carried eleven free states. If only two more states had voted in his favor, the Republicans would have won the election.

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