HomeHistoryUS History: The Election of 1856 – James Buchanan Takes The Reigns

US History: The Election of 1856 – James Buchanan Takes The Reigns

It’s the Election of 1856, as the Civil War is getting closer and closer… but, first, we have another three-way dance for the presidency with James Buchanan looking to go back to back for the Democrats… So with that all said, let’s get into it.

Pierce’s Troubled Presidency

Franklin Pierce, the incumbent Democratic president was struggling in more ways than one during his four years as commander and chief with the death of his third son weighing heavily on him and his wife, while also having to lead the country at a time when it was ripping itself apart over the issue of slavery. By the 1850s, slavery was the biggest issue in the United States and unfortunately, Pierce didn’t help in stopping this he made it worse by signing into law two pieces of legislation that would further escalate the conflict: The Kansas-Nebraska Act & The Ostend Manifesto. 

The Kansas Nebraska Act, which was signed on May 30th, 1854 not only led to Kansas and Nebraska becoming official states in the U.S. but, it destroyed the Missouri Compromise which established a line that allowed states north of Missouri’s southern boundary to become free states (aka states that didn’t practice slavery). The act would also allow the residents of the new states of Kansas and Nebraska to settle the slavery issue for themselves and this paved the way for ‘Bleeding Kansas’ which saw pro and anti-slavery forces in the area battle each other, resulting in the deaths of 50 or more people and lasted until 1859 with Kansas becoming a free state in 1861.

The Ostend Manifesto was a document that proposed the idea of purchasing Cuba from Spain and adding it to the United States as a slave state and even threatening to go to war with Spain if they refused to sell. As you can imagine, many Northerners who opposed the expansion of slavery, especially in the Democratic Party were furious with Pierce over these two actions which plagued his presidency even more.

Four Way Fight

Despite the fallout of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Ostend Manifesto, Franklin Pierce decided to run for a second term, but he had to deal with stiff competition within his party in the form of three familiar names who previously ran for the nomination in the previous elections: Stephen Douglas, Lewis Cass and James Buchanan. After more than a dozen ballots, both Pierce and Douglas would withdraw their names seeing that they had no chance of winning (in Pierce’s case) and to prevent further divisions within the party (in Douglas’s case).

Ultimately, it was James Buchannan who got the party’s nomination as the Pennsylvania politician was out of the country during Pierce’s presidency as the Minister of Great Britain, so his views on the slavery issue were unknown to many and much like Pierce in 1852, this made Buchanan a viable candidate especially to many Southerners as Buchanan was a Northerner who sympathized with the South, leading him and similar politicians who were like that to be called “Doughfaces”. Buchanan’s running mate in this election was John C. Breckinridge, who was a former U.S. Representative from Kentucky and a man who shockingly resembles that of F.R.I.E.N.D.S. actor, Matthew Perry.

The Birth of the Republican Party

As mentioned in the previous election article, the Whig Party was falling apart and their humongous defeat in 1852 certainly didn’t help. The remaining Whigs as well as the remaining members of the Free Soil Party would come together in 1854 to not only oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Act but to create a new political party known as The Republican Party…yes, that Republican Party.

By the 1854-55 midterm elections, the Republicans are just one of two parties who found success as the GOP gained seats in Congress and by 1856, the party is looking to get one of their own into the White House on the platform of wanting to end the expansion of slavery and polygamy in Mormon settlements as well as obtaining financial aid to construct a Transcontinental Railroad. The GOP’s slogan for this election was kind of similar to that of the Free Soil Party: “Free Speech, Free Press, Free Soil, Freemen, Fremont…And Victory.” 

The second-to-last part of that slogan references the Republican Party’s nominee for president, John C. Fremont who was a soldier who fought in the Mexican American War, an explorer and the former Senator of California.

Fremont had to beat names like Supreme Court Justice, John McLean to get the nomination and the Republican party nominated the former Senator from New Jersey, William L. Dayton as his running mate; Fun fact, the man William Dayton beat to become the running mate for the Republicans in this election was none other than Abraham Lincoln…The more you know.

The Know-Nothing Party

The third player in this election was the American Party or best known today as “The Know-Nothing Party” as most of the people who were a part of the group kept quiet on party plans or they just didn’t know, so many newspapers simply referred to them as “Know-Nothings” and the party as “The Know-Nothing Party”.

Despite the silly name the party gained much support since the 1852 election, the Know-Nothings ran 76 members of their party in the midterm elections and 35 of them got elected, plus they were even able to get one of their own, Nathaniel P. Banks elected as Speaker of the House in Congress. By 1856, the party was strong enough to nominate another candidate for president and subsequently, they chose another Whig to be their representative.

The Know-Nothing Party chose former U.S. President, Millard Fillmore as their nominee with Andrew Jackson Donelson, the nephew of Andrew Jackson as his running mate. The strangest thing is though, Millard Fillmore wasn’t a member of the party, nor did he support the nativist ideals the party was associated with and he was out of the country when he got the nomination. Even still, Fillmore just went along with it presumably hoping to get another opportunity to become president after failing to get the Whig Party’s renomination in the previous election. So those are the three main candidates between the Democrats, Republicans and the Know-Nothings, now it’s time to discuss the campaigning each party used in the election.

The Campaigns

The Republican Party pulled no punches when it came to their main platform issue which was to stop the spread of slavery throughout the country, however, the Democrats and many of their supporters claimed that electing Fremont for president would lead to a civil war and even brought up stories of cannibalism that occurred during an expedition he led years ago.

The Know-Nothings also attacked Fremont by claiming that he was a Catholic, which they were against as the party’s nativist views on Catholics led to the demonization of many German and Roman Catholics in the U.S.

Fillmore promised to bring unity back to the country if elected president as the two major parties were unable to do so and many Americans turned to the Know-Nothing Party as a result, but like most third parties their chances of winning the election were slim at best.
Now that we’ve briefly talked about each party’s campaigning strategy in this election, it’s time to look at the results.

The Results

Just from looking at the electoral map above, it is clear to see that James Buchanan wins and becomes the 15th President in U.S. history receiving 174 electoral votes (you only needed 149 or more to win this time around), however, Buchanan won with less than 50% of the popular vote as he got only 45.3%. John C. Fremont received 114 electoral votes and 33.1% of the popular vote. Millard Fillmore only received eight electoral votes which was just the state of Maryland and got 21.5% of the popular vote, which was the best performance in terms of the popular vote for a third-party candidate in a presidential election since the Free Soil Party in 1848. The Know-Nothing Party much like the previous third parties before them would end up falling apart after losing an election with a number of its members going on to join the Republican Party.

James Buchanan, as of the writing of this article is the last person to have held the position of Secretary of State to become president and the only bachelor to become president and if the rumours are to be true, then Buchanan is the first and currently only LGBTQ person to have won the presidency in American history.

So that is the election of 1856, the Democratic Party managed to pull off another victory in the general election, but the newly created Republican Party is far from done and by the time the next election rolls around, the chances of a civil war breaking out are becoming more and more of a reality.

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