The Election of 1856

The election of 1856,may have been one of the most important elections in American history. The country was beginning to tear itself apart over slavery and wise, tactful leadership was needed to avert a civil war. Unfortunately the political generation that had produced such legislative giants as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster had passed away the candidates of both major parties, the Democrats and the newly formed Republicans in their first presidential contest, were mediocrities.

The Compromise of 1850 had only delayed the inevitable clash between North and South over slavery. Although the immediate issue of whether the territories won from Mexico would be slave or free territories, the provision that the territories themselves would make the choice to permit slavery through popular sovereignty effectively repealed the Missouri compromise and made future conflicts over the expansion of slavery more likely.

The Compromise of 1850
The Compromise of 1850

When the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and permitted popular sovereignty on the slavery question, pro and anti slavery settlers poured into Kansas and began fighting a miniature civil war, foreshadowing the greater war to come.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act
The Kansas-Nebraska Act

The Democratic National Convention was held in Cincinnati on June 2. The delegates declined to nominate President Franklin Pierce for a second term. Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act seemed to be a strong contender for the nomination, but he was passed over for James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. Buchanan was very well qualified to part the job of chief executive, at least in theory. He had been serving as American ambassador to Great Britain at the time he was nominated and had previously held the posts of Secretary of State under President Polk, U S Senator from Pennsylvania from 1834 to 1845; where he served as Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, Ambassador to Russia under President Andrew Jackson from 1832-1833, and Congressman from Pennsylvania from 1821-1831. Buchanan had also served as a private in the Pennsylvania militia during the War of 1812. Despite his long career of service to his country, Buchanan was not particularly distinguished as a leader and the most likely reason he was nominated was because he had been out of the country during the controversies surrounding the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Bleeding Kansas. Buchanan was not known to have said anything about the issue of slavery that would upset the South and although he was a Northerner, he seemed sympathetic to the South and its peculiar institution.

For Buchanan’s running mate, the delegates selected John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, who had been a Congressman from 1851-1855. Breckinridge would have preferred not to be nominated as Buchanan’s running mate, as he had supported Pierce and the two men did not get along, but he acquiesced. The Democrats went on to adopt a platform of popular sovereignty on the slavery question and support for the Ostend Manifesto which called for the acquisition of Cuba from Spain.

The Republicans met for their first national convention in Philadelphia of June 17. The Republican party  was formed from a coalition of former Whigs, Free-Soilers, and anti-slavery democrats to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Act and was formally launched at a mass meeting at Jackson, Michigan back on July 6, 1854 and quickly began to win elections throughout the North that fall. The Republican Party was an explicitly anti-slavery party, but they didn’t call for the abolition of slavery where it existed, only for slavery not to expand into the western territories.

The Republicans chose the famous explorer and military hero John C. Fremont to be their presidential candidate. Fremont was known as “The Pathfinder” for his expeditions in the west and had captured California, during the Mexican War and had briefly served a contentious term as military governor there. After the was, Fremont had settled in California and served as one of the new state’s first Senators from 1850-1851. Fremont was not particularly well qualified to be president, but he did have a catchy slogan, “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Men, Fremont”. The Republicans went on to pick former New Jersey Senator William L. Dayton as his running mate.


There were other parties who ran candidates in this election, the most notable being the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic American Party. The American Party was as much a secret society as a political party and because its members answered. “I know nothing when asked about its activities, the movement became known as the Know-Nothings. The American Party had managed to win a few elections, chiefly in New England. At their convention in Philadelphia in February 1856, the Know-Nothings nominated former president

 Millard Fillmore as their candidate, even though he had not been a follower of their movement and was, in fact, out of the country. They selected Andrew Jackson Donelson as their Vice-Presidential candidate.There were also the remnants of the Whig Party which met in Baltimore in September, They also nominated Millard Fillmore.

Along with the debate over slavery, there was the usual nineteenth century campaign hoopla, with parades, mass meetings, speeches, and political clubs. The Republicans did not run in the southern states, which were expected to vote for Buchanan and the Democrats,  so most of the campaigning was in the North and West. The Republicans opposed the extension of slavery into new territories and appealed to western farmers who did not want to have to compete with slave labor and eastern businessmen who supported high tariffs to protect American industry and fund internal improvements. Mainly of these businessmen supported the Democrats, however, fearing possible economic disruption if the Republicans won. The Democrats appealed to racism, calling their opponents “Black Republicans” and warned that the South would secede in the event of a Republican victory. They also claimed that Fremont was secretly a Catholic. Oddly, this did not help him get the Catholic vote, since the Catholics somehow believed that he was connected to the Know-Nothings.

In the end, the people of the North decided that they feared disunion and civil war more than they disliked slavery. Buchanan got 1,836,072 popular votes (45.3%) and 174 electoral votes, sweeping the entire South, California, and Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey in the North. Fremont did not do too badly considering that this was the Republicans’ first national election. He won 1,342,345 popular votes (33.1%) and 114 electoral votes, winning the rest of the North. The American Party also did surprisingly well with 873,053 popular votes (21.5%) and they won the state of Maryland with its 8 electoral votes. The fact that the results were divided upon sectional lines was more than a little ominous, as were the Southern threats to secede if the election wouldn’t go their way.

The Election of 1856
The Election of 1856


At his inauguration, President James Buchanan spoke of the nation’s bright future of economic progress and territorial expansion. About the slavery issue, he only said that he supported popular sovereignty in the territories and hoped that the upcoming decision by the Supreme Court on Dred Scott v. Sanford would settle the matter once and for all. Just two days later, the Supreme Court rendered its decision declaring that Congress had no power to regulate slavery in the territories, and all hell broke loose.

Worst President Ever

English: Smaller image of President James Buch...
English: Smaller image of President James Buchanan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the eight years of George W. Bush’s administration, Liberals would tell each other that he was the worst president in American history, or as they put it; Worst. President. Ever. Since Barack Obama was elected, Conservatives have been pleased to return the compliment, with perhaps considerably more reason. Still, the truth is that it is too soon to properly evaluate either man’s presidential ranking and announcing that either is the absolute worst shows a sort of shortsighted historical ignorance that is all too common these days.

Most historians consider that the worst American President was James Buchanan, largely because of his inaction on the eve of the American Civil War. It is possible that the war could have been won earlier and far less bloodily, or even averted altogether if Buchanan at acted at once to suppress the rebellion. As it was, his dithering may have condemned the country to its bloodiest war.

To look at Buchanan’s resume, one would think he would make at least a decent President. Not one of the greatest perhaps, but certainly not the worst. He was born in 1791 in a log cabin in Pennsylvania, thus fulfilling the most important requirement for a nineteenth century politician. Buchanan never married and it is possible he was the first homosexual President. There were rumors that he and his friend Vice-President William Rufus King had an intimate relationship. In fact, the two were referred to as Buchanan and his wife. Unfortunately, King died in 1853 and so was unable to serve as first lady when Buchanan became President. On the other hand, it is also possible that this was no more than hostile gossip. Buchanan was engaged to Ann Caroline Coleman, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. She broke off the engagement and died soon after, devastating the young Buchanan.

James Buchanan fought in the War of 1812, helping to defend Baltimore from the British. He entered politics as a Federalist in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1814-1816. He then left the legislature to pursue a successful career as a lawyer. He reentered politics in 1820, winning a seat in Congress as a Federalist. By this time, the Federalist Party was all but defunct so Buchanan became a democrat and a supporter of Andrew Jackson. He helped Jackson in the elections of 1824 and 1828 and in return, Jackson appointed him minister to Russia in 1832.

Buchanan was successful in this post as well, negotiating the first trade treaty between the United States and Russia. He returned to the United States the following year and served in the Senate from 1834-1845. He resigned to serve as President Polk’s Secretary of State and he was largely responsible for Polk’s successful policy of territorial expansion. He also served as minister to Great Britain from 1853 to 1856.

In 1856, the Democratic Party nominated James Buchanan for the presidency. The key issue in American politics at the time was slavery and the increasing sectional tensions that slavery was causing. Anyone who expressed a strong opinion for or against slavery, or who was identified too strongly with the North or the South was sure to alienate half the country and was therefore unelectable

Buchanan, therefore, had two advantages. He had been out of the country and so had not taken a position on the crisis in Kansas, and he was known to be a northerner who was sympathetic to slavery. He won easily enough, carrying every single slave state, except for Maryland, which went for Millard Fillmore, while the Republican; John Fremont carried most of the Northern states. This was not a good sign.

Under ordinary circumstances, James Buchanan might have been a decent president. Buchanan was largely successful in dealing with issues like a depression in 1857 and trouble with the Mormons in the Utah Territory. But these were not ordinary times. Slavery was tearing the country apart and Buchanan simply out of his depth. Caught between the two sides, he never really understood how passionate the issue had become to so many people, North and South. Slavery was no longer an issue on which it was possible to compromise, if it ever was.

To the extent that James Buchanan involved himself in the slavery dispute, he invariably made things worse. Two days after his inauguration, the Supreme Court issued the Dred Scott decision. The fact that this decision denied Dred Scott his freedom was outrageous enough to the abolitionists, but the broader decision to declare the Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional, denying Congress the power to outlaw slavery infuriated many northerners who had previously been relatively apathetic. Buchanan had written to Justice Taney urging the broader decision to be made to settle the slavery issue. His action only drove the two sides farther apart.

Then there was Kansas. There was already a civil war being fought in Kansas between those who wanted Kansas admitted to the union as a free state, and those who wanted Kansas to be a slave state. Buchanan tried his best to have Kansas admitted as slave state. This cost him all his support among northern Democrats and left his rival Stephen Douglas in charge of the party.

It should not be too surprising that by the time his term had ended, President Buchanan was deeply unpopular. The Republicans had managed to gain control of Congress in 1858 and the two branches of government were locked in gridlock. Buchanan had declared he would only serve one term at his inauguration his administration had so divided the country that the election of 1860 became the most contentious in American history. The Democrats probably would have won but the Democratic Party had become divided by section. The northern Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas while the southerner nominated Vice-President John C. Breckinridge. John Bell ran under the Constitutional Union party banner while the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln.

Because the Democrats were divided, Lincoln won a plurality of the votes cast, only 39.8%. He had a clear majority in the Electoral College and so was elected president, without a single Southern vote. As a result of the election, seven states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. Four other states soon joined them.

This was the greatest crisis in American history. If ever the country needed leadership, this was the occasion. Unfortunately, this happened to be the time when James Buchanan would show that he did deserve to be considered the worst President ever. He did nothing. He did nothing to suppress the growing rebellion. He did nothing to prevent the Confederates from forming a government and an army and then seizing federal forts and arsenals. If he had taken some sort of decisive action, the rebellion might have been ended relatively quickly. Instead, he bequeathed to his successor, Lincoln, a bloody war with a rival nation fully prepared for a long struggle.

James Buchanan lived until June 1, 1868. He wrote his memoirs to defend his administration. The day before his death, he declared, “History will vindicate my memory”. It hasn’t.