Party and Election of 1856


The Whig party suffered much by the compromise of 1850. If it repudiated the agreement, its southern wing would be wrecked; to accept it sacrificed the good will of many earnest anti-slavery Whigs. It was freely said that the party would never win another victory. Although' it had a strong position in Massachusetts, New York, and other states, and managed to preserve its national organization, its fate was sealed.

For a time it was thought it would yield place to the know-nothing party. This was a secret political organization with the same principles as those of the Native Americans. When one of its members was asked any question about it he was instructed to give a formal answer, "I don't know," and from this came the name. As the Irish Catholics were usually democrats, the organization naturally drew largely from the Whigs and as it had the open denunciation of Douglas and other leading democrats it felt drawn to those who opposed the Kansas-Nebraska bill. By judicious combination and much work it polled in 1854 one-fourth of the entire vote of New York, two-fifths of that of Pennsylvania, and nearly two-thirds of that of Massachusetts. In the last named state it elected the governor and other general officers and controlled the legislature. This silent machine, without canvasser or other outward evidence of activity, but sweeping so much before it struck terror to the old party leaders: Late in 1854 it decided to require all its members to take oath to support the union, and the decision drew many anti-Nebraska men to its ranks, as well as a large number of union men in the South, mostly old Whigs. In the spring of 1855 it carried Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode island, and freely boasted it had 1,000,000 enrolled voters. It now abandoned secrecy, hitherto its greatest weakness. The light of day showed that it was chiefly the old Whig party under another name, and from that moment disappeared all hope of building up out of it a great union party. In 1856 it lost its antislavery (win_?) when it refused to demand the restoration of the Missouri compromise. In this year its candidate, Fillmore, carried only one state, Maryland.

Meanwhile, the republican party had been organized on the basis of pen opposition to slavery extension. While congress debated the Kansas-Nebraska bill, 1854, many mass meetings were held to protest against the measure, and one of them at Ripon, Wisconsin, March 20, went beyond the others by recommending a new party to fight slavery extension July 6 a convention of all who would cooperate to resist "the encroachments of slavery" met at Jackson, Michigan, nominated a state ticket, and called on the other free states to do the same. The sources of its strength, and the proportion of its distribution, as shown in the fact that three of the nominees were former free soil (m_?) five old Whigs, and two anti-Nebraska democrats. Wisconsin follows Michigan's example, while Vermont, Indiana, and Ohio nominated anti-Nebraska tickets. The movement" prevailed in Ohio by a majority of 75,000. It was, however, forestalled in the great Eastern states by the rise of Know-Nothingism. But the check was temporary, and in 1855 its eastward march was resumed.

Whig leaders in the East watched the rise of the republican party with keen interest, and this was especially true of Seward leading Whig and opponent of slavery extension in congress. His own party was disintegrating: should he follow the exodus and unite with the republicans to build up a great sectional organization? His answer was most important; for he controlled with the aid of his astute friend, Thurlow Weed, the action of his

party in the most important state in the union. He hesitated for months, but by the autumn of 1855 his mind was made up. Plans were made to unite the Whigs and republicans, and each party met in convention at Syracuse in September. To one of his friends who asked which convention an opponent of slavery ought to attend, Seward replied that it made little difference; for although the delegates would go in through two doors they would come out at one. The Whigs had hardly assembled before they resolved to join the republican party, and the leaders, followed by all but a small remnant, marched to the republican convention and took seats in good fellowship. In Massachusetts similar results were secured by means less spectacular. Slavery had already divided the Whig party in this state, its opponents being called "Conscience Whigs," and the conservatives "Cotton Whigs," and the former now
generally became republicans. By the end of 1855 the republican party was established throughout the free states.

In the South a like movement toward sectionalism was in progress. Here the whole Kansas incident was considered an act of bad faith toward the South, and the Whigs could not defend their Northern brethren from the charge of participating in it. So rapidly did the party fall away that its leaders became utterly discouraged, and the most ambitious of them went over to the democrats, henceforth the Southern sectional party.

Two republican conventions were held in 1856. One was at Pittsburg, February 22, to organize the party nationally. It was cheered by the news that the seceding" know-nothings would join them. After adopting a platform demanding the exclusion of slavery from the territories and the admission of Kansas to the union it called a nominating convention in Philadelphia for June 17. Pending that date there was much discussion of candidates. At first most republicans looked to Seward, the ablest politician in the party; but as the spring advanced they began to think that the signs of the time pointed to a victory if the right man were nominated. Then arose a feeling against Seward. He had made many enemies, particularly among the know-nothings, and it was generally said that a man who could win should be taken. The argument prevailed, and John C. Fremont, prominent because of his career in California in 1846, was nominated. Seward, who did not believe the party could win at that time, was content to wait for future honors.

The democratic convention met at Cincinnati June 2. Since the Kansas policy 'was to be the chief issue it was to be expected that Pierce or Douglas would be nominated. But so great was Northern resentment of that policy that the delegates dared not name a man (promised _ _ responsible?) for it. Thus they took Buchanan who had been minister to England and was not connected with anything that had been done in America during the past three years. He was acceptable to the South, which he had never opposed, and he appealed to Northern conservatives of all parties, who thought the republican position on slavery a kind of radicalism. The Whigs held a convention and indorsed Fillmore, whom the regular Know-nothings had previously nominated.

The chief issue of the campaign was Kansas, "Bleeding Kansas," as the republicans called it. It was an unwelcome issue to the democrats in the North, who tried to supplant it by the question of union. Did any one think the South, said they, would submit to be ruled by a president and congress elected entirely by the free states? Toombs, speaking for his section, said that the election of Fremont would be the end of the union. In fact, Fremont and "black republicanism" were so hateful to the South that it was hardly safe for a man to espouse them. A professor in the university of North Carolina who said he would vote for this ticket if it were offered him was set upon by the press, and when he wrote a moderate article in reply, the trustees of the university asked him to resign his professorship. For the South there was but one ticket, and it was in the North the battle was to be fought. Conservative Whigs in this section realized that the real contest was between Buchanan and Fremont, and many of them preferred the former. The republicans, on the other hand, had with them the majority of the ministers, college professors, and literary men of the North. The religious press worked for them. It was a moral issue, and appealed strongly to the young men. As the campaign progressed it became evident that Pennsylvania was the most critical state. All eyes centered on it, and the democrats gave a cry of joy when in a state election in October they carried it by less than 3000 votes. This presaged success in the national election in November; and the hope was realized when counting the returns of that day's battle gave Buchanan 174 electoral vote, Fremont 114, and Fillmore 8. It was a narrow escape for the democrats, for in most of their northern states the majorities were small. The republicans had done exceedingly well for a party which had never before taken part in a national campaign. The historian cannot but reflect that the Kansas Nebraska bill which Atchison forced on Douglas n 1854 and which Douglas carried through congress by his brilliant leadership was become a most expensive experiment for the slave-holding power.

In this campaign an important part was played by Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel," Uncle Tom's Cabin," published m book form in 1852, as a protest against the execution of the fugitive slave law. It had an immense circulation, and was translated into many languages. It was a most earnest protest of a sensitive soul against slavery, and it was difficult for one to read it without feeling an impulse to do something to destroy the system. The Southern people resented its pictures of slavery and slaveholders. In fact, the condition was not as bad as it was portrayed, but it was bad enough to cry for reform.

Website: The History
Article Name: The Presidential Election of 1856
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: A Short History of the United States by John Spencer Bassett, Ph.D. The Macmillan Company 1913
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