In 1856, the young Republican party chose a young man, John Charles Frémont, for the Presidency on a platform dominated by halting slavery’s spread.
Besides advocating slavery-free territories, the 1856 Republican convention approved of the free-state constitution of Kansas while protesting the rights violations by pro-slavery forces in that state. They also favored federal aid for a railroad to the Pacific and improvements to rivers and harbors. For President, the convention rejected seasoned lawmakers William Seward and Salmon Chase for forty-three year old political novice John C. Frémont.
Why? Republican insiders, such as Speaker of the House Nathaniel Banks and journalist John Bigelow, pushed Frémont to exploit the vote-getting potential of Frémont’s heroic “Pathfinder” personna. His expeditions in exploring and mapping the Oregon Trail, the Sierra Nevadas, and the Pacific coast in the 1840s captured Americans’ imaginations. Editor Horace Greeley said, “I felt that Colonel Frémont’s adventurous, dashing career had given him popularity, with our young men especially.”
Also, the Republican powerbrokers saw Frémont’s greatest weakness- political inexperience- as an asset. Granted, he had strong opinions on issues, like slavery, but lacked knowledge of the legislative details. However, the lack of a previous legislative career allowed Frémont to avoid alienating various constituencies. Conversely, Seward and Chase had political baggage to carry from past legislative actions. Greeley remarked, “A candidate must have a slim record in these times.”
“Free Soil, Free Men, Frémont”
The electoral map posed a challenge for Frémont and the Republicans. The Democrats owned the South and the Republicans owned New England, Michigan, and Wisconsin. That left New York and the lower North, from New Jersey to Iowa, as the battleground states. In these states, Republicans had to duke it out with Democrats and the American party (Know-Nothings) to attract conservative and moderate ex-Whigs. All Democratic candidate James Buchanan had to do was win his home-state of Pennsylvania and one other northern state to gain the Presidency.
Sticking with tradition, Frémont kept a low profile during the campaign. His handlers had him speak as little as possible to avoid mistakes that would diminish his Pathfinder mystique. Supporters stumped for him. Anti-slavery speakers Chase, Joshua Giddings, and John Parker Hale drummed up abolitionist support, while Abraham Lincoln made at least ninety speeches in Illinois. For print, Bigelow wrote a 480 page Frémont biography.
Massive rallies and torchlight parades were organized for Frémont across the North, including a gathering of 50,000 at Indianapolis. Some of these rallies were led by Pro-Frémont Wide Awake clubs. Banners with slogans like, “We Follow the Pathfinder,” “No More Rule of Niggerdrivers,” and “Free Speech, Free Press, Free Soil, Free Men, Frémont, and Victory,” adorned these events. Not since 1840, according to historian Sean Wilentz, had the nation witnessed such impassioned electioneering.
Jessie Benton Frémont
Even though they couldn’t vote, women were part of the Frémont furor. Frémont’s wife, Jessie Benton Frémont was a member of the committee that ran the day-to-day activities of the campaign. Author Tom Chaffin has asserted that she had more political acumen than her husband. Jessie was so popular that women uncharacteristically joined in the political demonstrations and wore violets- Jessie’s favorite flower. References to Jessie were also in campaign slogans and songs.
Other groups who normally didn’t participate in Presidential campaigns got involved with the Frémont campaign. According to Chaffin, there was a sense of moral seriousness and an impending cataclysm over slavery that exuded the Frémont campaign which attracted abolitionists, writers, Quakers, and clergymen. Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote at least five poems promoting Frémont. Poet William Cullen Bryant was also active in the campaign.
Meanwhile, Buchanan and the Democrats had a superior organization and huge war chest to battle Frémont and the Republicans. The Democrats’ speakers received the Democratic Handbook, which laid out a three-pronged strategy:
- Attack Republicans as Know-Nothings to attract Catholics.
- Accuse Republicans of favoring racial equality.
- Attack Republicans as disunionists to attract conservative and moderate ex-Whigs.
The Democrats also attacked Frémont personally. They accused him of being a Catholic (even though Democrats were trying to attract Catholics). They accused him of murder during the Bear Flag Revolt in California in the 1840s. They accused him of having an extra-marital affair. They claimed his parents were not legally married, leading the Richmond Dispatch to say that he was “a disciple of Free-love, if not of Free-soil.”
Republicans countered some of these charges. They insisted it was the Southern fire-eaters who threatened disunion, not Republicans. On the race card, Republicans claimed they were only defending white labor against black slave labor. Also, the Episcopalian Frémont refused to answer the Catholic charges, but he did hold a meeting with prominent New York Protestant ministers and impressed them.
After the votes were counted, Buchanan won a comfortable victory- 174 to 114 in the Electoral College (Know-Nothing candidate Millard Fillmore had 8). Of the battleground states, Frémont won New York, Ohio, and Iowa, but too many former Whigs voted for either Buchanan or Fillmore in other key states. The new party was disappointed in its first Presidential election but there was hope. Maine Senator William Pitt Fessenden commented, “We are beaten, but we have frightened the rascals awfully.”
- Chaffin, Tom, Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire, New York: Hill & Wang, 2002.
- Goodheart, Adam, 1861: The Civil War Awakening, New York: Knopf, 2011.
- Gould, Lewis L., Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans, New York: Random House, 2003.
- USHistory.org, Republican Philadelphia: Republican Platform of 1856.
- USElectionAtlas.org, 1856 Presidential General Election Results.
- Wilentz, Sean, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, New York: Norton, 2005.