The Presidential Contenders in 1856
For the presidential election of 1856, the Democrats nominated James Buchanan and John Breckenridge, the newly formed Republican party nominated John Fremont and William Drayton, the American [or Know-Nothing] party nominated former president Millard Fillmore and Andrew Donelson, and the Abolition Party nominated Gerrit Smith and Samuel McFarland.
Buchanan started his political career as a state representative in Pennsylvania, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1821, appointed minister to Russia in 1832, and elected US Senator in 1834. He was appointed Secretary of State in 1845 by President Polk and in that capacity helped forge the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War. He was appointed by President Polk as minister to Great Britain in 1853. As such, he, along with the American ministers to Spain and France, issued the Ostend Manifesto, which recommended the annexation of Cuba to the United States. This endeared him to southerners, who assumed Cuba would be a slave state.
He was one of several northerners supported over the years by southern Democrats for being amenable to slaveholders' interests, a situation originating with Martin van Buren.
Buchanan's two major rivals for the nomination, Franklin Pierce and Stephen Douglas, were both politically tainted by the bloodshed in Kansas. Buchanan was untainted, since he had been abroad during most of the controversy. Even so, he did not secure the nomination until the seventeenth ballot.
Fremont was best known as an explorer and a war hero. He surveyed the land between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, explored the Oregon Trail territories and crossed the Sierra Madres into the Sacramento Valley. As a captain in the Army, he returned to California and helped the settlers overthrow Mexican rule in what became known as the Bear Flag Revolution, a sidebar to the Mexican War. He was elected as one of California's first two Senators.
The infant Republican party was born from the ashes of the Whig party, which had suffered spontaneous combustion as a result of the slavery issue. The party's convention was a farce; only northern states and a few border slave states sent delegates. Sticking to their Whig roots, they nominated a war hero, albeit a minor one. William Drayton's runner-up for the VP slot was Abraham Lincoln.
Fillmore, having been the thirteenth president following the death of Zachary Taylor, found himself representing the American party after many northern delegates left the convention over a rift caused by the slavery issue. Their objection was that the party platform was not strong enough against the spread of slavery. The party's vice presidential nominee was a nephew of Andrew Jackson and the editor of the Washington Union. The party, also known as the Know-Nothings, was extremely antagonistic towards immigrants, Catholics and other assorted minorities. The party was born in 1850, when several covert "Native American" societies joined together, their secret password being "I know nothing."
Smith was nominated by the Abolition party in New York, which had nominated Frederick Douglass for New York secretary of state the year before under the label New York Liberty Party.
The Campaign: Neither Buchanan nor Fremont campaigned themselves. Republicans declared Buchanan dead of lockjaw. Fremont, however, had a splendid campaign substitute, his beautiful wife Jessie, prompting "Oh Jessie!" campaign buttons. The Democrats tried desperately to avoid the slavery issue altogether, opting instead to pursue the conservative effort to preserve the Union. The Republicans, on the other hand, actively attacked slavery. Their campaign slogan was "Free Soil, Free Men, Freedom, Fremont". [Shields-West, pgs 78 & 80]
The self-serving efforts of Stephen Douglas did more to mold the campaign of 1856 than did any other single event. Although he did not intentionally destroy the North-South balance created by the Compromise of 1850, his focused quest for the White House caused him to make some foolish choices. Douglas coveted a rail head in Chicago for the new transcontinental railroad. This would make Chicago a major trade center for the country, not unlike New York City when the Erie Canal was completed. He knew increased economic power for his home state would translate as increased political power for him. The South, on the other hand, wanted the rail head located in St. Louis, or even New Orleans.