The Election of 1856

Learning Objectives

  • Discuss the Presidential election of 1856

The electoral contest in 1856 took place in a transformed political landscape. A third political party appeared: the anti-immigrant American Party, a formerly secretive organization with the nickname “the Know-Nothing Party” because its members denied knowing anything about it. By 1856, the American or Know-Nothing Party had evolved into a national force committed to halting further immigration. The Know-Nothings believed the United States to be intrinsically Protestant in character and British in heritage. Its members were especially opposed to the immigration of Irish Catholics, whose loyalty to the Pope, they believed, precluded their loyalty to the United States. On the West Coast, they opposed the entry of immigrant laborers from China, who were thought to be too foreign to ever assimilate into a White America.

The election also featured the new Republican Party, which offered the dashing explorer John C. Fremont as its candidate. Republicans accused the Democrats of trying to nationalize slavery through the use of popular sovereignty in the West, a view captured in the 1856 political cartoon Forcing Slavery Down the Throat of a Free Soiler. The cartoon features the image of a Free-Soiler settler tied to the Democratic Party platform while Senator Douglas (author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act) and President Pierce force a slave down his throat. Note that the slave cries out “Murder!!! Help—neighbors help, O my poor Wife and Children,” a reference to the abolitionists’ argument that slavery destroyed families.

The Kansas-Nebraska debate, the organization of the Republican Party, and the 1856 presidential campaign all energized a new generation of political leaders, including Abraham Lincoln. Beginning with his speech at Peoria, Illinois, in 1854, Lincoln carved out a message that encapsulated better than anyone else the main ideas and visions of the Republican Party. Lincoln himself was slow to join the coalition, yet by the summer of 1856, Lincoln had fully committed to the Frémont campaign.

Lincoln at peoria

On October 16, 1954, with the Republican Party only months old, Lincoln gave this address in response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In it, he outlines what would become the party’s stance on slavery.

  • “The repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and the propriety of its restoration, constitute the subject of what I am about to say…I also wish to be no less than National in all the positions I may take; and whenever I take ground which others have thought, or may think, narrow, sectional and dangerous to the Union, I hope to give a reason, which will appear sufficient, at least to some, why I think differently. And, as this subject is no other, than part and parcel of the larger general question of domestic-slavery, I wish to MAKE and to KEEP the distinction between the EXISTING institution, and the EXTENSION of it, so broad, and so clear, that no honest man can misunderstand me, and no dishonest one, successfully misrepresent me…But, however this may be, we know the opening of new countries to slavery, tends to the perpetuation of the institution, and so does KEEP men in slavery who otherwise would be free. This result we do not FEEL like favoring, and we are under no legal obligation to suppress our feelings in this respect…
  • Equal justice to the south, it is said, requires us to consent to the extending of slavery to new countries. That is to say, inasmuch as you do not object to my taking my hog to Nebraska, therefore I must not object to you taking your slave. Now, I admit this is perfectly logical, if there is no difference between hogs and negroes. But while you thus require me to deny the humanity of the negro, I wish to ask whether you of the south yourselves, have ever been willing to do as much? It is kindly provided that of all those who come into the world, only a small percentage are natural tyrants. That percentage is no larger in the slave States than in the free. The great majority, south as well as north, have human sympathies, of which they can no more divest themselves than they can of their sensibility to physical pain. These sympathies in the bosoms of the southern people, manifest in many ways, their sense of the wrong of slavery, and their consciousness that, after all, there is humanity in the negro.”[1]

How does Abraham Lincoln characterize slavery in this passage? Which Americans would most probably find themselves in agreement with his view?

A political cartoon entitled “Forcing Slavery Down the Throat of a Free Soiler” shows a larger-than-life Free-Soiler lying on his back with his mouth open, tied to a dock labeled “Democratic Platform,” with planks labeled “Kansas,” “Cuba,” and “Central America.” Stephen Douglas and Franklin Pierce stand on the Free-Soiler’s chest and push a black man down his throat; the black man says “MURDER!!! Help - neighbors help. O my poor Wife and Children.” James Buchanan and Lewis Cass, who stand on the platform, each grasp a lock of the Free-Soiler’s hair to hold him down. In one corner of the image, a home burns down as a woman and child flee; in the other, a lynched man hangs from a tree.

Figure 1. This 1856 political cartoon, Forcing Slavery Down the Throat of a Free Soiler, by John Magee, shows Republican resentment of the Democratic platform—here represented as an actual platform—of expanding slavery into new western territories.

The Democrats offered James Buchanan as their candidate. Buchanan did not take a stand on either side of the issue of slavery; rather, he attempted to please both sides. His qualification, in the minds of many, was that he was out of the country serving as the ambassador to the United Kingdom when the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed. Like Pierce before him, he was a Northerner who was broadly acceptable to proslavery Southerners. In the above political cartoon, Buchanan, along with Democratic senator Lewis Cass, holds down the Free-Soil advocate, alluding to his Southern sympathies. Buchanan won the election, but Fremont carried all of New England, the large electoral prize of New York, and the upper Midwest, an impressive return for a new party. The Whigs had ceased to exist and had been replaced by the Republican Party. Yet unlike the Whigs, the Republicans were a purely regional party at first; because of their strong stance against the expansion of slavery, very few could be found in the South.

Democrats in crucial swing states remained unmoved by the Republican Party’s appeals. Ulysses S. Grant of Missouri, then an obscure former Mexican War officer, worried that Frémont and Republicans signaled trouble for the Union itself. Grant voted for the Democratic candidate, James Buchanan, believing a Republican victory might bring about disunion. In abolitionist and especially Black American circles, Frémont’s defeat was more than a disappointment. Believing their fate had been sealed as permanent noncitizens, some African Americans would consider foreign emigration and colonization. Others began to explore the option of more radical and direct action against the Slave Power. By this point, many of the social reformers and anti-slavery activists in the North had cast their lot with the Republican Party. Know-Nothings also transferred their allegiance to the Republicans because of the Democrats’ traditional support of the Catholic immigrant vote.

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American Party: also called the Know-Nothing Party, a political party that emerged in 1856 with an anti-immigration platform