The Contenders Essay Research Paper For the

The Contenders Essay, Research Paper For the presidential election of 1856, the Democrats nominated James Buchanan and John Breckenridge, the newly formed Republican party nominated

The Contenders Essay, Research Paper

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. In order to secure

southern support for his plan, Douglas chose to win them over by proposing

the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a bill that

would divide the Nebraska Territory into two separate territories, each

having popular sovereignty. This would amount to nullification of the

Missouri Compromise. Using the power of his new southern allies, Douglas

wheeled and dealed the Kansas-Nebraska Act through Congress.

By doing so, Douglas alienated his northern colleagues. The

anti-slavery movement had become a formidable force in northern politics.

Douglas mistakenly believed popular sovereignty had become more acceptable

to the general public than it actually had. In July of 1856, ‘Conscience

Whigs”, northern Democrats and Free Soilers met in Jackson, Michigan, to

form the Republican party for the specific

purpose of opposing slavery.

In the meantime, pro-slavery factions, many from across the Missouri

border, held a bogus election in the newly formed Kansas Territory, adopting

a pro-slavery constitution and electing a pro-slavery state government. When

anti-slavery citizens learned what had happened, they organized their own

elections. President Pierce, in a serious error of judgement, recognized the

first government as the official one, prompting widespread bloodshed

throughout the territory. This new territory, born of such dubious

beginnings, became known as “Bleeding Kansas”. Pierce and Douglas, from that

moment forward, would be scarred politically.

Buchanan ultimately won the election in the electoral college, although

he did not garner a popular majority. It was an uneasy victory, with

sectionalism clearly present in the vote tallies.

Normally, a period of relative calm follows a presidential election, but

the political rhetoric of this campaign and the unrelenting tension between

the North and the South would not allow it. On December 1, Pierce sent a

bitter and highly partisan message to Congress. He pointedly blamed the

continuing Kansas problems on northern propogandists and outside “agents of

disorder”. He accused

the Republicans of preparing the country for civil war. Many in Congress

were understandably outraged, reversing the charges of sectionalism right

back at Pierce. Some blamed the Kansas situation directly on the outgoing

president. In all, it was an unnecessarily unmagnanimous annual message.

The Buchanan Presidency: In their attempt to find a non-controversial

presidential candidate, the Democrats instead found themselves with a weak

president. Buchanan tried to appease both sides by appointing a mix of

northern and southern politicians to his cabinet, but each side accused him

of favoring the other for the important positions.

Buchanan never married, so the social duties of the White House were

handled by his niece, Harriet Lane. During a state visit by the Prince of

Wales, an orchestra performed the premiere of a new song dedicated to Miss

Lane, titled “Listen to the Mockingbird.” [Saturday Evening Post, pg 57]

Two significant events took place shortly after Buchanan’s inauguration,

both of them having a terrible affect upon the nation and neither one

attributable to Buchanan.

Two days after taking office, the Taney supreme court handed down its

infamous Dred Scott decision, or rather non-decision. The supreme court

basically decided that slaves were property and, therefore, had no rights in

the court system. The court cited the Fifth Amendment in refusing to meddle

in disputes involving slaves. In the larger sense,

though, the ruling declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional.

Buchanan supported the decision.

The second event was the Panic of 1857. Though not as severe as the

Panic of 1837, it did cause widespread unemployment. A drop in crop exports

to Europe, caused by the unexpected end to the Crimean War, caused a glut on

the US market with corresponding price drops. Bank failures led the way,

starting with the Ohio Life Insurance & Trust Company, which was actually

one of the most respected financial institutions in the country. Lack of

specie on hand led to many more bank closures. Secretary of the Treasury

Cobb had another $4 million in gold coins minted to increase the supply, but

the effort was fruitless. [Stampp, pgs 223-4] The industrialized Northeast

was hardest hit by the depression and northern manufacturers and bankers

naturally blamed southern Democrats. Sectionalism continued to worsen.

The Kansas controversy continued to plague the Buchanan

administration. He favored the admission of Kansas as a slave state. The

territorial government [the pro-slavery one recognized by Pierce] held a

statehood constitutional convention in Lecompton, which anti-slavery

factions refused to recognize. As a result, the pro-slavery forces won

control with only about ten percent voter participation. Anti-slavery forces

regained control of the territorial legislature in the next election and

voted down the document. [Brinkley, pg 375]

Buchanan, against clear evidence to the contrary, decided to side with

the Lecompton proposal. Stephen Douglas, in another bizarre moment of

political suicide, argued against the Lecompton document. The statehood

constitution was ultimately submitted to the general

population of Kansas, who overwhelmingly defeated the illegitimate document.

However, Kansas was not admitted to the union, as a free state, until the

closing days of the Buchanan administration. By then several southern states

had already seceded. Buchanan had failed.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Bergman, Peter M. The Chronological History of the Negro in America. New

York: Harper & Row, 1969.

Black, Earl and Black, Merle. The Vital South: How Presidents Are Elected.

Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Brinkley, Alan. American History, A Survey, Vol. 1. New York: McGraw-Hill,

1995.

Meltzer, Milton. Milestones to American Liberty: the Foundations of the

Republic. New York: Cromwell, 1961.

Saturday Evening Post. The Presidents. Indianapolis: Curtis Publishing, 1980.

Shields-West, Eileen. World Almanac of Presidential Campaigns. New York: Pharos

Books, 1992.

Stamp, Kenneth M. America in 1857. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.