The Election of 1856, Part III
The American Party would add much flavor to the soup of 1856. An election like 1856 had not been seen since the log cabin, hard cider campaign of 1840. The ballyhoo and hubbub makes for a great general election campaign to match the incredible pre-election build-up. The Democrats and Republicans squared off for the first time in a battle for the nation's very soul. Democrats had the upper hand in many ways. Buchanan was a well-known and respected politician. Fremont, the Republican leader, was not trusted by very many. Fremont was court martialed during the Mexican War, only to be saved from dishonorable discharge by his father-in-law Senator Thomas Hart Benton. Fremont was also a notorious land speculator who had made dishonest money in the California land boom of 1850s while serving as one of the Golden State's first U.S. Senators. Fremont's trouble was not that he was unknown, it as that he was well known for the wrong things. In St. Louis, Missouri, former U.S Army Major and broke firewood peddler Ulysses S. Grant would cast his first vote of his life for James Buchanan. His reason: "I knew Fremont."
The Democratic mud fest make the election of 1856 a great deal of fun. Calling their opponents "Black Republicans" Democratic politicians scared the dickens out of Wall Street by screaming, as Governor Wise of Virginia declared: "If Fremont is elected there will be revolution!" The issue of secession was one of the major points of the campaign. While Republicans desperately tried to convince the South that they had no interest in their slaves the Democrats made hay of the fact that the party did not support the expansion of the curious institution. Businessmen in New York and Boston, needing cheap southern cotton for textile production and a harmonious nation for Wall Street stability, decided to "take the Buck by the horns" and filled Democratic coffers with thousands of dollars. Secession would destroy the U.S. economy and business was not going to be party to that folly. New York Herald editor and Fremont supporter Horace Greeley, who had agreed to serve as treasurer for the campaign, said flatly, "We Fremonters of [New York City] have not one dollar where Fillmoreans and Buchaneers each have ten!"
While the Democrats bathed in money the Republicans made do with old fashioned grassroots activism. In New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Illinois the Republican organized Rocky Mountain Clubs, Wide Awake Clubs, Freed Clubs and (in Fremont's California) Bear Clubs. These groups paraded through city streets with songs mocking the South for being backwards and feudal in nature. The Young Americans of Douglas jumped to Fremont and declared that Buchanan and Fillmore were "old fogies" opposed to American expansion and exceptionalism. In Clermont, Ohio, a young boy decided to make some money from the election and make some hay from the famous Republican Wide Awake marches. The wide awakes were young men whom would march through the streets of cities after dark with bright torches and signs decorated with a big wide eye. They wanted to show the nation that the Republicans were awake to the threat of slavery and the great aptitude for the United States. A boy in Clermont was selling puppies as some Republican Wide Awakers marched by. One Republican saw the pups and asked the boy, "Are these Fremont pups?" The boy said they were and the man happily bought two of them. The next morning the Republican marcher overheard the boy doing business with a prominent local Democrat. "My lad," the Democrat asked, "are these Buchanan pups?" "They're Buchanan pups sir," he boy replied. Angered the Republican confronted the boy. "See here, you young rascal!" the Republican intoned, "didn't you tell me last night that these pups were Fremont pups?" "Y-E-S sir," the little boy replied with a smirk, "but those pups were sleeping. It was night and their eyes were closed." Pointing to the blinking puppies the boy quipped: "These are Buchanan pups. Their eyes are open."
Puppies would not prove to be the greatest threat to Fremont. The Know Nothings, angered by their losses at the convention, dedicated themselves to stopping the election of Fremont. The best lie of the election was started in October 1856 by a Know Nothing newspaper in Baltimore. The paper declared that Fremont was a secret Catholic. According to the article Fremont had told a professor at West Point that he was a Romanist, he worshipped at a Catholic Cathedral in Washington, D.C., he had been married by a Catholic priest and he refused to say the Episcopal prayers of the Episcopalian prayer book. Fremont, to his credit admitted that some of the accusations were true. Fremont had been married by a Catholic priest but it was not through a Catholic marriage ceremony. Fremont and Jesse Benton had fallen in love but her powerful father did not want her to marry the army officer. The two ran away and married quickly before the father could ever now. The person who married them was a man of the collar, a Catholic priest. Fremont told his friends he was an Episcopalian but he did not deny th charges. He had two reasons for this, one political and the other profound. First, Fremont knew that the accusations of Catholicism could HELP him in New York and New Jersey, where many Irish Catholics lived. Second, Fremont did not see a point in attacking Catholics. He brought up the point that religious tests were not allowed under the Constitution and that Catholics had as much right to the presidency as any protestant. Thus he did very little to counter the scandal. In the end this hurt his candidacy because he did not gain very many Irish Catholic votes but he did lose the support of Whigs-turned-Know Nothings. This loss of Northern Whigs undid Republican hopes in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana and New Jersey.
The final outcome of the 1856 election is as satisfying as the campaign itself. The sectional Republican Party won eleven Northern states, including the key states of Ohio and New York. Buchanan-backed by big money-won the race, but it was far closer than anyone expected. The results from Maine in October 1856 had scared the Democrats. The Republicans won big in the traditionally Democratic state. The influential Massachusetts Whig Rufus Choate, who had spoken for Buchanan in Maine, angrily declared that Maine was foolish for voting for a sectional party based on "glittering generalities." Poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, a good Republican, shot back at Choate: "Glittering generalities? Glittering ubiquities rather!" All the American Party and Democratic fear over Maine proved to be much ado about nothing. Buchanan won with 45% of the popular vote and 174 electoral votes. He had won states in the North, South and West. The Republicans were the party that had only won the in North. Fillmore won only the Know-Nothing controlled state of Maryland but the 25% of the popular vote he won showed that former Whigs were still a sizable minority. They would return in 1860 with John Bell, the Tennessee statesman, as their nominee and great white hope.
Though Democrats won a sizable victory it cannot be understated how exciting it is to see a party not yet three years old come in second in a national contest. The power of the Republican Party in 1856 is akin to the electricity of the 1912 Bull Moose campaign. Both parties were powered by grand ideas, puritanical principles and a lightning rod of a presidential candidate. The Republicans even cheered the loss as a "victorious defeat." Poet John Greenleaf Whittier penned a poem:
Then sound again the bugles
Call the muster-roll anew
If months have well-nigh won the field
What may not four years do?
The 1856 election is a wonderful race for the White House. The three candidates battled it out with a nation on fire as the backdrop. Any fan of antebellum American politics must hold this race up as the marquee election of the age. All the classic Jacksonian issues were present along with immigration- an issue of the future- and slavery, the issue that would tear the nation asunder. 1856 is an election which the muses of history wrote well.