The 1856 Presidential Election

Well, well, well. Here we have the 1856 presidential election, with the Whigs gone and the Republicans making their first appearance on the ballot (along with the Know Nothings). This election calls to mind how Ulysses S. Grant approached his first presidential ballot (a classic case of negative reference group voting), although by the end of four years he knew enough about Buchanan not to care for him either.

38 thoughts on “The 1856 Presidential Election

  1. wgdavis October 21, 2012 / 11:39 am

    K don’t care what they knew, I could never vote for someone running as a Know Nothing. And Buck was probably the worst President until the 20th century, but who knew that then? That leaves the dashing, and heroic frontiersman-explorer, John C. Fremont, and for the right reasons, too. Yeah, yeah, I know I’m a liberal.

  2. Louis October 21, 2012 / 12:30 pm

    I voted for Fremont but mainly because he wasn’t Buchanan or Fillmore. Wish I had a better reason but there it is.

  3. John Foskett October 21, 2012 / 1:06 pm

    The easiest so far. And i recognize that Fremont was a mercurial adventurer (See: among many other things, his idiotic decision to cross the southern San Juans at the height of winter, predictably costing lives) . But Buchanan was the ultimate political weakling with southern sympathies (despite his surprisingly, and aberrant but appropriate, firm stance on the Mormon Rebellion). And Fillmore was unique among all of the candidates so far – he’d already proven that he shouldn’t be President durimng his partial term by knuckling under to the Slavers and appointing Brigham Young as Governor of Utah Territory with highly predictable results (See: Buchanan on the Mormon Rebellion, above). Add in the fact that he was running on a platform drafted by a mob of religious and ethnic bigots. (Besides, Fremont explored, and climbed the third highest peak in, “God’s Country” aka the Equality State aka the Cowboy State – so he had that going for him).

  4. Jimmy Dick October 21, 2012 / 2:57 pm

    I think this was the worst election in American history as far as candidates go. Let’s face it, Mrs. Fremont was the brains in that family which is not a surprise since Senator Benton of Missouri was her father. Fillmore was inept and Buchanan proved to be even more inept which was not surprising since he was selected by the Democratic factions because he was considered a do nothing person. Actually this election was more about not making waves than anything else instead of dealing with the problem which of course was the expansion of slavery.

    • Barry Alfonso October 12, 2014 / 3:09 pm

      Extremely astute analysis, Jimmy. I would add that Fillmore was a banal, utterly bland local politician who made it to the White House by accident but was probably the most competent candidate of the three contenders in 1856. Fremont’s election may well have brought on the Civil War four years early. His behavior as a general in Missouri doesn’t lead one to believe he would’ve been an effective wartime Chief Executive.

  5. SF Walker October 21, 2012 / 3:19 pm

    Looks like the Pathfinder is going to win this election in a landslide–he’s the only real choice, with the benefit of hindsight. I think WGDavis, Louis, and John have hit the nail on the head as to the reasons for picking Fremont. Buchanan might have been the worst President in our entire history, nosing out even Warren Harding–and that’s bad! The Election of 1860 promises to be interesting.

  6. Pat Young October 21, 2012 / 5:19 pm

    Was Fillmore a serious candidate in a race with two third parties? The Know Nothing candidate Millard Fillmore won Maryland, got more than 40 percent of the vote in the future Confederacy, but only received 11 percent of ballots in the North.

    Political hypocrisy is nothing new. The Know Nothings were anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant. Fillmore accepted their nomination after returning from a tour of Europe where he insisted on an audience with the Pope. I believe his daughter was educated by nuns.

    He also founded my alma, THE University of Buffalo.

  7. Al Mackey October 21, 2012 / 5:27 pm

    Geez, what a horrible choice. Had I not had the benefit of hindsight, I might have made the same choice as Grant. With hindsight, though, even though he’s Fremont, I’d vote for Fremont.

  8. neukomment October 21, 2012 / 6:56 pm

    Fremont…. Could you ever really trust the Democrats after what happened in Kansas?

  9. michael confoy October 21, 2012 / 7:31 pm

    Not going to bother to comment on Buchanan, but the Fremont would have found a way to start the Civil War earlier and lose it. Fillmore was quite a reasonable president, a friend of Clay ‘s who worked quite effectively as a Whig. The Know Nothings in the North eventually fell in line as Republicans.

  10. Ned B October 21, 2012 / 7:54 pm

    Regarding claim in his memoirs about the 1856 election, how was it that Fremont got 0 votes in Missouri. Was he even on the ballot?

    • Bob Pollock October 22, 2012 / 9:56 am

      He wasn’t. There was no Republican Party in Missouri in 1856. There was a bitter divide in the Democratic Party between (Thomas Hart) Benton and anti-Benton factions. Frank Blair and B. Gratz Brown, Benton’s chief political lieutenants, initially tried to garner support for Fremont, but when Benton refused to endorse him, they felt constrained to maintain their allegiance to Benton.

  11. Stephen Graham October 21, 2012 / 9:16 pm

    Knowing only what was known at the time of the election, Fremont simply isn’t qualified to be President. Far too much of a glory hound, incompetent at most things he tried, and not even really suited to being a puppet for the Bentons. Fillmore is hardly a great candidate, especially as a Know Nothing, and, again, based on what was known at the time, Buchanan looks like the only reasonable choice. But I voted for Fillmore.

  12. Greg Taylor October 22, 2012 / 7:31 am

    As Chester A. Riley (William Bendix) said on the “Life of Riley”, “what a revolting development this is!” Had to vote for Fremont as the lesser of evils.

  13. rcocean October 22, 2012 / 8:28 am

    Buchanan was the worst, Fremont would’ve caused a Civil war and lost it. That leaves Millard.

  14. Brad October 22, 2012 / 9:15 am

    I wonder how things would have developed had Fremont been elected President. I suppose it couldn’t have been any worse than Buchanan although you could possibly see things getting more fractious than they became as Buchanan was at least a politician.

    Perhaps Fremont would have soured the electorate on Republicans and maybe Lincoln never rises to the fore.

    We will never know.

  15. James Taylor October 22, 2012 / 12:46 pm

    The American Party was a product of Northern frustration with the large immigration of poor from Europe, mostly German and Irish. before the Republican Party took hold, The Know Nothings were the chief opposition to the Democratic Party in much of the north after the collapse of the Whig Party. Until his death, Daniel Webster was de facto head of the Know Nothings, and, Massachusetts was taken over by them.. As in Fillmore’s case, many who voted American probably were not Anti-Catholic in principle, but voters wanted an alternative to Democrats, and the American Party provided it. The American Party’s spread south. was almost entirely as a viable alternative to the Democratic Party. Recall that the “solid” Democratic South was a post Civil War phenomenon. The Southern Whigs could not vote Republican. Anti-Catholic feeling in the south was minimal at the time. The Catholic population in most of the south was long standing and integrated with the rest of the White population. Immigration was not an issue in most of the south, Maryland excepted. But Maryland was founded by Catholics, and the American Party there was not so much Anti-Catholic, as anti-immigrant. The American Party was a brief blur in US politics, largely absorbed into the Republican Party in the north

    • Brooks D. Simpson October 22, 2012 / 12:57 pm

      “Until his death, Daniel Webster was de facto head of the Know Nothings, and, Massachusetts was taken over by them.”

      Really? Webster died on October 24, 1852. The Know Nothings first emerged in Massachusetts in 1853, and “took over” Massachusetts in 1854 in a series of electoral victories.

      • Ned B October 22, 2012 / 3:08 pm

        He is probably thinking of how Webster was nominated in 1852 by two splinter groups of the Whigs calling themselves the Native American Party and the Union Party. Even though he died before election day, he picked up a few thousand votes.

        • Brooks D. Simpson October 22, 2012 / 3:20 pm

          Historians (see Tyler Anbinder) make clear that the “Native American Party” was distinct from the Know Nothings, whose name was not coined until 1853. Webster was a proud (if disappointed) Whig in 1852, having fought for the party’s presidential nomination. In its aftermath he had no problem with a Union Party candidacy, but simply had nothing to do with the Native American Party.

          Indeed, the Whigs persisted as a party after the rise of the Know Nothings, so the notion that the Whigs died and then the Know Nothings appeared is at odds with the historical record.

          Jacob Broom took Webster’s place on the ticket you mention. The dead Webster’s votes came from Union party voters. Webster dead beat Broom alive.

      • James Taylor October 22, 2012 / 3:23 pm

        I thought that this might get attention.. Although without his authority, Webster was the Native American Party candidate for president in 1852. He died, of course, during the election cycle, but did not seem to object to his name in nomination by the NAP, given the Whig Party had rejected him. His name heading the NAP ticket no doubt increased the perceived viability of the Know Nothings.
        “De facto head” is maybe a bit over the top, but the Webster name was associated with the Know Nothings., and, had Henry Clay lived, he might have been , also.
        Given the number of Webster’s .constituents that became Know Nothings, I have to give some credit here.
        But, the whole business means little, as that Party meant little. But the name Webster at the head of the first Know Nothing national ticket is something.
        Thank you for noticing..

        • Brooks D. Simpson October 22, 2012 / 3:40 pm

          It would be difficult for Webster to become head of the Know Nothing organization when the name “Know Nothing” was coined over a year after his death. Anbinder is very clear about this. You still have a dead man as the head of a movement formed after his death, which is rather easy to notice. I’ve already pointed out Anbinder’s comments about how people confuse the NAP with the KNP (which as a party became known as the American Party).

          Perhaps you are confusing his non-response in July (when the NAP nominated Webster) with his later response to the Union party movement’s efforts to establish a ticket in 1852, where he was a bit more ambivalent.

          • James Taylor October 23, 2012 / 6:07 am

            If I had entered a discussion strictly about formal political Parties, I believe I would have thought myself way off base. But, “native” insecurity seems to have become a major motif. Webster was a face of the very White, very Protestant Northeast, probably the most prominent. The very White, very Protestant mentality was hardly something abnormal. It became a significant part of the Republican Party, and, whether it is now tasteful or not, remains so. The Know Nothings were a short lived thing as a formal movement, but have significantly remained in political memory.. Some may think a wooden stake was driven into the Know Nothing heart, but that is not the case. Know Nothings are still all around us. The Know Nothings were less a political Party, than a permanent part of our political fabric. An association of Webster with them can at least give clarity to that, I hope.
            If any believe I have done a disservice to Webster, I understand. . But I think that association names in themselves do a disservice at times by unfairly qualifying and limiting persons by name.

          • Brooks D. Simpson October 23, 2012 / 8:17 am

            I’m not sure what this has to do with the fact that you simply can’t admit that Webster died before the Know Nothings appeared. No one’s making an argument about nativism in American history or its role in the Republican rise to power. No one’s argued that you’re doing a service or disservice to Webster. To imply otherwise is to create strawmen.

            The only disservice done was one to the historical record in your initial comment. You asserted that Webster was the de facto head of the Know Nothing Party and was its 1852 nominee for president, and that’s simply not true. Trying to spin your answer due to your unwillingness to concede that fact strikes me as a curious exercise. Interesting.

          • James Taylor October 23, 2012 / 11:37 am

            I don’t believe I am attempting any spin, but, if it so appears, it so appears . I don’t think I can take back that Webster would have been a first choice among Know Nothings for President. I did not accuse him of being the Know Nothing Party candidate in any year. I not really sure that one can identify a substantial Know Nothing Party, as such. If the discussion has established that much of what we usually identify Know Nothings by is not a temporary phenomenon of the 1850’s , but a common philosophy before and later, I am satisfied. If one accepts that “Know Nothings” are proprietary beings of the mid- 1850’s, I am certainly wrong in dealing with Webster. When I was fairly young, a much older person told me Republicans were only a bunch of Know Nothings and other fools. I cannot accept that Know Nothings are an organization, but are, rather, communicants of certain philosophies.

          • rcocean October 23, 2012 / 9:34 pm

            Shorter James Taylor: Blah, Blah – I wrong but won’t admit it – blah blah.

  16. Mark October 22, 2012 / 1:45 pm

    I voted (gulp) for Fillmore. What an awful group to choose from. Like some other commentators I think Fremont was tempermentally unsuited to be President and could have triggered a war with a disastrous outcome for the country even though in theory I may have agreed with him on many issues.

  17. Pat Young October 22, 2012 / 2:14 pm

    Know Nothing violence was fairly common in New Orleans, where the party gained control of city government on the eve of war. That was the only Southern city with an immigrant population close to that of Northern metropolises.

    Other Southern areas may not have seen as much overt violence as in New Orleans largely because immigrants avoided the region almost entirely.

    Maryland may have been “founded by Catholics”, but that was more than a century and a half earlier. The party was particularly strong in that state. In the slave state of Kentucky, violence against immigrants during the Know Nothing period was extreme.

    Both pro and anti-slavery Americans could also be Know Nothings.

    • rcocean October 22, 2012 / 6:48 pm

      Extreme Violence against what “immigrants” in Kentucky? Specific examples please.

      • Pat Young October 22, 2012 / 8:29 pm

        The August 6, 1855, Louisville, Kentucky attacks on immigrants are the best known instance of Know Nothing violence and are still commemorated in that city. I have written about them a couple of comments below this one. 22 to 100 people were killed. A Catholic priest was stoned to death. Both Irish and German immigrants were targets.

        BTW, why the “quotes” around the word “immigrants”?

        • rcocean October 23, 2012 / 8:57 am

          It seems like the attacks went both ways. BTW, there’s no support for the 100 figure, 22 is the one accepted by Historians. Here’s a quote:

          “In the Irish Ward, the fighting broke out between Know-Nothings and Irishmen, after the killing of Theodore Rhodes, when he and two other men, were beaten by two Irishmen while walking through the district. Large mobs entered the Irish Ward and the residents fired on the mob from houses located along Quinn’s Row. Patrick Quinn owned a series of houses located along Main Street, located between Eleventh and Twelfth Streets. The Know Nothings burned the whole row of houses, destroying twelve houses and burned several people to death. The mob killed Quinn, an Irishman, and threw his body onto the flames. Two men were hanged from their banisters of their own homes and also consumed to the flames.”

          • Pat Young October 23, 2012 / 11:18 am

            The problem with this account is that the killing of Rhodes occurred after the Irish had already been forcibly prevented from voting by the Know Nothings.

          • rcocean October 23, 2012 / 1:52 pm

            So what. You don’t get to beat people to death because they “kept you from voting”. Its indicates it was both sides resorting to violence, this is really true of the Irish, who seemed to be the instigators, just as the were in the 1863 draft riots and murders of the African Americans.

          • Pat Young October 24, 2012 / 8:44 am

            Not sure that any of the victims of Louisville’s Bloody Monday were even present in New York City during the 1863 Draft Riots. The two incidents were nearly 1,000 miles and eight years apart, so I’m not sure what possible relevance the two incidents have to each other.

  18. Pat Young October 22, 2012 / 2:24 pm

    It is sometimes claimed that Know Nothingism was simply a flag of convenience for people dissatisfied with the Democrats. That could be true for some, but such a broad claim is absurd. Here are excerpts
    from a book by Henry Winter Davis. who served in Congress in the 1850s and 1860s. Although he was from the border state of Maryland, he became a Republican later in his career.

    Davis’s authorship of The Origin, Principles and Purposes of the American Party” gave him national prominence and provide us today with insights into the mind of a Know Nothing. It was a dark place.

    Davis knew his American history. He understood that America had been built by immigrants and their sons, but he believed that after 1848 the character of the immigrants had changed. Where immigrants had once been of the best Anglo-Saxon stock, the immigrants of the 1850s were an entirely different and degenerate lot. He said that while the older generation of English immigrants had created the institutions of America, the new immigrants had a different “character” argued Davis. In his book, Davis contrasts the old generation of worthy immigrants with the modern refuse: “now the immigration is the exodus of the…Irish, Dutch, Germans, Italians and French, who…having proved their incompetency for self-government [and who] throw themselves on our hospitality and abuse it.”

    Davis described the pestilential German and Irish immigration of his day:

    “Large masses of foreigners are cast yearly on our shores, ignorant of our laws and language, and still greater strangers to the moderation and self-control of American republicanism.”

    Unlike earlier immigrants, these newcomers walled themselves off from Americans in ethnic enclaves, said Davis, because “their national sympathies united them socially”. This allowed them to form strong political blocks which provided “the scandalous spectacle…of these citizens of foreign birth, sympathies and interests…marched to the polls to decide American government.”

    The Know Nothing intellectual said that voters must have a full knowledge of the Constitution and attachment to its principles. “A long and humiliating experience has shown that this knowledge and attachment …are found to flourish only in Americans by birth”, he wrote sadly. “In practice the great mass of naturalized citizens,” he wrote of the Germans and the Irish, “are found not to have that knowledge of and attachment to our institutions which fit them for safe recipients of political power. If they be unfit, their numbers and rapid increase make them…a dangerous element of political power”.

    Unlike English immigrants, the new immigrants never really became American, argued Davis, saying; “They renounce their foreign allegiance but not their foreign feelings. They will not coalesce with American citizens nor cherish American principles. They remain a distinct class, voting apart, living apart, forming foreign associations…and demanding…their share of” government jobs.”

    The Know Nothings maintained a secret aparatus, but the centrality of their anti-immigrant ideology was well known to voters. (Note some of this is adapted from an article I wrote last year.)

  19. Pat Young October 22, 2012 / 2:41 pm

    The Know Nothings also gained control of Louisville, Ky.

    On August 6, 1855, Louisville, Kentucky was the scene of horrific anti-immigrant violence.

    The day before the election, the local German newspaper warned that there were “widespread rumors of the preparations of Know-Nothings” to stop immigrants from voting. The newspaper said that the threats against the immigrant voter “cannot be allowed to hold him back…Even if it were dangerous, the duty to vote remains the same. Because what can a free man lose greater than his right to vote and with it his freedom? Who dares not once attempt to vote, does not deserve the name of a free man.”

    Know Nothings accepted the use of violence as a way to prevent immigrants from voting, and thereby preserving what they considered to be American institutions. Thomas Whitney, one of the movement’s leaders, said, “If democracy implies universal suffrage…without regard to the intelligence, the morals, or the principles of the man…[then] I am no democrat.” Know Nothings believed that only native-born Protestants possessed the character and intelligence to vote.

    To combat immigrants who might want to exercise a right given to them by the Founding Fathers, the Know Nothings deployed nativist gangs like the Bowery Bhoys in New York and the Plug Uglies in Baltimore. The Know Nothings also had their own paramilitary organization called the Wide Awakes to intimidate immigrants on election day. The Republicans later adopted the same name for their uniformed men.

    In Louisville, armed Know Nothings were stationed at the polls on August 6, only letting men with a yellow Know Nothing ticket vote. Later that day, nativist mobs roamed through the Irish and German quarters of the city. A Catholic priest, trying to comfort a dying parishioner, was stoned to death by the mob. The nativists burned down a row of Irish-owned buildings. When the terrified residents escaped through the flames, they were shot down by Know Nothings. In all, 22 to 100 people were killed in the pogrom. (Note: Adapted, in part, from an article I wrote last year.)

  20. fra paolo October 25, 2012 / 2:45 pm

    The last thing America needs is the election of a candidate with the kind of anti-slavery platform that the Republicans embrace. That could easily lead to a civil war, with unforeseen consequences. Since the American Party has embraced the pernicious doctrine of ‘popular sovereignty’ in the territories, with the kind of consequences we can now see in Kansas, which is veering towards anarchy, the distinction between the two parties that will hold the country together rests on a choice between chasing the Dons out of Cuba (Buchanan) or halting the growing influence of the un-American, pro-slavery Catholic Church on the country (Fillmore). I prefer peace to war, and select Fillmore.

  21. Dave October 25, 2012 / 5:23 pm

    Rooting for fellow alumnus of Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, James Buchanan

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