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1852 United States 1860
United States presidential election, 1856
November 4, 1856
JamesBuchanan-small.png JohnCFrémont.png MillardFillmore1840s.png
Nominee James Buchanan John C. Frémont Millard Fillmore
Party Democratic Republican American
Home state Pennsylvania California New York
Running mate John C. Breckinridge William L. Dayton Andrew Jackson Donelson
Electoral vote 174 114 8
States carried 19 11 1
Popular vote 1,836,072 1,342,345 873,053
Percentage 45.3% 33.1% 21.6%
Presidential election results map. Blue denotes states won by Buchanan/Breckinridge, Red denotes those won by Frémont/Dayton, and Grey denotes those won by Fillmore/Donelson. Numbers indicate the number of electoral votes allotted to each state.

Previous President
Franklin Pierce

James Buchanan

The United States presidential election of 1856 was unusually heated. Republican candidate John C. Frémont condemned the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and crusaded against the Slave Power and the expansion of slavery, while Democrat James Buchanan warned that the Republicans were extremists whose victory would lead to civil war. The Democrats endorsed the moderate “popular sovereignty” approach to slavery expansion utilized in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Former President Millard Fillmore represented a third party, the relatively new American Party or “Know-Nothings”. The Know Nothings, who ignored the slavery issue in favor of anti-immigration policies, won a little over a fifth of the vote.

The incumbent President, Franklin Pierce, was defeated in his effort to be renominated by the Democrats (their official party slogan that year was "Anybody but Pierce"), who instead selected James Buchanan of Pennsylvania; this was thanks in part to the fact that the Kansas-Nebraska Act divided Democrats. The Whig Party had disintegrated over the issue of slavery, and new organizations such as the Republican Party and the American Party competed to replace them. The Republicans nominated John Frémont of California as their first standard bearer, over Senator William H. Seward, and the Know-Nothings nominated former President Millard Fillmore of New York. Perennial candidate Daniel Pratt also ran.

Frémont received fewer than 600 votes from slave states—those all coming from Delaware and Maryland. The electoral college results indicated, however, that the Republicans could likely win the next election in 1860 by winning just two more states—such as Pennsylvania and Illinois.



The 1856 presidential election was primarily waged among three political parties, though other parties had been active in the spring of the year. The conventions of these parties are considered below in chronological order.


American Party nomination

Know-Nothing candidates

Whig candidates gallery

1856 Know-Nothing campaign poster

The American Party was the successor to the earlier Native American Party and was controlled by Know-Nothing leaders. The American Party absorbed most of the former Whig Party in 1854, and by 1855 it had established itself as the chief opposition party to the Democrats. In the 82 races for U.S. House in 1855, the American Party ran 76 candidates, 35 of whom won. None of the six Independents or Whigs who ran in these races was elected. The party then succeeded in electing Nathaniel P. Banks the Speaker of the House in the 34th Congress.

The American National Convention was held in National Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on February 22-25, 1856. Following the decision by party leaders in 1855 not to press the slavery issue, the convention had to decide how to deal with the Ohio Party, which was vocally anti-slavery. The convention closed the Ohio chapter and re-opened it under more moderate leadership. The more vigorous anti-slavery delegates bolted. Former President Millard Fillmore was nominated for President with 179 votes out of the 234 votes. The convention chose Andrew J. Donelson of Tennessee for vice president with 181 votes to 30 scattering and 24 abstaining.

Convention vote
Presidential Ballots Informal 1 Formal 2 Vice Presidential Ballot
Millard Fillmore 139 179 Andrew Jackson Donelson 181
George Law 27 35 Scattering 18
Garrett Davis 18 8 Henry J. Gardiner 12
Kenneth Rayner 14 2
John McLean 13 1
Robert F. Stockton 8 2
Sam Houston 6 4
John Bell 5 2
Erastus Brooks 2 1
Lewis D. Campbell 1 0
John Middleton Clayton 1 0

Democratic Party nomination

Democratic candidates:

Democratic candidates gallery

Buchanan/Breckinridge campaign poster

The Democratic Party was wounded from its devastating losses in the 1854-1855 midterm elections. U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, who had sponsored the Kansas-Nebraska Act, entered the race in opposition to President Franklin Pierce. The Pennsylvania delegation continued to sponsor its favorite son, James Buchanan.

The 7th Democratic National Convention was held in Smith and Nixon's Hall in Cincinnati OH on 6/2-6/1856. The delegates were deeply divided over slavery. For the first time in American history, a man who had been elected President was denied re-nomination. On the first ballot, Buchanan placed first with 135.5 votes to 122.5 for Pierce, 33 for Douglas, and 5 for Lewis Cass. With each succeeding ballot, Douglas gained at Pierce's expense. On the 15th ballot, most of Pierce's delegates shifted to Douglas in an attempt to stop Buchanan. It was too late, and on the 17th ballot, Buchanan was unanimously nominated. John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky was nominated for vice president.

Presidential Ballot
Ballot 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th 9th 10th 11th 12th 13th 14th 15th 16th 17th
James Buchanan 135.5 139 139.5 141.5 140 155 143.5 147.5 146 147.5 147.5 148 150 152.5 168.5 168 296
Franklin Pierce 122.5 119.5 119 119 119.5 107.5 89 87 87 80.5 80 79 77.5 75 3.5 0 0
Stephen Douglas 33 31.5 32 30 31 28 58 56 56 62.5 63 63.5 63 63 118.5 122 0
Lewis Cass 5 6 5.5 5.5 5.5 5.5 5.5 5.5 7 5.5 5.5 5.5 5.5 5.5 4.5 6 0
Vice Presidential Ballot
Ballot 1st 2nd
John C. Breckinridge 51 296
John A. Quitman 59 0
Linn Boyd 33 0
James Bayard 31 0
Herschel V. Johnson 31 0
Aaron V. Brown 29 0
Benjamin Butler 27 0
James C. Dobbin 13 0
Benjamin Fitzpatrick 11 0
Thomas J. Rusk 7 0
Trusten Polk 5 0

North American Party nomination

Anti-slavery Americans from the North organized themselves into a political party after the Fillmore nomination in Philadelphia. They called their national convention to be held in New York City just prior to the Republican National Convention. Party leaders hoped to nominate a joint ticket with the Republicans to defeat Buchanan. The national convention was held on 6/12-20/1856 in New York City. The delegates held a series of ballots for President without being able to choose a nominee until it became clear that the Republican National Convention would not cooperate. Nathaniel P. Banks was nominated for President on the 10th ballot over John C. Fremont and John McLean, but Banks immediately wired the convention that he did not want to run. The delegates, preparing to return home, unanimously nominated Fremont on the 11th ballot. The chairman of the convention, William F. Johnston, was nominated for vice president; he later withdrew.

Convention vote
Presidential Ballots 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Vice Presidential Ballot
Nathaniel P. Banks 43 48 46 47 46 45 51 50 50 53 0 William F. Johnston 59
John C. Fremont 34 36 37 37 31 29 29 27 28 18 92 Thomas Ford 16
John McLean 19 10 2 29 33 40 41 40 30 24 0 John C. Fremont 12
Robert F. Stockton 14 20 18 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 Scattering 21
William F. Johnston 6 1 15 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Scarttering 5 0 0 0 1 2 0 0 0 0 0

North American Seceders Party nomination

A group of North American delegates called the North American Seceders withdrew from the convention and met separately. They objected to the attempt to work with the Republican Party. The Seceders held their own national convention on 6/16-17/1856. 19 delegates unanimously nominated Robert F. Stockton for President and Kenneth Raynor for Vice President. The Seceders' ticket later withdrew from the contest.

Republican Party nomination

Republican candidates:

Republican candidates gallery

Frémont/Dayton campaign poster

The Republican Party was formed in early 1854 to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Act. During the midterm elections of 1854-1855, the Republican Party was one of the patchwork of anti-administration parties contesting the election. Overall, the Republicans won only 13 seats in the U.S. House for the 34th Congress. However, the party networked with other disaffected groups and gradually absorbed them. In the elections of 1855, the Republican Party won three governorships.

The first Republican National Convention was held in the Musical Fund Hall in Philadelphia PA between June 17 and 19, 1856. The convention approved an anti-slavery platform, calling for congressional sovereignty of the territories, an end to polygamy in Mormon settlements, and federal assistance for a transcontinental railroad. John C. Fremont was nominated for President over John McLean, and William L. Dayton was nominated for Vice President over Abraham Lincoln.

Convention vote
Presidential Ballots Informal 1 Formal 1 Vice Presidential Ballots Informal 1 Formal 1
John C. Fremont 359 520 William L. Dayton 253 523
John McLean 190 37 Abraham Lincoln 110 20
Charles Sumner 2 0 Nathaniel Prentice Banks 46 6
Nathaniel Prentice Banks 1 0 David Wilmot 43 0
William H. Seward 1 0 Charles Sumner 35 3
Abstaining 14 9 Jacob Collamer 15 2
John Alsop King 9 2
Samuel C. Pomeroy 8 1
Thomas Ford 7 5
Henry Charles Carey 3 0
Cassius M. Clay 3 1
Joshua R. Giddings 2 0
Whitfield Johnson 2 1
Aaron Pennington 1 0
Henry Wilson 1 0
Scatering 29 3

Whig Party nomination

The Whig Party was reeling from electoral losses since 1852. Half of their leaders in the South bolted to the Democrats, while in the North the Whigs were moribund. The party remained alive in states like New York and Pennsylvania by joining the anti-slavery movement.

The 5th (and last) Whig National Convention was held in the Hall of the Maryland Institute in Baltimore on 9/17-18/1856. There were 150 delegates from 26 states. Though party leaders wanted to keep the Whig Party alive, they doomed it by deciding to endorse the American Party's national ticket of Fillmore and Donelson. The 150 Whig delegates voted unanimously to endorse the Fillmore/Donelson ticket.

General election


Campaign ribbon
Caricature of Democratic Platform

None of the three candidates took to the stump. Republicans opposed the extension of slavery into the territories — in fact, their slogan was "Free speech, free press, free soil, free men, Frémont and victory!" The Republicans thus crusaded against the Slave Power, warning it was destroying republican values. Democrats counter-crusaded by warning that a Republican victory would bring civil war.

The Republican platform opposed the repeal of the Missouri Compromise through the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the policy of popular sovereignty in deciding whether a state would enter the Union as a free or slave state. The Republicans also accused the Pierce administration of allowing a fraudulent territorial government to be imposed upon the citizens of the Kansas Territory, allowing the violence that had raged in Bleeding Kansas, and advocated the immediate admittance of Kansas as a free state. Along with opposing the spread of slavery into the continental territories of the United States the party also opposed the Ostend Manifesto which advocated the annexation of Cuba from Spain. In summation the campaign's true focus was against the system of slavery, which they felt was destroying the Republican values that the Union had been founded upon.

The Democratic platform supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the system of popular sovereignty established in the Western territories. The party supported the pro-slavery territorial legislature elected in Kansas, opposing the free state elements within Kansas and castigated the Topeka Constitution as an illegal document written during an illegal convention. The Democrats also supported the plan to annex Cuba, advocated in the Ostend Manifesto, which Buchanan helped devise while serving as minister to Britain. The most influential aspect of the Democratic campaign was a warning that a Republican victory would lead to the secession of numerous southern states.

The campaign had a different nature in the free states from that in the slave states. The North experienced a three-way campaign, which Fremont won with 45% of the vote to 41% for Buchanan and 13% for Fillmore. That translated into an electoral vote margin of 114-62 in favor of Fremont. In the South, however, the campaign was strictly a Buchanan vs. Fillmore race. Buchanan won there by a 56-44% margin, good for an 112-8 electoral vote margin. Nationwide, Buchanan won 174 electoral votes, a majority, and was thus elected. Of the 15 slave states, the only states in which Frémont received any votes at all were Delaware (310) and Maryland (285).


Presidential candidate Party Home state Popular vote(a) Electoral
Running mate Running mate's
home state
Running mate's
electoral vote
Count Pct
James Buchanan Democratic Pennsylvania 1,836,072 45.3% 174 John Cabell Breckinridge Kentucky 174
John Charles Frémont Republican California 1,342,345 33.1% 114 William Lewis Dayton New Jersey 114
Millard Fillmore American/Whig New York 873,053 21.6% 8 Andrew Jackson Donelson Tennessee 8
Other 3,177 0.1% Other
Total 4,054,647 100% 296 296
Needed to win 149 149

Source (Popular Vote): Leip, David. 1856 Presidential Election Results. Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections (July 27, 2005). Source (Electoral Vote): Electoral College Box Scores 1789–1996. Official website of the National Archives. (July 31, 2005).

(a) The popular vote figures exclude South Carolina where the Electors were chosen by the state legislature rather than by popular vote.

See also


Further reading

  • Anbinder, Tyler (1992). Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195089227. 
  • Foner, Eric (1970). Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press. 
  • Gienapp, William E. (1987). The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195041003. 
  • Holt, Michael F. (1978). The Political Crisis of the 1850s. New York: Norton. pp. 139–181. ISBN 039395370X. 
  • Nevins, Allan (1947). Ordeal of the Union: vol 2: A House Dividing, 1852-1857. New York.  The most detailed narrative.
  • Pierson, Michael D. (2002). "'Prairies on Fire': The Organization of the 1856 Mass Republican Rally in Beloit, Wisconsin". Civil War History 48. ISSN 0009-8078. 
  • Potter, David (1976). Impending Crisis 1848–1861. New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 0060905247. 
  • Rawley, James A. (1969). Race and Politics: "Bleeding Kansas" and the Coming of the Civil War. Philadelphia: Lippincott. 
  • Sewell, Richard H. (1976). Ballots for Freedom: Antislavery Politics in the United States, 1837-1860. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 254–291. ISBN 0195019970. 

External links


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