OTD in History… June 17–19, 1856, the first Republican Convention nominates John C Frémont for president
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history June 17–19, 1856, the first Republican Party convention convenes at the Musical Fund Hall, Philadelphia nominating John C. Frémont (California) for president and William L. Dayton (New Jersey) for vice-president on the second ballot. The Republican Party emerged after the Whig Party crumbled over the issue of expanding slavery in the new territories in 1854 creating an anti-slavery platform. At the 1856 convention, Abraham Lincoln unsuccessfully sought the vice-presidential nomination only to lose the ballot.
The 1856 campaign had a backdrop of the violence not seen in a peacetime, with Bleeding Kansas and Bleeding Sumner, the canning of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner after his “harlot slavery” speech by Congressman Preston S. Brooks on the Senate floor. Frémont would go to battle in the election against Democrats and eventual victors James Buchanan and John Breckenridge, and former President Millard Fillmore with Andrew Donelson on the Whig- American Party tickets. Four years, later Lincoln would be the Republican Party’s nominee for presidency succeeding to take them to the White House, however, keeping their promise the Southern states seceded from the Union, leading to the Civil War.
In 1854, Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and President Franklin Pierce devised the Kansas-Nebraska Act to open up the territories for settlement. The act, however, repealed the Missouri compromise of 1820, which created boundaries for the entry of slave and free states from the Louisiana Purchase Territory along the Mason Dixon line, keeping a balance of one slave and one free entering the union at a time. The Compromise of 1850 moved closer opening New Mexico and Utah territories to slavery.
With the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the territories would decide if they want to enter the union as free or slave states advocating the right of popular sovereignty. The act said, “When admitted as a state or states, the said territory, or any portion of the same, shall be received into the Union, with or without slavery, as their constitution may prescribe at the time of their admission.” The Whig Party could not coalesce on the issue, with the Southern Whigs supporting the act and the Northern Whigs opposing the act.
In response, anti-slavery Whigs had a number of meetings in the mid-western states to protest the Kansas-Nebraska Act. On February 28, 1854, they decided to organize a new political party, which would unite in opposing the expansion of slavery. On March 20, 1854, the alliance of Conscience Whigs, Free-Soilers, and Anti-Slavery Democrats met in Ripon, Wisconsin, met and formed the Republican Party. On July 6, at a meeting Jackson, Michigan, the Republican Party formally launched. In February 1855, the Baltimore Republicans met resolving, “There should be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except for the punishment of crime, in any of the Territories of the United States.”
The chairmen opened the first Republican nominating convention telling the delegates, “You are here today to give a direction to a movement which is to decide whether the people of the United States are to be hereafter and forever chained to the present national policy of the extension of slavery.” The first Republican convention featured 600 delegates primarily representing the Northern and Border States (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and District of Columbia). The convention treated the Kansas territory as a full state with full voting privileges.
When Salmon P. Chase of Ohio and William H. Seward of New York withdrew their names prior to the vote, explorer and former California Senator John C. Frémont became the front-runner for the presidential nomination, securing it on the second ballot. Lincoln tried for the Vice Presidential candidacy against William L. Dayton, a former senator from New Jersey, who opposed the Compromise of 1850, who ended up capturing the nomination; Lincoln was second place in the voting.
Bleeding Kansas, the violence between free soil and slave supporting settlers in Kansas was a major campaign issue. The Republican’s first party platform advocated “Congress to prohibit in the Territories those twin relics of barbarism — Polygamy and Slavery.” They wanted to repeal of Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Fugitive Slave Act, and abolish slavery in the District of Columbia
The party demanded the immediate admission of Kansas into the Union as a free state, opposed the extension of slavery into the territories. The Republicans used the campaign slogans, “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Speech, Free Men, and Frémont,” and “Fremont and Freedom, Principles NOT Party.”
Republicans faced a disadvantage with donations and only appearing on the ballot of four border-states and not at all in the deep Southern slave states. Democrats charged them as “Black Republicans,” and threatened to secede from the Union if they are elected. Robert Toombs expressed, “The election of Fremont would be the end of the Union, and ought to be.” Governor Henry Wise of Virginia declared privately, “If Frémont is elected there will be a revolution,” and publicly prepared the militia. (McPherson, 159)
Historian James M. McPherson in his epic on the Civil War “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era” wrote, “The campaign generated a fervor unprecedented in American politics…. The turnout of eligible voters in the North was an extraordinary 83 percent… While this passion mobilized a large Republican vote, it deepened the foreboding that drove many ex-Whigs to vote for Buchanan or Fillmore.” (McPherson, 159–161) Fremont would win 11 out of the 16 Northern states in the November election.
Fremont’s trailblazing campaign in the middle of an increasingly divided nation would set the stage for Lincoln’s successful Republican run in 1860. As John Bicknell in his book “Lincoln’s Pathfinder: John C. Frémont and the Violent Election of 1856” argues, “But in 1856, the Pathfinder who had made his fame following in the footsteps of others would, after all, blaze a trail. His campaign unique in the annals of politics to that time showed the way to victory for another candidate, a man less reticent personally and more prepared temperamentally for the rigorous challenge of a national crisis. Where John C. Frémont led, Abraham Lincoln would follow.” In 1860, however, all the Democrats threats about secession with a Republican president would come to fruition. In no time, Southern state by state seceded, forming the Confederate States of America and launching the country to a Civil War that for once and for all solved the slavery question.
SOURCES & READ MORE
Bicknell, John. Lincoln’s Pathfinder: John C. Fremont and the Violent Election of 1856. Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, 2017.
Boller, Paul F. Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004.
Gienapp, William E. The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852–1856. New York [etc.: Oxford University Press, 1987.
McPherson, James M, and David M. Kennedy. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2003.
Schlesinger, Arthur M., Fred L. Israel, and Gil Troy. History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008, 3-Volume Set. New York: Infobase Pub, 2011.
Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.