United States presidential election, 1856
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|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.|
The United States presidential election of 1856 was the 18th quadrennial presidential election, held on Tuesday, November 4, 1856. It was an unusually heated contest that led to the election of James Buchanan, an experienced politican who had held a variety of political offices, but at the moment was serving as the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom. The Whig Party, which had been one of the two major parties in the U.S., had disintegrated since the 1852 election over the issue of slavery, and new parties such as the Republican Party and American Party, or "Know Nothing Party," competed to replace it as the principal opposition to the Democratic Party.
Incumbent president Franklin Pierce was defeated in his effort to be re-nominated by the Democratic Party, which chose Buchanan as its candidate instead. The Republican Party nominated John C. Frémont of California as its first presidential candidate. The Know-Nothing Party nominated former President Millard Fillmore, of New York.
Republican Frémont condemned the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 and crusaded against the expansion of slavery, while Buchanan, a Democrat, warned that the Republicans were extremists whose victory would lead to civil war. The Democrats endorsed the popular sovereignty approach to slavery expansion embodied by the Kansas–Nebraska Act. The platform of the Know Nothing Party ignored the slavery issue in favor of anti-immigration policies.
Frémont received less than 1200 popular votes in the slave states, with all of these coming from Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Virginia. The results in the Electoral College indicated that the Republican Party would probably win the next presidential election, in 1860, if it won 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 
American Party candidates
- Millard Fillmore, former President of the United States from New York
- George Law, steamboat entrepreneur from New York
American Party candidates gallery 
The American Party, formerly the Native American Party, was the vehicle of the Know Nothing movement. 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 the House of Representatives in 1854, 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 as Speaker of the House in the 34th Congress.
The American National Convention was held in National Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on February 22 to February 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 chapter of the 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 cast. The convention chose Andrew Jackson Donelson of Tennessee for vice-president with 181 votes to 30 scattered votes and 24 abstentions.
|Presidential Ballots||Informal 1||Formal 2||Vice Presidential Ballot|
|Millard Fillmore||139||179||Andrew Jackson Donelson||181|
|Garrett Davis||18||8||Henry J. Gardiner||12|
|Robert F. Stockton||8||2|
|Lewis D. Campbell||1||0|
|John Middleton Clayton||1||0|
Democratic Party nomination 
- James Buchanan, Minister to Great Britain from Pennsylvania
- Franklin Pierce, President of the United States from New Hampshire
- Stephen Douglas, U.S. Senator from Illinois
Democratic candidates gallery 
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, Ohio, on June 2 to June 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 after seeking it. 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, but Buchanan was unanimously nominated on the 17th ballot. John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky was nominated for vice-president.
|Vice Presidential Ballot|
|John C. Breckinridge||51||296|
|John A. Quitman||59||0|
|Herschel V. Johnson||31||0|
|Aaron V. Brown||29||0|
|James C. Dobbin||13||0|
|Thomas J. Rusk||7||0|
North American Party nomination 
The anti-slavery "Americans" from the North formed their own party after the nomination of Fillmore in Philadelphia. This party called for its national convention to be held in New York, New York, just before the Republican National Convention. Party leaders hoped to nominate a joint ticket with the Republicans to defeat Buchanan. The national convention was held on June 12 to June 20, 1856 in New York. The delegates voted repeatedly on a nominee for president without a result, 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. Frémont and John McLean, but Banks immediately telegraphed the convention that he did not want to run. The delegates, preparing to return home, unanimously nominated Frémont on the 11th ballot. The chairman of the convention, William F. Johnston, was nominated to run for vice-president, but he later withdrew his name.
|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|
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 
- John C. Fremont, former U.S. senator from California
- John McLean, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice from Ohio
Republican candidates gallery 
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 House of Representatives for the 34th Congress. However, the party collaborated 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, Pennsylvania, on June 17 to June 19, 1856. The convention approved an anti-slavery platform that called for congressional sovereignty in the territories, an end to polygamy in Mormon settlements, and federal assistance for a transcontinental railroad. John C. Frémont was nominated for president over John McLean, and William L. Dayton was nominated for vice-president over Abraham Lincoln.
|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 P. Banks||46||6|
|Nathaniel P. Banks||1||0||David Wilmot||43||0|
|William H. Seward||1||0||Charles Sumner||35||3|
|John Alsop King||9||2|
|Samuel C. Pomeroy||8||1|
|Thomas H. Ford||7||5|
|Henry Charles Carey||3||0|
|Joshua Reed Giddings||2||0|
Whig Party nomination 
The Whig Party was reeling from electoral losses since 1852. Half of its leaders in the South bolted to the Southern Democratic Party, whereas in the North the Whig Party was moribund. This party remained somewhat alive in states like New York and Pennsylvania by joining the anti-slavery movement.
The fifth (and last) Whig National Convention was held in the Hall of the Maryland Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 17 and September 18, 1856. There were 150 delegates sent from 26 states. Though the leaders of this party 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 did so unanimously.
General election 
None of the three candidates took to the stump. The Republican Party opposed the extension of slavery into the territories — in fact, its 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 a civil war.
The Republican platform opposed the repeal of the Missouri Compromise through the Kansas–Nebraska Act, which enacted the policy of popular sovereignty, allowing settlers to decide whether a new state would enter the Union as free or slave. The Republicans also accused the Pierce administration of allowing a fraudulent territorial government to be imposed upon the citizens of the Kansas Territory, thus engendering the violence that had raged in Bleeding Kansas. They 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 sum, 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 popular sovereignty. The party supported the pro-slavery territorial legislature elected in Kansas, opposed 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 and the slave states. In the free states, there was a three-way campaign, which Frémont won with 45.2% of the vote to 41.5% for Buchanan and 13.3% for Fillmore; Frémont received 114 electoral votes to 62 for Buchanan. In the slave states, however, the contest was for all intents and purposes between Buchanan and Fillmore; Buchanan won 56.1% of the vote to 43.8% for Fillmore and 0.1% for Fremont, receiving 112 electoral votes to 8 for Fillmore. Nationwide, Buchanan won 174 electoral votes, a majority, and was thus elected. Frémont received no votes in 10 of the 14 slave states with a popular vote; he got 306 in Delaware, 285 in Maryland, 283 in Virginia, and 314 in Kentucky.
Of the 1,713 counties making returns, Buchanan won 1,083 (63.22%), Frémont won 366 (21.37%), and Fillmore won 263 (15.35%). One county (0.06%) in Georgia split evenly between Buchanan and Fillmore.
|Presidential candidate||Party||Home state||Popular vote(a)||Electoral
|Count||Pct||Vice-presidential candidate||Home state||Elect. vote|
|James Buchanan||Democratic||Pennsylvania||1,836,072||45.3%||174||John C. Breckinridge||Kentucky||174|
|John C. Frémont||Republican||California||1,342,345||33.1%||114||William L. Dayton||New Jersey||114|
|Millard Fillmore||American/Whig||New York||873,053||21.6%||8||Andrew Jackson Donelson||Tennessee||8|
|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.
Results by state 
|John C. Fremont
American / Whig
|North Carolina||10||48,243||56.78||10||no ballots||36,720||43.22||-||84,963||NC|
|South Carolina||8||no popular vote||8||no popular vote||no popular vote||-||SC|
See also 
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: United States presidential election, 1856|
- American election campaigns in the 19th century
- History of the United States (1849–1865)
- History of the United States Democratic Party
- History of the United States Republican Party
- Origins of the American Civil War
- Third Party System
- United States House elections, 1856
Further reading 
- Anbinder, Tyler (1992). Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-508922-7.
- 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 0-19-504100-3.
- Holt, Michael F. (1978). The Political Crisis of the 1850s. New York: Norton. pp. 139–181. ISBN 0-393-95370-X.
- 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 0-06-090524-7.
- 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 0-19-501997-0.
- Presidential Election of 1856: A Resource Guide from the Library of Congress
- Nativism in the 1856 Presidential Election
- 1856 popular vote by counties
- 1856 state-by-state popular voting results
- James Buchanan and the Election of 1856
- How close was the 1856 election? — Michael Sheppard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- 1856 Republican Platform