Democratic Party: James Buchanan (Pennsylvania) and John Breckenridge (Kentucky)
Republican Party: John Fremont (California) and William Dayton (New Jersey)
American (Know Nothing) Party: Millard Fillmore (New York) and Andrew Donelson (Tenn.)
Buchanan/Breckenridge:174 electoral votes, 1.83 million popular votes
Fremont/Dayton: 114 electoral votes, 1.34 million popular votes
Fillmore/Donelson: 8 electoral votes, 873,000 popular votes
The 1856 presidential election was focused on the singular issue of states’ rights and the resultant policy allowing slavery in the United States. The pro-slavery tendencies enforced by the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act hurt sitting president Franklin Pierce, whose pro-slavery tendencies and northern background earned him the presidency in 1852. Pierce would not receive the Democratic nomination in 1856 because his popularity would have hurt the party’s chances. As well, congressional leader Stephen Douglas of Illinois was harmed by this support of the Act and of his attempts to allow abolition on the ballots in the western United States through popular sovereignty. Douglas wanted the citizens of new states to decide for themselves whether to be slave or free states, which displeased both sides because it was too moderate a solution. The Democrats instead turned toward James Buchanan, whose experience as a representative, senator, and envoy to England and Russia ensured that his nomination would go without much dispute. Douglas made a deal with Buchanan to give him his support in 1856 in return for Buchanan’s support of Douglas in future elections.
The infant Republican Party, still mostly a party of the northern and western states, decided to nominate famous explorer and California governor John C. Fremont as its standard bearer. Fremont offered little in the way of substantive political experience but was an independent thinker and his escapades were known to a great many Americans interested in Western exploration. Former president Millard Fillmore was nominated the candidate of the Know Nothing Party, a largely northern party that was anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic. Fillmore’s campaign consisted largely of criticizing Fremont and the Republican’s reckless attempt at ending slavery.
Illinois lawyer and politician Abraham Lincoln did most of the campaigning for Fremont, while Buchanan sent proxies to do the entirety of his campaign speeches. Throughout the United States, more important events clouded the impending presidential election. Pandemonium reigned in Kansas, where murder and riots were par for the course, while Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner was beaten on the floor of the Senate by one of his colleagues who opposed his views on slavery. Abolitionist John Brown and his band of armed protesters went to Kansas in order to fight against slavery and were involved in the murder of several people in the course of fighting pro-slavery settlers. All of these issues, plus the history of failed compromises over the previous two decades, forced the candidates to speak to the issue of slavery. Buchanan felt strongly that states should determine the future of slavery, while Fremont considered the economic aspects of slavery as the main factor in the federal government’s stake in ending slavery. The Democratic Party attacked the Republicans’ love for slaves and Fremont’s out of wedlock birth (very much a taboo subject in 1856) while the Republicans painted a picture of James Buchanan as an unsympathetic and feeble-minded political hack.
In the end, Fremont’s rampant abolitionist tendencies led to his removal from Southern ballots and the threat by Southern governors to secede from the Union with the election of Fremont. As well, the Know Nothings spent time attacking Fremont and were successful in taking away votes from the Republicans in rural areas where anti-immigrant tendencies existed. James Buchanan would become the last president in a divided nation and his “dough face” policies while in office expedited the coming of the Civil War.