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The Union is in Danger! – Fremont and Secession in the 1856 Election

The 1856 election pitted James Buchanan against John Fremont, the latter remembered as a radical abolitionist. From the Deep South came the warnings of disunion should the progressive Republican candidate win. However, at the time of the election, his personal politics on slavery went mostly unstated.

In the build up to the 1860 Presidential election, the rhetoric coming from pro-slavery fire-eaters in the South was that if a Republican won the vote, they’d pull for secession. This talk had been going on for decades – disunion preached from radicals on either side. The voices of the enslaver, however, had always been more consistent, more threatening, and with that, they carried more weight.

Setting the Scene for Fremont

In terms of politics, the Democrats of the South were used to painting their opponents as being at least moderately anti-slavery. For the most part, few politicians in Washington were strict abolitionists. The recently deceased opposition party, the Whigs, was no more for the rights of slaves or freed blacks than the southern Democrats. But now that the Whigs were no more, a new opponent had to be considered.


In a way, the emergence of the Republican Party was a boon for the Democrats. No longer would they have to grossly exaggerate the connection between their opponents and the abolitionists. The Republican Platform was squarely against slavery. While most Republicans were hardly radicals, to those in the Deep South, opposition to even the expansion of the institution was almost identical to being Frederick Douglass.

The victory of Buchanan was not a certain thing in June of 1865. Both parties had selected their men, and both seemed ready to move forward. To win, Buchanan needed all of the slave states, along with as many of the free states adjacent to them as possible. This meant that most of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa must align with the Democrats.

The people of those states were not slave owners. Many had even become convinced that slavery should not exist and would have been happy to its demise. Many, of course, hated the wealthy enslavers much more than they hated the institution – though probably not much more than they hated the black slave. Buchanan, a Pennsylvanian, seemed to understand that if a Republican could somehow win the Presidency, the Deep South would call for secession.

At least, that’s how he portrayed it.

John C. Fremont as the good lord intended him to be.
John C. Fremont as the good lord intended him to be.
Buchanan’s Warnings of Disunion

Republicans, as the Whigs had been before them, were often accused by the Democrats of being “disunionists.” Though there were some Abolitionists, like William Lloyd Garrison, who espoused those ideals, the Democrats were not really accusing the Republicans of wanting to secede from the Union. In actuality, the Democrats were accusing Republicans of trying to drive out the conservative South – to effectively dissolve the Union by making it so unpleasant that the slave states would be “forced” into leaving.

To Howell Cobb of Georgia, Buchanan spoke of “dissolution of the Union” as a distinct possibility if he could not carry even Maryland. 1James Buchanan to Howell Cobb, July 10, 1856. As printed in The Correspondence of Robert Toombs, Alexander H. Stephens, and Howell Cobb, Vol. 2 (Washington, 1913) 374.

Buchanan saw little reason to let up on this issue. In August, he wrote to Nahum Capen of Boston, explaining that he considered “that all incidental questions are comparatively of little importance in the Presidential question, when compared with the grand and appalling issue of union or disunion.” He saw that if Fremont was elected, “the consequence will be immediate and inevitable.” 2James Buchanan to Nahum Capen, August 27, 1856. As printed in George Ticknor Curtis Life of James Buchanan, fifteenth President of the United States. Volume 2 (1883) 180.

This was the line among all of his Northern allies: “The Union is in danger and the people everywhere begin to know it. Black Republicans must be, as they can be with justice, boldly assailed as disunionist and this charge must be reiterated again and again.” 3Buchanan letter, Summer of 1856. As quoted in Jean H. Baker James Buchanan (Henry Holt, 2004) 71.

And reiterated it would be.

The South’s Call for Disunion

“This country is now passing through the most portentous crisis which it has encountered since the revolution,” wrote Bedford Brown, a former Democratic senator from North Carolina. 4Bedford Brown to James Buchanan, September 21, 1856. As printed in Historical Papers, Series 5 (Historical Society of Trinity College, 1905) 90.

Robert Toombs of Georgia agreed: “I will say, that should Fremont be elected, I will not stand and wait for fire, but will call upon my countrymen to take to that to which they will be driven – the sword. If that be disunion, I am a disunionist. If that be treason, make the most of it. You see the traitor before you.” 5As quoted in Pleasant A. Stovall Robert Toombs, Statesman, Speaker, Soldier, Sage (Cassell Publishing Company, 1892) 151.

James Slidell, the senator from Louisiana, thought “that the Union ought not to be preserved if Fremont should be elected.” 6New York Times, September 11, 1856. Similarly, James Mason of Virginia, writing to Jefferson Davis in September, believed “in the event of Fremont’s election the South should not postpone but at once proceed to ‘immediate, absolute, and eternal separation’.” He even urged Davis, then the Secretary of War, to make sure that the muskets used by the Virginia Military Institute were of the best sort, in case the secession would bring about war. 7Robert W. Young Senator James Murray Mason: Defender of the Old South (University of Texas Press, 1998) 82.

That summer, the Richmond Enquirer was of much the same mood.

“If Fremont is elected, the Union will not last an hour after Mr. Pierce’s term expires.

“If Fremont is elected, it will be the duty of the South to dissolve the Union and form a Southern Confederacy.

“Let the South present a compact and undivided front. Let her, if possible, detach Pennsylvania and southern Ohio, southern Indiana, and southern Illinois, from the North, and make the highlands between the Ohio and the lakes the dividing line. Let the South treat with California; and, if necessary, ally herself with Russia, with Cuba, and Brazil.” 8As reprinted in Horace Greeley A Political Text-Book for 1860 (Tribune Association, 1860) 171.

Satirical look at the Democratic Platform of 1856.
Satirical look at the Democratic Platform of 1856.
And What of Fremont?

Though secession seemed to hinge upon the election of John Fremont, and though his name was bandied about, very little criticism of the man himself was put forward by the Democrats, especially when it came to slavery.

Fremont was, in a way, a politician, though not just a politician. Though he had been the military governor of California before becoming the state’s first senator, his fame extended much farther. Prior to that, he was an explorer. “The Pathfinder” was his moniker, and his exploits were the stuff of legends. His expeditions across the West excited the imaginations of all regardless of their disposition in relation to the Mason-Dixon Line.

Most importantly, Fremont’s views on slavery were simply unknown. As a senator, he had voted against abolition in Washington, DC. And, though a Republican, his party bent over backwards to highlight his Southern roots.

Fremont was born in Savannah, Georgia, and received his education in Charleston, South Carolina. His mother was from a long line of Virginian planters. Even his wife, Jessie, was a Virginian by birth, and when she was young, traveled often to Missouri with her father. Both seemed to embody the Southern spirit of the West.

Few, either North or South, could find much to complain about concerning Fremont at this point in his life. On the other hand, there was also not much, apart from the life of a celebrity exepeditionist, that one might herald in the political arena. This was picked up by Oscar Moore, representative from Ohio. Moore described Fremont as “a man, whose only merit, so far as history records it, is in the fact, that he was born in South Carolina, crossed the Rocky Mountains, subsisted on frogs, lizards, snakes and grasshoppers, and captured a woolly horse.” He was dumbfounded that Fremont had been “chosen as the person to control the destinies of this great nation.” 9Letter from Oscar Moore to his Constituents, 1856. As quoted in John Ashworth Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic, Vol. 2 (Cambridge University Press, 2007) 572.

Satirical look at the Republican Party platform - featuring Women's Rights, Socialism, Free Love, Racial Equality, and Catholicism.
Satirical look at the Republican Party platform – featuring Women’s Rights, Socialism, Free Love, Racial Equality, and Catholicism.
The Party

While Fremont was clearly not untouchable, neither was he the main target. With little the Democrats could do to assail his unspoken views on slavery, they did what they could to pick apart the newly-formed Republican Party. They painted with a wide brush, using words to frighten the general populace into voting Democrat (or at least not voting Republican).

The Republican Party platform, upon which Fremont stood, believed that all men were created equal, and that the nation’s founders had wanted slavery not to expand west into the territories. They equated slavery with polygamy, reserving the right of the Federal government to do away with both in the territories – though they understood that at least slavery was protected in the states themselves under the Constitution. They demanded that Kansas be admitted immediately as a free state, and that the trans-continental railroad chug its way through the center of the nation – not the south. 10Republican Party Platforms: “Republican Party Platform of 1856,” June 18, 1856.

It was, of course, the slavery question that stung the most. Because of this, they were labeled as “Black Republicans,” abolitionists, radicals, and the like. But this was hardly the case. While some radicals existed among their numbers, most were politically moderate. Because they were a new party, they were most interested in siphoning members from where they could get them.

Many had been anti-slavery Whigs, but they also looked to the smaller American Party, complete with its anti-immigration views. They turned to Free-Soilers in Kansas, and Abolitionists in New England, where they also courted, as much as they could, the moderate Democrats. Moderate republicans even favored colonization as a way to gain support from northern middle of the roads and maybe even southerners. They attempted to demonstrate that one could be against slavery without being an abolitionist.

This created a diversity similar in scope to the Democrats, who were becoming increasingly sectionalized. Though for this election they could come together against the Republicans, there was such a wide variety of views contained within the definition of that party so as to make it difficult to grasp. 11Elizabeth R. Varon Disuinon! (University of North Carolina Press, 2008) 278-279.

Fremont as the Young American.
Fremont as the Young American.
At Open War with Government

It was difficult, but far from impossible, for the Democrats to campaign against the Republican Party. Naturally, the issue was slavery and the rights of the black man. Times being what they were, this subject alone was used to assume numerous tangential conclusions.

“The Black Republicans in congress,” spat the Richmond Enquirer in June of 1856, “are at open war with government, and, like their allies, the Garrisonian abolitionists, equally at war with religion, female virtue, private property, and distinctions of race.” 12Richmond Enquirer, June 9, 1856. As printed in The Constitutional and Political History of the United States, Volume 5 (Chicago: Callaghan & Company, 1885) 332n.

Much of this came down to the fear of a southern Republican Party. Of course, nobody seriously considered that it would overtake the Democratic Party, but even a foothold was more than enough for panic. It was urged by many, such as William Goode, congressman from Virginia, that “everything must be done to prevent a result so fatal” as a southern Republican faction. He wished to teach fellow Southerners “a proper appreciation of the danger.” 13William Goode to E.W. Hubard, July 20, 1856. As quoted in William W. Freehling The Road to Disunion, Vol. 2 (Oxford University Press, 2007) 103.

The Proper Appreciation

This could all be started, it was feared, by a Republican President, regardless of whether it had been the radical abolitionist William Seward or John Fremont, the Pathfinder. But here is where things got a bit sticky.

Pro-Fremont ribbon.
Pro-Fremont ribbon.

While many pro-slavery Southerners were threatening disunion if Fremont won, many more were not. The secession fever had not yet fully taken over the minds of more than a large minority of the South. This was a problem. Because the South was not yet ready to leave the Union, a Republican President could enact changes across the South even though the South disagreed and voted against it.

Through Presidential appointments and a possible surge of Republicans to congress in 1858, it was unclear what might happen. Possibly, many feared, the outlawing of slavery in the territories. This issue was of utmost importance since it would cordon off slavery – the cornerstone of the South’s economy. Thus disallowed its expansion, slavery would wither on the vine. If slavery was barred from the territories, regardless of Fugitive Slave laws and Constitutional standings, the institution would face extinction.

The choice between revolution and extinction was an easy one to make. Because most in the South were not quite the revolutionaries they would become four years in the future, it behooved the Democrats to exaggerate the feared results of a Fremont victory.

Fremont and Buchanan prepare to fight it out, separated only by Millard Filmore (who somehow escaped mention in this article).
Fremont and Buchanan prepare to fight it out, separated only by Millard Filmore (who somehow escaped mention in this article).
The Future

While it’s tempting to fully equate the Southern panic of 1856 with that of 1860, it’s simply not the same thing. Some, as we’ve seen, were just as fired up about secession because of Fremont as they would be four years later with Lincoln, but it was far from enough to bring it into reality.

Much happened between 1856 and 1860 to push the South closer to secession, and to align the North more closely with abolitionism. When contrasting 1856 with 1860, it’s alarming how much is missing in the former.

Though it was working its way through the courts, there was no Supreme Court decision on the Dred Scott case – this would happen the following year. This is important since in 1856, the Republicans could have no opinion on the subject.

Though Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been published in 1852, Hinton Rowan Helper had not yet penned The Impending Crisis of the South. This work, published in 1857, attempted to pit “The Plain Folk of the Old South” against the wealthy enslaver aristocracy, who were, in his view, oppressing them. Come 1860, Southern politicians had to win over not just Northern Democrats, but poor Southern Democrats as well.

While the idea of popular sovereignty was around, it was not quite the dividing force that it would become after the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. This was basically a compromise between pro- and anti-slavery factions where the white people of a territory got to decide for themselves whether or not to enslave their black neighbors. This issue was one of several that would eventually lead to cracks in the Democratic Party.

Abraham Lincoln was not yet a nationally recognized politician. His “House Divided” speech, Chicago Address, Lyceum Speech, and any number of others where he professed his personal disdain for slavery were not yet in existence. This absence of any sort of personal position by Fremont in 1856 made it, as stated, incredibly difficult to attack.

And lastly, John Brown’s raid had not yet occurred, and would not until autumn of 1859. The wave of adoration of many in the North for John Brown terrified the South almost as much as the thought of a successful slave uprising. In 1856, the South didn’t exactly trust the North, but a true fear had not yet formed.

In other words, it would take more than simply the decades-long and growing fear of slavery’s extinction for the South to secede. The election of 1856 was of little threat to the bonds of Union, and most likely could have survived a Fremont victory. It was, then, the events that would soon transpire, as well as both the Northern and Southern reaction to those events, that would lead to disunion and war.

As this war later showed, the South was not strong enough to secede from the United States in 1860. In 1856, their support, motivation, and resources were far less. It would take an active Northern push against slavery, as well as an equally active Southern push to preserve it, to finally drive most of the slave states to secede, which would ultimately lead to the destruction of slavery.


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Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.