A Most Violent Year

Review: 'Lincoln's Pathfinder: John C. Frémont and the Violent Election of 1856,' by John Bicknell

John Charles Frémont / Getty Images


The Donald Trump of the 1856 presidential election was a celebrity explorer named John C. Frémont, nominated by the recently founded Republican party. The Hillary Clinton was a tired old perennial presidential candidate named James Buchanan, chosen by the Democrats—although they had to dump Franklin Pierce to do it. Pierce’s convention defeat marks the only time in American history a sitting president has lost a campaign for renomination by his own party.

Meanwhile, the third-party spoiler candidate of 1856 was Millard Fillmore, the retired former president who found himself nominated by a party he hadn't much campaigned for, with a platform he didn't much believe in. He accepted the nomination of the American party, the "Know Nothings," anyway, and won 21 percent of the vote in the November election. Frémont managed 33 percent and 114 electoral votes from New England and a fringe of far Northern states. Buchanan cruised to a comfortable plurality, with 45 percent of the national vote and a count of 174 in the Electoral College.

And so the dashing young celebrity and the amusing-himself former president were turned away. The always-running workhorse of the Democrats took the presidency—a job at which, despite his training as secretary of state and ambassador to Great Britain, he proved a failure. Four years later, in Buchanan's final months as president, the Southern states began to secede and the Civil War arrived.

In other words, the election of 1856 looked enormously consequential at the time, but it turned out to be mostly an exercise in futility. To look back is to realize that nothing anyone could do in 1856 was going to halt the gathering storm. Kansas was bleeding, the murder rate across the country was high, and an incendiary rhetoric ruled even the most ordinary of politics. This was a year in which Philemon Thomas Herbert, a congressman from California, walked into the Willard Hotel in Washington and killed an Irish waiter, partly for refusing to serve him a late breakfast and partly just for being Irish. This was the year in which the pro-slavery Preston Brooks, a congressman from South Carolina, walked onto the floor of the U.S. Senate and beat the antislavery Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner into unconsciousness with a cane.

By the time the Electoral College results had been ratified, 1856 had muscled its way into the record books as the most brutal peacetime year in American history. Or so, at least, John Bicknell argues in his new book, Lincoln's Pathfinder: John C. Frémont and the Violent Election of 1856. A widely published political journalist, Bicknell has been an editor for Watchdog.org, Roll Call, Congressional Quarterly, and The Almanac of American Politics. In recent years, he has turned his attention back to 19th-century politics, publishing America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion, and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation in 2014 and now his look at the turmoil of 1856.

The greatest service Lincoln's Pathfinder provides is to remind us that what seems inevitable in hindsight, years later, was often not apparent at all to the people living through the events. The violence of 1856 left "voters craving stability," Bicknell writes. With "the widespread feeling that things were falling apart," the nation sought someone who would not push matters to a crisis, and Buchanan seemed "the safer choice."

We now know that the attempt to tamp down the violence only made it explode more forcefully. The demand that the shouting mobs take a breath only filled their lungs for more shouting. But the people at the time didn’t know that, and it is unfair to demand that they have seen, in 1856, the unavoidability of what was coming in 1860.

Bicknell is at his best in explaining how events get elevated into political symbols. The notion of appealing to popular sovereignty—of allowing territorial populations to vote on whether to become slave states or free states—may have seemed a clever political workaround when the Kansas-Nebraska Act was pushed through in 1854 by Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas and President Franklin Pierce. The new law made possible the building of the transcontinental railroad, opened the West for further expansion, and eliminated the increasingly unworkable Missouri Compromise of 1820.

Of course, the Kansas-Nebraska Act also cost Pierce his own party's renomination, completed the destruction of the Whig party, and turned Kansas into a riot zone as slaveholders and abolitionists alike rushed into the territory to manipulate the vote. On May 21, 1856, pro-slavery forces burned down the antislavery town of Lawrence, Kansas, and on May 24, in retaliation, John Brown and a gang of radical abolitionists raided the pro-slavery town of Pottawatomie, killing five citizens. "Bleeding Kansas" became the image through which the nation came to see the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

The Dred Scott case took on a similar symbolic value, in Bicknell’s account. Although the Supreme Court would not issue its decision until 1857, the case became one of the symbolic causes around which the supporters and opponents of slavery would define themselves during the 1856 election. "With the lawyers in charge and politics in the forefront, Scott almost ceased to matter," Lincoln's Pathfinder notes. In Bicknell's view, Scott's lawyer Montgomery Blair had as his actual client the Republican party, while his opponent, Reverdy Johnson, was effectively representing all Southern Democrats.

Even the Mormons became a symbolic issue. The Utah War and the Mountain Meadows massacre would come later, once Buchanan had become president and ordered federal troops to move toward Salt Lake City. But he did so—had to do so—in part because the politics of 1856 had briefly put the problem of Utah on the national stage. The overwhelming majority of Americans abhorred the polygamy practiced by the Mormons, and politicians were quick to exploit this fact in pursuit of goals that had little to do with any actual Mormons.

The platform of the Republican party, for example, promised "to prohibit in the territories those twin relics of barbarism: polygamy and slavery," making Utah a weapon for attacking the popular-sovereignty elements of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Worried that this symbolic use of the hated Mormons would gain force, Douglas and other Democrats began loudly denouncing Mormonism and the theocratic government of the territory. After a year of political competition to prove who was the most anti-Mormon, Buchanan was almost compelled to take action against the church's leadership.

Preston Brooks's caning of Charles Sumner also became a symbol for both sides, as did half a dozen other incidents. The difference between the major political disruption of Sumner's beating and the minor celebrity of a fistfight in Chicago seems obvious to us now. But 1856 was a year of passion, and every fleeting event took on an air of emotion. People may not have understood the political turmoil of the nation, but they felt it. And they turned to Buchanan, the man who seemed most likely to make it all go away.

During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump compared himself to Andrew Jackson, with his populism and outsider status. And he returned to the comparison this spring—interestingly, in the context of musing whether a strong leader like Jackson could have avoided the Civil War. The answer is probably no, given the conditions of 1856. But it is a question that must arise when we think about John C. Frémont, the title figure of John Bicknell’s book about that violent year.

The lesson of Frémont’s defeat, Bicknell argues, was counterintuitive. Even though they lost, the Republicans learned that a future presidential election could be won by carrying only the North. Frémont had been more a cartographer than a pathfinder in the explorations of the West that made him famous, but he did blaze the trail that Lincoln would follow in 1860.

It's not a complaint about Lincoln's Pathfinder: John C. Frémont and the Violent Election of 1856 to note that Frémont himself never emerges clearly from Bicknell's narrative, even while it examines the role of Frémont's wife Jessie, daughter of the powerful senator Thomas Hart Benton and more of a political dynamo than her husband. Despite the title, the book is clearly intended as more the chronicle of a year than the biography of a man. Still, Frémont is such a fascinating character—a man of parts who nonetheless lacked something essential—that most readers will finish Lincoln's Pathfinder hungry for more about the candidate himself.

What readers won't want is a return to the conditions of 1856. As John Bicknell understands, the turmoil of that year resonates today not because we have matched its violence but because rising partisanship suggests that we eventually could. Better to understand now how to avoid such things than to look back a decade later and see that we missed our chance.

Joseph Bottum

Joseph Bottum   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Joseph Bottum is a professor of cyber-ethics and director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

Get the news that matters most to you, delivered straight to your inbox daily.

Register today!
  • Grow your email list exponentially
  • Dramatically increase your conversion rates
  • Engage more with your audience
  • Boost your current and future profits