In the years leading up to the Civil War, sectional divisions polarized American politics. Southerners wanted slavery to extend Westward while Northerners and abolitionists wanted slavery excluded from the West. In a political atmosphere constantly on edge, the Presidential election of 1856 promised to be exciting. John C. Fremont (an American explorer and the first Republican candidate for President), James Buchanan (an experienced politician and the Democratic Nominee), and Millard Fillmore (a nativist and the Know-Nothing Party’s Nominee) contended for the Presidential office in 1856.
The Republican Party arose out of conflict over slavery’s expansion to the West, specifically opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act which effectively nullified the Missouri Compromise of 1850 opening up Kansas as a slave state. Chaos and bloodshed followed out West in what would become known as “Bleeding Kansas.” As 1856 approached, political parties had the challenge of selecting a candidate untainted by controversial or mistaken stances on occurrences in the West. Enter John C. Fremont, American military leader in the Mexican-American War, explorer and settler of California. While politicians back East had been dirtying their hands with Bleeding Kansas, Fremont kept silent and distant making him the perfect untainted candidate for the newly formed Republican Party – strongly opposed to slavery’s expansion and challenging the Democrat’s solution of allowing popular sovereignty.
In 1856, Fremont was a young candidate at only 42 years old. He was married to Thomas Hart Benton’s daughter, Jessie who ended up becoming an important part of his campaign. He had been a mountain man, a military hero, and now a potential President for a divided nation. Interestingly, the Republican Party played up sectional differences, emphasizing the moral problems with slavery, making the election of 1856 a moral choice, not merely a political one. They attempted to shed light on Buchanan as someone out of touch and tied too deeply to the South. Fillmore did not present a true threat to either party, rather he took votes from both sides drawing on anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment. But, for the mainstream voter, slavery was the real issue.
Traditionally at the time, presidential candidates did not go out and campaign for themselves since such an act was considered degrading to the office of the President. However, that did not stop the Republicans from developing its slogan: “Free speech, free press, free soil, free men, Fremont.” Though slavery remained the dominant issue of the campaign, the Know-Nothings brought nativist issues to light giving ammunition to Democrats who attempted to discredit Fremont as a Catholic. Fremont also endured other attempts at a smear campaign regarding his parents being unmarried at his birth along with other expected charges – drunkard, foreigner, slaveholder.
The Fremont campaign engaged society with cultural contributions attempting to draw in more voters. Ribbons, Buttons, Songs, and Pamphlets donned the bearded mountain man’s face, sang his praises, or promised they were Bent-On beating Buchanan (a play on words using Jessie Benton Fremont’s maiden name). In some ways, Jessie played as much a role in the campaign as John. Just as John was portrayed as what America needed in the Presidency, Jessie was the perfect woman to have at his side. Americans could choose between the old and dowdy past (Buchanan, a bachelor) or the exciting, romantic, and youthful future (John and Jessie Fremont).
This page contains lyrics to some of Fremont’s campaign songs. The top song is an acrostic for JOHN FREMONT, heralding his bravery in the West and ending with a jab at slavery. The songs typically were put to the music of folk songs or tunes people would have known already making them easier to remember. “The Freemen’s Song” contains a reference Jessie, promising the Freemen would “give the tyrants Jessie.” Instead of “giving them hell,” they would simply “give them Jessie.”
This campaign banner features Fremont in the center with a statement about the Republican platform around him. “Protection to American Industry and No Extension of Slave Power.” Banners like this would have been hung above the street or out in town in support of Fremont. He has books by his side with the window open to the frontier. Known as The Pathfinder, Fremont as an explorer became a motif of the campaign.
This lithograph features John Fremont planting the American flag on the Rocky Mountains, a story that would have been well known at the time. Lithographs like this were sold for a dollar each in shop windows and local headquarters. Fremont’s clothing in this print draw upon aspects of the man the campaign hoped to emphasize. His pants are clearly nostalgic of his exploration days while his hat and uniform recall his history in the Mexican-American War. Republicans looked to the past to promote the man they believed should lead in the future. With the promotion of the rugged mountain man persona, it is not difficult to understand why women in the North mobilized to campaign for Fremont. While under scrutiny for his actions in Indian affairs in California, women formed Bear Clubs to support Fremont.
This silk campaign ribbon contains an image of Fremont along with the Republican Party slogan: “Free Speech, Free Press, Free Men, Fremont.” Fremont’s running mate, William L. Dayton, received the nomination over the young Abraham Lincoln. Dayton had served in the New Jersey legislative and judicial branches and had been appointed and elected to the United State’s Senate representing New Jersey. This ribbon also shows the emphasis on freedom in the Fremont campaign. More than just a clever play on words, Fremont’s campaign contrasted their anti-slavery stance with the Democrat’s solution of popular sovereignty. Again, the issue received treatment as a moral dilemma rather than simply a political conflict.
This campaign poster features portraits of the Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates. Similar to the lithograph, campaign posters hung in store windows in support of the Republicans. Above Fremont and Dayton images of liberty persuade voters to vote for freedom and Fremont while beneath the portraits a ribbon reading “The Republican Choice for President and Vice President from 1857-1861” frames a scene of a patriot plowing his field. The open field symbolizes the West with the man working his own field – no slaves in sight. At the bottom of the poster, a slogan reads: “Free labor, Free Speech, Free Territory.”
Even though Fremont did not “take to the stump,” local pockets of Fremont followers throughout the nation mobilized to gain further support. This poster advertises an event in support of the Republican ticket held by The Republican Association of Fort Edward. What is particularly interesting about this poster is The Fremont Glee Club. Along with the introduction of Fremont Campaign songs, glee clubs would perform campaign songs, providing yet another opportunity for supporters to gather in public for their candidate.
This impressive banner contains portraits of the candidates surrounded by American symbols – an eagle with an olive branch, American flags, stars, and a small portrait of George Washington. The caption says exactly what the images attempt to communicate: “The Champions of Freedom.” According to this banner, Fremont and Dayton are the American choice, even George Washington agrees. An impressive assembly of symbols, this banner shows campaign attempts to bolster support through association.
In the end, Fremont and Dayton lost to James Buchanan by 35 electoral votes. Additionally, Democrats established their majority in Congress. Despite efforts to play upon Buchanan’s age, the immorality or slavery, and extolling the explorer of the American West, Democrats emerged victorious. However, Republicans had their minor victories as well, with the Whig party firmly disestablished. Buchanan’s presidency became plagued with sectional issues and conflict over slavery that weakened the Democrats overall allowing the Republicans to attain power on the precipice of the Civil War.
Nevins, Allan. Fremont, Pathmarker of the West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
Fischer, Robert A. Tippecanoe and Trinkets Too: the Material Culture of American Presidential Campaigns, 1828-1984. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988.
Grant, David. “‘Our Nation’s Hope Is She’: The Cult of Jessie Fremont in the Republican Campaign Poetry of 1856.” Journal of American Studies 42:2 (2008): 187-213.
Heidler, David and Jeanne T. Heidler. Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History. ABC-CLIO, 2000.
Mayer, George H. The Republican Party, 1854-1966. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Melder, Keith E. Hail to the Candidate: Presidential Campaigns from Banners to Broadcast. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999.
**All images linked to original sources**
Recommended Sources for Further Reading on John C. Fremont & the Republican Party
Egan, Ferol. Fremont, Explorer for a Restless Nation. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977.
Gienapp, William E. The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Ruhl Jacob Bartlett. John C. Frémont and the Republican Party. New York: Da Capo Press, 1970.
Seitz, Don Carlos. The “Also Rans”; Great Men Who Missed Making the Presidential Goal. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1928.