1856 - US presidential race -
Candidate and party profile books

Not just negro slavery:
immigration, religion, gender and sex in the campaign

Free, full-text online books published in 1856 are indexed at the bottom of this Web page. Immediately below is the preface from one of these books. The author, a resident of Maryland, was no doubt pleased when Millard Fillmore took Maryland's electoral votes in the election of 1856. But it was the only such state. And how ironic that the state founded (hundreds of years earlier) by Catholic Lord Baltimore as a Catholic colonial haven - with an ancient law mandating toleration of all Christian sects - should be the very one to support someone so anxious about the "new" hazards of Catholic influence!

The main reason we choose to include this preface is that its author is female. It illustrates the increasing role at least some women aspired to play in political life - notwithstanding their prohibition from voting anywhere in those times. What did the law in Georgia say about women in 1856? According to Rebecca Latimer Felton, 1835-1930, the first woman Senator, a long-time resident of Cartersville, Georgia whose people have given their name to our village of Felton in Haralson County:

As late as the year 1857, a man in Georgia was allowed to beat his wife, provided the hickory withe was no larger than his thumb. I wish I knew the Georgian's name who introduced the bill for a married woman's relief in 1857, three years before secession. I would like to contribute to a fund to place a suitable tablet to his memory in our State Capitol.

As late as 1868 a Supreme Court Judge in North Carolina reiterated the law allowing a man to beat his wife, with a rod no bigger than his thumb. In his verdict (on a wife beating case) he said a man should make his wife behave herself, otherwise it would "engender insubordination."

A woman in Georgia could not own her own wages - as late as 1897... Before the Civil War, a married woman in Georgia could not own her own clothes. When she went to her new home she might carry a fortune in lands and slaves, but she did not really own a copper cent of their value... A woman cannot practice law in Georgia today, [1919] no matter how well prepared by study and genius. There are scores of women doctors - but our legislators draw a line at the law. [Women could not sit as jurors in Georgia until 1953.]

Before the war her only chance lay in her foresight in accepting or finding for herself a good master. I have known the same privilege extended to favorite slaves - who were forced to sale for legal reasons... What is known as chivalry found no expression on the statute books of Georgia until the Civil War made changes. It exploited itself in courting days, in bowing and scraping in public company, and in personal encounters which were known as duels. An insult called for a challenge, and then pistols. Nevertheless the law of Georgia allowed any sort of a man to beat his wife, provided the switch was no bigger than his thumb. Glance down at your thumb, my dear reader, and then we will proceed a little further.

In the homes where the lash was used the sons either despised the father or concluded it was the proper way to treat women. The daughters, afraid and disgusted, took chances, hoping to do better in selecting kinder masters than their mothers had done...

It was a new era in Georgia history when Northern women came down South [before the Civil War] as teachers or governesses. No Southern woman of means ever proposed to work at anything outside of home. When she left school she began quilt-making, etc., looking towards matrimony and it was nothing uncommon to get married as early as fourteen or fifteen, and an unmarried woman of thirty was rated as an "old maid."...

[Eventually] in Georgia before the [Civil] war, a [Southern-raised] woman might teach school as a genteel profession - if she was educated... [e.g. Mrs. Felton herself] The illiterate woman went to the kitchen and cornfield, like the slave woman of the big plantations. The well-fed negroes made a standing joke on "po-white trash."

- source: Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth (1919)


This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use as long as this statement of availability is included in the text.

Each of the three major presidential candidates of 1856 (the tiny Abolition Party ran a slate, too) was in different domestic circumstances. Buchanan, 65, was a life-long bachelor who had long kept house with another such politician in Washington, DC, an Alabama senator now deceased. Fillmore, 56, was a widower now three years. But Fremont, only 43, had a wife - one over a decade his junior, too. She was the "fourth person" in the race that year, the first woman to play an active role in the campaign of a presidential candidate. Southern-raised daughter of once-powerful legendary Democrat Thomas Hart Benton (who had all but fatally shot Andrew Jackson, only to become his close political ally in later years) she had been steeped in politics from birth. More than one Fremont campaign tune sings of Jessie. But while five-term Missouri Senator Benton came to oppose slavery by mid-century, losing his office, he stayed with his party's ticket and supported James Buchanan against his own son-in-law in the election of 1856.

The political cartoon here shows Senator Benton allegorically supporting the Democratic platform - along with the son of Martin van Buren. The senior van Buren had been President Andrew Jackson's vice president and successor, and also presidential candidate of the anti-slavery Free Soil Party in the election of 1848. The irony is that the platform is shown holding up a gun-toting slave owner and his slave, so the cartoon presciently anticipates shattering of the Democratic Party over slavery - something to happen in 1860, and which had already happened to the Whig Party by 1856. [Aside: the 21st century explanation of the cartoon on the cited Web page makes a terrible mistake in writing "Republican Zachary Taylor": Taylor was a Whig.]

The Republican platform wanted to keep the "twin relics of barbarism" - which it identified as slavery and bigamy - out of the new western territories. Confederacy supporter Rebecca Latimer Felton decries the multiracial bigamy practiced by some of the most prominent slave-holding white men of the South. And then there were the Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons, practicing "plural marriage" in 1856, who had yet earlier settled in Utah when then-president Millard Fillmore made Brigham Young territorial governor.

The Mormons, who learned of their new Zion in no small part due to the labors of "Pathfinder" Fremont, would have reason to regret the success of Buchanan in the election, too: the next year he would declare Utah in rebellion and dispatch the US Army in the Utah War.

But the bigamy issue might have been something of a personal lip-biter for Fremont. His mother, from a prominent Virginia family just fallen into poverty, was married off as a teenager to a man nearly a half-century older. After more than a decade of childless marriage she met and eventually left with Fremont's father, a dashing refugee from the French Revolution. Unable to obtain her divorce, the couple "lived in sin" until her ancient husband died and she could be legally wed again.

Religion played another important role in the campaign. Large numbers of immigrants had started to pour into the country - Catholics from Ireland, due to the potato famine, and liberal Germans of many denominations, due to the failure of the European revolutions of 1848. (Today's German national flag was the tricolor of the revolutionaries.) Stemming their influence was the preoccupation of the American, or Know-Nothing Party, which, for example, wanted to require that public school teachers be Protestants. But Fillmore himself identified with nativism in only three of twenty-seven speeches and used the word Catholic only once. In one campaign speech he said the following:

I am tolerant of all creeds. Yet if any sect suffered itself to be used for political objects I would meet it by political opposition. In my view church and state should be separate, not only in form, but fact. Religion and politics should not be mingled.

For over a century to follow, American Catholics would build parallel institutions, like their parochial school system, at enormous private expense, while being taxed to support what a vast number of them regarded as thinly-veiled de facto Protestant institutions cynically misrepresenting themselves as truly secular. It would also encourage them to geographically self-segregate and concentrate, so that they could eventually effect parochial hegemony over public institutions via a local electoral majority in the way in which Protestants did when Catholics were new to the nation.

Although Fremont was Episcopalian, his mother and father had married in a Catholic ceremony. And when he eloped with teenage Jessie Benton - to the consternation, but eventual acceptance, of her father - Jessie had resorted to a Catholic priest for their clandestine ceremony, too. Of course, by now the Democratic city "political machines" had been courting the Irish vote and Buchanan surely received vastly more Catholic votes than Fremont did anyway. [cf. ...At the Five Points precinct, which is almost exclusively inhabited by low Irish Catholics... the timid Sage of Wheatland [Buchanan] received five hundred and seventy-four votes; whereas the dauntless Finder of Empire [Fremont] received only sixteen. - source]

Even as Fillmore's American Party spread alarm about immigrants, both the other candidates were born of immigrant fathers. As noted above, Fremont's father was French. Buchanan's father came from western Ulster, in northern Ireland. Perhaps some northern Democratic organizers used the fact of Buchanan's Irish origin to garner some Irish votes - astutely neglecting to mention that he was Protestant Scots-Irish, people with whom the masses of Catholic Irishmen reaching these shores had violently struggled for long years.

As to wealth, the candidates represented a range of class origins. Buchanan grew up very comfortably and graduated college. He originally belonged to the Federalist Party, which attracted many more men of that description than did Thomas Jefferson's Republicans. During the campaign, Republicans jeered him as "Ten-Cent Jimmy," harping on Buchanan's impolitic statement in the context of banking legislation that ten cents a day was adequate pay for a workingman. Now long a Democrat, Buchanan would also be taunted in graphical art and song by his opponents for once proclaiming that if he had "one drop of Democratic blood" he would let it out. As we saw, one might say both of Fremont's parents were people of gentle ancestry fallen into very challenging circumstances in which their personal merits, and not heritages, were their salvation. Fillmore came from the meanest circumstances of the three candidates, and his rise out of desperate poverty testified to upward mobility of white men in the United States.

Buchanan and Democratic books



The Life and Public Services of James Buchanan...
(1856) by Rushmore G. Horton

Buchanan and Breckinridge. The Democratic hand-book
(1856) compiled by Mich. W. Cluskey

Inaugural address by President James Buchanan (1857)

State of the Union Addresses by President James Buchanan
December 8, 1857
December 6, 1858
December 19, 1859
December 3, 1860



Fremont and Republican books



Memoir of the Life and Public Services of John Charles Fremont
(1856) by John Bigelow

The life of Col. John Charles Fremont, and his narrative of explorations...
(1856) by Samuel M. Smucker

The Republican scrap book...
(1856) (a compilation)

The Republican Party and Its Presidential Candidates
(1856) by Benjamin Franklin Hall

(fragment on) Sectionalism by (later President) Abraham Lincoln (July 23, 1856)
Speech at Kalamazoo, Michigan by (later President) Abraham Lincoln (August 27, 1856)



Fillmore and Whig/American books



...Pierce's ...only popular measures to have originated with the executive of Millard Fillmore
(1856) by Anna Ella Carroll

The true issue, and the duty of the Whigs
(1856) by Joel Parker

...constitutional manual for the national American party... the question of Negro slavery
(1856) by Thomas R. Hazard

State of the Union Addresses by President Millard Fillmore
December 2, 1850
December 2, 1851
December 6, 1852