A History of United States Presidential Elections – Book 2
Chapter title – 1856 Election
Sample Chapter – 1856 Election
Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854
Led by Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, who proposed the bill which would prove to be one of the most influential pieces of legislation in United States history due to the events that occurred in the aftermath of its passage.
Stephen A. Douglas (April 23, 1813 – June 3, 1861)
The son of Stephen Arnold and Sarah Fisk Douglass, Stephen was native to Brandon, Vermont. In 1846 Douglass would drop the second “s,” from his surname. When he was two months old his father passed away, after which his mother moved in with her brother, Edward Fisk. He studied at the Canandaigua Academy in Canandaigua, N.Y. and apprenticed himself to a New York lawyer. Finding requirements for admission to the New York bar too stringent, he migrated to Illinois to complete his studies and open a law practice in 1833.
Becoming interested in politics, he allied with the Jacksonian Democrats, ran for a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives, and won. In 1838 he made an unsuccessful bid for a seat in the United States House of Representatives. During the 1840 election, Douglas campaigned extensively for Van Buren, helping to add Illinois to Van Buren’s electoral vote total. Even though Van Buren lost to William Henry Harrison, Douglas’ efforts helped him win his bid for the United States House of Representatives in 1842.
Douglas became an opponent of the Wilmont Proviso, which would have banned slavery in the region the United States gained from Mexico during the Mexican-American War. In 1847 he and Martha Martin married. The couple would have two sons. The following year Martha’s father passed away. He bequeathed his 2,500-acre cotton plantation in Mississippi to Douglas. The plantation included 100 slaves. The ownership of a slave operated plantation was not politically convenient in Illinois, so he appointed a manager to run the plantation. He used his share of the profits to finance his political career.
United States Senate
After his reelection to the United States House of Representatives in 1848, the Illinois legislature elevated him to the United States Senate in 1847. During his tenure in the Senate his efforts led to the passage of the Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854. Nicknamed the “Little Giant,” due to his diminutive stature and dominating manner, his desire to create a transcontinental railroad led to the act that would spark a firestorm.
By 1854 all the states east of the Mississippi River had reached their current shapes. West of the Mississippi Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas had gained admission to the Union. Far to the west on the Pacific Coast California had been admitted in 1850. In the vast region in between the New Mexico, Utah, Oregon, Washington and Minnesota Territories had been organized. Directly north of Texas and stretching to the Canadian Border lay a vast region of territory that had not been organized. The railroad had begun its rise as a mode of transportation, replacing canals as the technology improved. The Mississippi River provided a convenient north/south transportation route, however an east/west transportation system did not exist. The growing state of California needed to be linked to the rest of the United States. Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas wanted a transcontinental railroad that would connect his state of Illinois to California and to the developing regions in between. The economic need was there, however competing political interests stood in the way. Northerners like Douglas desired a northern route that would begin at Chicago and snake across the country to the Pacific Ocean. Southern interests wanted a southern route that would cross through Texas as it went west.
Slave or Free
If Congress approved the northern route, it would traverse territories north of the 36°30′ latitude. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had decreed that new states formed from this region would be free states. Southerners knew this, and opposed this route, favoring the southern one, that would pass through the regions that would form slave states. The railroad would create an economic benefit to the region it crossed through, encouraging the development of new states, threatening to upset the delicate balance of power between slave and free. Douglas introduced a bill on January 4, 1854, that would create the Nebraska Territory in an effort to provide civil authority to the region. Since this territory was north of the 36°30′ latitude, southern senators objected.
Debate in the Congress
To settle the issue, Douglas proposed a compromise. He introduced a bill that would create two territories, the Nebraska Territory and the Kansas Territory. The legislation would allow settlers in the two territories to decide for themselves whether they would be slave or free. If passed, this legislation would effectively repeal the Missouri Compromise, as it would eliminate the 36°30′ latitude as the dividing line between slave and free.
Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854
After much acrimonious debate both in Congress and in the public forum, the Senate passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 on March 4, 1854. The House, despite some withering opposition from northern states, passed the measure on May 22, 1854 by a 113 – 100 vote. On May 22, 1854, President Pierce, whom Douglas had persuaded to support the bill, signed it on May 30, 1854.
Douglas had promoted the legislation as a peaceful solution to the growing debate over slavery in the states formed from these new territories. Most presumed that citizens in the northern regions would oppose slavery and the ones in the southern regions would support it. The compromise did just the opposite. Pro slavery and anti slavery factions migrated into the regions in an effort to influence the voting. These factions formed groups that eventually began violent clashes that produced a bloody civil war in the new territories. The resulting violence tore what remained of the Whig Party to shreds and sparked the rise of the anti-slavery Republican Party.
The Republican Party has its roots in political factions opposed to the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. Anti-slavery people began holding small meetings in Ripon, Wisconsin in March 1854. The movement began growing until a mass meeting of people opposed to the act and slavery on July 6, 1854 attracted over 10,000 people to Ripon, Wisconsin. Dubbed the “Under the Oaks Convention,” because the heat of the July summer forced the people to move their meeting to a nearby oak grove, the group vowed that “…we will cooperate and be known as REPUBLICANS…”
Growth of the Party
The movement grew to include African-Americans, northern white Protestants, businessmen, professionals, factory workers, and farmers. Many Whigs, Free Soil party members and disaffected Democrats joined the movement. The party held its first convention in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on February 22, 1856. At this convention the fledgling party elected a governing committee, passed resolutions calling for an end to slavery and vowed to use every Constitutional means at their disposal to end the practice. They held their first presidential nominating convention in the summer of 1856, nominating John C. Frémont as their first candidate.
Native American (Know-Nothing)
The Native American Party arose in the late 1840’s through the mid 1850’s because of the immense influx of Irish and German Catholics into the United States. The movement consisted mainly of Protestant white men, who feared the growing influx of Catholics.
The party formed in 1843 as the Native American Party in New York. Adherents began appearing in other states, using the lodge system to organize. The party attained its nickname, Know Nothings, because if anyone asked them about the party, they were to say that they “know nothing.” By 1854 the movement was at its height, electing large numbers of representatives to the some state legislatures. Many members feared that Catholics were flooding the polls and formed groups to block the polls to stop them. Violence broke out in many areas. On April 19, 1855, the Democrats held their convention in Indianapolis, using their party to attack the Know Nothings. The convention became known as the Anti-Know Nothing Convention. By late 1855, the Know Nothings had begun to fade away as another issue began to take precedence. Slavery would dominate the national debate for the next decade.
Henry Clay, alarmed at what he considered executive excesses performed by President Andrew Jackson, began efforts to form a new party to oppose him in 1833. From his perch in the United States Senate, he began hosting dinners attended by opponents of Jackson to formulate a strategy of opposing him. His threatened use of force to end the Nullification Crises coupled with his decision to remove all the United States’ deposits from the Bank of the United States led the so far loosely allied leaders to label Jackson as a near monarch with unlimited powers. They borrowed the Whig name from an earlier group of American’s that had opposed the policies of King George III. These American Whigs had in turn borrowed the name from the British Whig Party that had formed in opposition position to the absolute British monarchy. The derisively termed Jackson’s supporters as “Tories,” because of their support for “King Andrew.” This loose coalition established itself in the Senate by taking control in December, 1833. Many historians date the beginning of the Whig party to this time. The Whig Party attracted many factions of the Anti-Masonic Party, the now defunct National Republican Party as well as some southern Democrats. The Whigs used the network built up by the Anti Masonic Party and the National Republicans to begin building a framework to field a candidate for the 1836 election. Henry Clay formed an important part of the leadership of this new party.
Divisions over the slavery issue and the rise of the Republican Party and the Know Nothing Party bled many adherents from the Whig Party in the mid 1850’s. Pro-slavery factions of the Whigs began supporting Democrats, while anti-slavery factions favored the Republicans. The 1856 election would be the last election in which the Whigs would field a candidate, Milliard Fillmore.
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