What the 1856 Election can tell us about the President

Anyone who knows me at all or has had one of my classes knows that I am a history nerd; the greatest evidence of this fact is that I have a list of favorite elections.  This list changes constantly, but the top ones have always remained constant: 1800, 1860, 1896, and then I dance around with 1968, 1840, and 1932 amongst others.  Recently I am starting to wonder if the 1856 election needs to make the top five.  This election never draws attention as the men running are far from known men: Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Stephen Douglas, John C. Freemont, and Millard Fillmore.  Two of these men are presidents and yet most today still do not know their names.  Even with these unknown men, I am starting to believe for our upcoming election, still three years away, 1856 may prove a telling election. 

To understand my logic I need to give a quick background.  For a few years now I am frequently asked by students and the public if there has ever been a time in history where we were more divided.  People always want to think their time is the worst.  My quick answer is always yes, very much yes.  I then point out we can see times when our nation was much more divided, so much more in fact that we fought a civil war.  There were other time when we were divided, times when I had not believed we had reached the same level: the election of 1800, the Mexican American War, and the 1960s.  However recently I am starting to change my mind.  We are still not near 1860, but I think we have caught up with 1968.  The protests, violence on the streets, and racial discord of this past year are reaching the same levels they did in 1968.  I am not an ideologue; I see problems from both sides since President Trump’s election.  I do not agree with his statement of good people on both sides when it comes to white supremacists or neo-Nazis, but violence is coming from both sides, just like in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  As I ponder the effect on the story I tell students when asked if we have ever been divided, I realize the only answer I can now give is still not as much as the Civil War.  That’s the only time when things were worse, and that is a low bar.  In the past I could list off the other times of conflict and could say confidently, we made it through and are still strong today.  However if the only example left is the Civil War, yes we made it through, but at a great price.  That is when I thought of the 1856 election and how it will apply to the 2020 election. 

The 1850s were a decade in turmoil, much like our own.  Though slavery had been a major social issue for some time, the Federal government avoided the subject with compromise efforts and even a gag rule on the subject only recently repealed.  1854 saw the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the earlier compromise of 1820 that had successfully kept the peace by predetermining whether new states would be free or slave states.  With the passage of Kansas-Nebraska, these two new territories could go either way based on the popular vote.  With the decision in the hands of the people, thousands flocked to the new territory of Kansas to guarantee it went in their favor.  The outcome of this contest is known as Bleeding Kansas.  Both pro-slavery elements and anti-slavery elements formed state governments and began violent confrontations over the direction of the state. 

As for the politics of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, it was the Democratic President, Franklin Pierce, who signed it into law.  Southerner Democrats praised the northern president for his decision, who felt abolitionists where tearing apart the nation and tended to side with the south on questions of slavery.  However, the northern Democrats saw it differently, especially as northern Democrats took a hit in the 1854 midterm elections as northern voters showed their disappointment in Pierce by electing other parties. 

Over the next two years leading up to the 1856 election, the national situation did not improve for Pierce.  While part of his party continued to praise him, mostly in the south, other sections were losing faith in his abilities.  When it came time for the election, northern Democrats decided they could no longer support Pierce with his connection to the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  The Democratic Party realized the subject was still too toxic and in order to win a general election they need to distance themselves from the event and the man.  Instead, they went with the completely non-controversial candidate James Buchanan.  Fortunately, for Buchanan, he has been ambassador to England during the controversy and so had absolutely no connection.  Unfortunately, in their effort to find a candidate with no bad press, the Democrats found a man who many historians consider our worst president ever. 

On paper, Buchannan has all the qualifications; he had served as both congressional representative and senator as well as ambassador and most importantly as Secretary of State.  However, few have left the office with a worse reputation.   Part of the blame for his failure was the political environment.  With the nation divided as it was, there was little he could do to please the majority of the population, something we know something about in recent years.  However, part of the blame is his.  For instance, he only appointed southern Democrats to his cabinet and excluded all the northerners who were seen as loyal to his democratic rival Stephen Douglas.  It is difficult to compromise with the nation when it is impossible to compromise within his own party.  President Trump is also learning this.  Instead of trying to compromise with the difficult issues of his day, especially slavery, Buchanan only blamed the abolitions for all the nation’s problems and refused to accept any fault of his own, like pushing the Supreme Court to rule against Dred Scott creating the situation where slavery could spread across the nation. 

To circle back to my original thought, if we are at a point in history where we are so divided as a nation that our next comparison is the Civil War, then what scares me is seeing similarities of political events that played out before that conflict happening today.  I am not sure if President Trump will even run again in 2020, if I had to guess right now I would say no.  I am not even sure if he will finish out his term before he resigns.  What I am sure of is that if Mr. Trump runs in 2020 he will be challenged from within his party for the nomination.  It is rare to challenge a sitting present; it did happen in 1968 as well as in 1856, but I believe it will happen again.  In each of the mentioned elections, the president did not receive the party’s nomination.  What I am afraid of is another 1856, that in an effort to replace a very controversial president the Republicans go with another Buchanan.  Someone extremely safe, someone that will put everyone at ease, but someone without the ability to lead.  Buchanan sat and watched the events unfold that led to the Civil War, no leadership offered.  No matter who wins the next election it is not going to be easy.  The left is in such an uproar that they will not accept any conservative candidate; even a moderate will feel their hatred.  If a Democrat wins, I believe there will not be the same marching in the streets and violence, but the retaliation and hatred will be just as strong.  As both parties are looking towards the next election, I only hope they are considering the person to lead this nation.  Hopefully someone new, maybe even someone we do not even really know right now.  Someone who will not shy away from the difficulties, but will meet them head on.  Buchanan did nothing and led us to war, but luckily, the next election brought us Lincoln, Buchanan’s opposite.  If we are on a similar path to conflict than it will not be Trump that will cause it, it will be our next president if they cannot heal these wounds.  Let us just hope we get a Lincoln instead of a Buchannan. 

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha

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