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John C. Frémont and the Violent Election of 1856

by John Bicknell

Pub Date: June 1st, 2017
ISBN: 978-1-61373-797-2
Publisher: Chicago Review Press

A history of the intricate reworking of American political parties in light of the divisive views about the expansion of slavery into the West.

The presidential election of 1856, the first to feature a Republican candidate, played out amid an eruption of murderous feelings about the Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed by a deeply riven Congress two years before. Former Congressional Quarterly editor Bicknell (America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion, and the Presidential Election that Transformed the Nation, 2014, etc.) offers a tidy narrative full of vivid political personalities of the time—e.g., Illinois Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, who fashioned the controversial bill to appease Southerners; fiery Massachusetts abolitionist Charles Sumner, who ferociously condemned it; and President Franklin Pierce, who allowed himself to be manipulated by Southerners and signed the bill. Indeed, the Kansas-Nebraska Act fatally splintered the Whigs, already weakened by the Compromise of 1850 into pro- and anti-slavery factions; the midterm elections of 1854 would bear this out in pro-soil victories against the Democrats, while Abraham Lincoln, still a Whig in 1855, was beat out for an Illinois Senate seat by an anti-Nebraska man, Lyman Trumbull. So what part does Western explorer and romantic hero John C. Frémont play in all this? Curiously, he is the one ill-defined character in this narrative, portrayed largely by accounts from his contemporaries—e.g., his influential father-in-law, Thomas Hart Benton, who had always defended him from scrapes before but washed his hands of Frémont with his decision to align with the new Republican Party; and Frémont’s extraordinarily accomplished activist wife, Jessie, who organized his campaign, edited his books, and galvanized women to become politically involved. On the whole, Bicknell does a solid job bringing together many complicated threads: Dred Scott, two political nominating conventions, the Mormon wagon trains traversing the country, and the simmering resentment of immigrants that characterized the time.

An instructive take on a period in American political history that became “the first time a cause and campaign of a major political party resonated with women—and with free people of color.”