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In the campaign of 1856, it was seen that the new, long-dreaded sectional party, although confined to the free states, might still elect a president should it carry all of them. That could be done only by destroying the hold upon northern voters of both Know-Nothings and Democrats, and nothing was so likely to accomplish this result as the continuance of the sectional anger stirred up by the Kansas troubles.

Hence, the Democrats and Know-Nothings were eager to settle the Kansas difficulty and remove this source of Republican votes; but the control by the Republicans of the House of Representatives and their insistence on the admission of Kansas under the Topeka constitution prevented any compromise. The new party would accept no settlement of Kansas except on its own terms and did not intend in the meantime to destroy its chief political asset by concessions. Under such circumstances, the question of party nominations and platforms became one of the utmost importance.

The Democrats led the way on June 2 at Cincinnati. Their problem, although requiring caution, was comparatively simple, for the elections of the preceding year had assured them that the American movement would not disturb the normal Democratic majorities at the south, and the party must simply nominate a candidate who would recall the wanderers in the north. Hence, the convention discarded both Pierce and Douglas, who were far too intimately connected with Kansas affairs, and chose Buchanan on the seventeenth ballot, with Breckinridge, of Kentucky, for vice president. Buchanan was a conservative man, an original Jackson Democrat, a resident of the doubtful state of Pennsylvania, and had been minister to England during most of the Kansas controversy. The platform contained the substance of earlier ones and added a recognition of "the principles contained in the organic laws establishing the territories of Kansas and Nebraska as embodying the only sound and safe solution of the slavery question," asserting the right of the people of the territories, "acting through the legally and fairly expressed will of the majority of the actual residents and whenever the number of their inhabitants justifies to form a constitution, with or without slavery."

On the same day, in New York, met the national convention called by the anti-slavery Know-Nothings. This body drew up a platform almost wholly Republican in character, demanding "Free territory and Free Kansas," and after much debate and ten ballots nominated Banks, the speaker, for president, evidently hoping that the Republicans would ratify this choice. The Republican convention met a few days later, on June 17. For this new body, the problem was to find a candidate who should be sufficiently strong on the Kansas issue and who should not antagonize any of the elements of a new coalition. To the politicians who led the nascent party, it was clear that none of the congressional leaders would do — Chase was obnoxious to Whigs, Wade, and Seward to Democrats and Know-Nothings, and Banks had too recently been a Democrat. So, with a shrewdness born of long practical experience, a "boom" was worked up for John C. Fremont, a young man almost unknown in politics, with a reputation as an explorer in the far west, the son-in-law of Benton through a romantic marriage. He had been a Democrat, but was anti-slavery in sentiment, had no connection with the Know-Nothings, and was supposed to have a strong hold upon the German vote. The general feeling was well expressed by Mace, of Indiana when he wrote to a friend: "It will never do to go into this contest and be called upon to defend the acts and speeches of old stagers. We must have a position that will enable us to be the charging party. Fremont is the man." By April his candidacy was well underway; he had written a suitable letter on Kansas, and when the convention met he was easily nominated by 359 votes to 196 over old Judge McLean, the candidate of the Pennsylvania delegation and other conservatives. Neither Chase's nor Seward's name went before the convention. For vice-president, W. L. Dayton, of New Jersey, a former Whig, was nominated over Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois, the western candidate.

The platform made the Kansas issue the basis of the Republican party. It asserted that Congress had no right to establish slavery, but that it could and ought to abolish it in the territories, together with polygamy, "those twin relics of barbarism." It demanded the admission of Kansas under the Topeka constitution, denounced the Missourian invasions and the pro-slavery territorial government, and concluded, "For this high crime against the Constitution, the Union, and humanity, we arraign the administration, the president, his advisers, agents, supporters, apologists, and accessories before the country and the world." The new party in its first campaign took the field with a "dark horse" for a candidate, conscious that it must rely upon its principles rather than upon its leadership.

By the time that the party nominees were fairly before the people, the long-dreaded civil war had broken out in Kansas in the form of guerilla fighting and reprisals. The later Free State settlers included many men who differed from the "Border Ruffians" only in their objects, and within a month from the time of the sack of Lawrence they had set the territory aflame with alarms and shooting affrays. At the start, "Old John Brown," an anti-slavery fanatic, avenged the death of various Free State settlers by dragging five pro-slavery men at night from their cabins along Ossawatomie creek and butchering them in cold blood. He did this by the simple law of retaliation current among North American Indians, without any special animosity against those particular men, and seems to have felt that it was "God's work." The other Free State men disavowed this brutal act, but the fighting went on. Shannon issued proclamations, and used Colonel Sumner, with federal troops, to turn back "Border Ruffians" and head off Free State bushwhackers, finally dispersing the Topeka legislature on July 2; but he was wholly unable to keep the peace. Bands of men from each side wandered over the territory, plundering and shooting; arson and assassination went on until "the smoke of burning buildings darkened the air," agriculture was neglected, two hundred lives were lost, and two million dollars worth of property destroyed. Since the Free State party brought more capital with them, they suffered the most, and since they were less used to arms and fighting, their military operations were less successful.

Not until Shannon was replaced by J. W. Geary, of Pennsylvania, a stronger man, was this reign of brutality and terror brought to a close. Geary's vigorous action managed to prevent an attack by twenty-five hundred Missourians with cannon upon Lawrence, and by November he had succeeded in inducing most of the armed bands to dissolve. While this was going on, the Missouri River had been closed to northern immigrants by Missourian pro-slavery sympathizers, who disarmed them and turned them back; but a new route was opened through Iowa and Nebraska, and so supplies kept coming in. Clearly, the superior resources of the north were bound to tell in the long run.

Meanwhile, the administration leaders made a last futile effort to deal with the situation, for they saw that every day of anarchy in Kansas raised new recruits for the Republicans. At the end of June, Douglas accepted a bill introduced by Toombs, as an amendment to his original Kansas enabling act, and in a hard-fought all-night session, it was forced through the Senate on July 2 by a majority of 33 to 12. "When you say that we intend to make Kansas a slave state," said Toombs, "you say what every man of us has stated is not true. . . . We said we would leave the people free to act for themselves, and if they made it a slave state I should demand its admission as such, and if they made it free I should stand by them. . . . We require, however, that there shall be a fair vote. . . . The Black Republicans have told us, time and again at this session, that a majority of the people of Kansas are in favor of a free state constitution. I propose a means of ascertaining it."

The Toombs bill was extremely fair in its provisions for securing an authentic registration of voters and a free ballot upon the choice of a constitutional convention; but the Republicans, although invited to suggest such amendments as would render the bill acceptable, would not support it on any terms. "So far as the subject of slavery is concerned," said Seward, "the most that can be claimed for this bill is that it gives an equal chance to the people of Kansas to choose between freedom and slavery. . . . The standard of political justice which commends itself to me is a more rigid one. I recognize no equality in moral right or political expediency between slavery and freedom. I hold one to be decidedly good and the other to be positively bad. I do not think it wise, just or necessary to give to the people of a territory . . . the privilege of choosing slavery. ... On this principle, I have acted throughout in regard to Kansas. . . . On this principle, God give me grace, I shall act in regard to all the territories of the United States so long as I shall remain here — so long as I shall live." When the bill came to the House it was not even considered. There can be little doubt that the Republican leaders were strengthened in their unwillingness to consent to any Kansas compromise by their clear comprehension of the importance to their party's campaign of the Kansas situation.

At this time the special committee of the House returned from Kansas and made a report on the conduct of territorial elections, which proved a sensational campaign document for the Republicans. "Every election," it summed up, it has been controlled not by the actual settlers but by citizens of Missouri and . . . your committee have been unable to find that any political power whatever, however unimportant, has ever been exercised by the people of the territory. "It held that neither Whitfield nor Reeder had any legal claim to the delegate's seat," and concluded that "in the present condition of the territory a fair election cannot be held without . . . the selection of impartial judges and the presence of United States troops at every place of election." Oliver's minority report gave the full history of the Ossawatomie massacre, but it made surprisingly little impression in the country, and few believed his assertion that there was "no evidence that any violence was resorted to or force employed by which men were prevented from voting at any single election precinct."

On the same day the House, by a margin of two votes only, passed a bill to admit Kansas under the Topeka constitution, which was promptly killed in the Senate. Later, just before the end of the session, the House tried to force the hand of the president by attaching a "rider" to the army appropriation bill, prohibiting the use of federal troops to enforce the laws of the territorial legislature; but although this caused the failure of the bill in the regular session, enough votes shifted in a special session, which was immediately called, to give a majority of three for a bill without the proviso. Congress then adjourned, on August 30, leaving Kansas still in anarchy, as the Republicans intended it should be.

The campaign was now in full blast, and the one issue, in the words of Republican stump orators, was "Bleeding Kansas." The question of native-Americanism vanished, and Fillmore's candidacy, although ratified by a Whig national convention in September, had nothing left for its support except traditional conservative sentiment. In every eastern state the Republican party, spurred on by the bloody news from Kansas, organized on the wreck of the American party through a series of bolts and secessions and drew to itself the bulk of the former Know-Nothing vote. The anti-slavery Americans, whose candidate, Banks, withdrew, ratified Fremont's nomination, and in every free state enthusiastic stump speakers denounced the administration and predicted a Republican sweep.

As the summer wore on and the Republican prospects grew ever brighter, a new and ominous movement began in the south, whose press and leaders now announced that in the event of a Republican success the only thing for the slave-holding states to do would be instantly to secede. In a few weeks, this new spirit overran the south and interjected an altogether new note into the contest. It began to look as though not merely the future of Kansas but the integrity of the Union itself was at stake. "If Fremont is elected," wrote Governor Wise, of Virginia, "there will be a revolution. . . . We will not remain in confederacy with enemies." Wise meant no empty threats: he bestirred himself to get the Virginia militia in readiness for active service and summoned a conference of governors of the slave states to meet at Raleigh on October 13. In support of his movement, Senator Mason, of Virginia, wrote to Davis, the secretary of war, asking that arms be supplied for the state troops, repeating that if Fremont were elected "the south should not pause but proceed at once to immediate, absolute and eternal separation."

Under this sinister cloud, the last part of the presidential campaign took a new form. Although most of the Republican leaders and newspapers laughed at "the stale disunion threat," conservatives in the north were visibly affected; and the advocates for Buchanan and Fillmore concentrated their efforts against the Republicans as a sectional party whose success meant the end of the Union. The plea which had proved successful in 1850 became the chief ground upon which the two conservative parties appealed for votes. "We see a political party," said Fillmore, "presenting candidates from the Free States alone. . . . Can they have the madness or folly to believe that our Southern brethren would submit to be governed by such a chief magistrate? I tell you that we are treading on the brink of a volcano. ... If it breaks asunder the bonds of our Union, and spreads anarchy and civil war through the land, what is it less than moral treason?" Buchanan wrote in similar strain: "Should Fremont be elected, the outlawry pronounced by the Republican Convention at Philadelphia against fifteen Southern states will be ratified by the people of the North. The consequences will be immediate and inevitable."

To conciliate northern sentiment on the Kansas question, Buchanan declared continually, and in unqualified terms, that if elected he would secure a fair and free vote in the territory. "There is not a county in Pennsylvania," said J.W. Forney, the campaign manager, "in which my letters may not be found, almost by the hundred, pledging Mr. Buchanan, in his name and by his authority, to the full, complete and practical recognition of the right of the people of Kansas to decide upon their own affairs." Whatever might be the constitutional shortcomings of the nonintervention doctrine, and however much it fell short of anti-slavery principle, it had undeniable elements of popularity; besides the apparent merits of fairness and democracy, it appealed to the liking for local self-government which was ingrained in the north. In Pennsylvania, the critical state, this carried especial weight, for their anti-slavery sentiment was not strong; and when, in the state election in September, the Democratic candidate for canal commissioner was chosen over a combined Republican and Know-Nothing opposition, it was felt that the state was safe.

The campaign went on with undiminished vigor up to the end, but when the votes were counted in November it was found that conservatism had triumphed; Buchanan was elected by 174 electoral votes, carrying every slave state except Maryland, which fell to Fillmore, and securing not merely Pennsylvania, but four other northern states — New Jersey, Indiana, Illinois, and California. Fremont, whose personality added nothing to the strength of the Republican ticket, received 114 votes from the remaining northern states; while the Know-Nothing party, which a year before claimed to hold the country in its grasp, shrank to small dimensions in the north and held only the old, immovable, and conservative Whig substratum in the south. The Kansas question had killed it. In the total popular vote, greatly increased since 1852, the Democrats led; but their total vote was about four hundred thousand behind the combined opposition.

After this election, the country, exhausted by months of excitement, relapsed into quiet. Kansas, under Geary's rule, ceased to bleed, and all were willing to rest and wait for further developments. The Democrats, triumphant with the president and each House of Congress, felt that if Kansas could only be promptly dealt with their party might enter on a new and long tenure of power. The Republicans, disappointed at their defeat but inclined to feel that their young party had made as good a showing as could be hoped for in its first election, were ready to wait and see how Buchanan carried out his pledges. The south slowly settling to a normal condition, gave over secession plans for the time, and the last session of the thirty-fourth Congress, whose members at first wrangled to the point of violence, devoted itself to business, scarcely pausing to consider Kansas affairs. Politics were on the ebb after the flood tide of the summer, and Pierce's stormy term closed with all parties under a sort of armistice.