America in the 1850s

The Emergence of John Brown

Who won the presidential election of 1856?

James C. Buchanan won, but the contest was tougher than expected. It was a three-way race, between Buchanan and the Democrats, Frémont and the Republicans, and former President Millard Fillmore and the so-called American Party. Buchanan clearly won the election with 1.8 million popular votes to 1.3 for Frémont and 800,000 for Fillmore, but when one probes more deeply he or she finds a very divided electorate. In the “free” states, for example, Frémont won the most popular votes, and had he been on the ballot in all the “slave” states the result might have been different. In the entire slave-holding South, however, Frémont was on the ballot in only four states—Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Virginia—and he won only a trifling vote in all of them combined.

That Buchanan and the Democrats had won was undeniable; that American politics was now severely fractured was equally impossible to deny. For the first time in the history of the republic, a party had been kept off the ballot in a large section of the nation, and the losers could—with some justification—claim to have been robbed. This was not all, however: a Supreme Court decision with major ramifications was about to be handed down.


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