The Election of 1856 Redo

Published 2:52 pm Tuesday, September 7, 2021

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Instead of writing an entire new article, I want to recycle one I wrote back in January of 2019 but make some minor changes. Back then I was writing about the upcoming election and comparing it to the 1856 election. With the major crisis we are seeing right now, you can decide if my earlier post was prophetic.
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the Federal government avoided the subject with compromise efforts and even a gag rule on the subject only recently repealed. 1854 saw the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the earlier compromise of 1820 that had successfully kept the peace by predetermining whether new states would be free or slave states.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. Southern Democrats praised the northern president for his decision, who felt abolitionists were 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 and 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, felt they needed to distance themselves from the event and the man. Instead, they went with the completely non-controversial candidate James Buchanan. Fortunately, for Buchanan, he had been Ambassador to England during the controversy and so had absolutely no connection to it. 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 had 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 a bit about from 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 one’s own party (President Biden is also learning this). Instead of trying to compromise with the difficult issues of his day, especially slavery, Buchanan simply blamed the abolitionists for all the nation’s problems and refused to accept any fault of his own, such as pushing the Supreme Court to rule against Dred Scott, thus creating the situation where slavery could spread across the nation.
If we are at a point in history where we are so divided as a nation that our only comparison is the Civil War, then what scares me is seeing similarities of political events that played out before the conflict happening today. If Mr. Trump runs in 2020 (at the time I was not convinced he would), we might be heading for another 1856, that in an effort to replace a very controversial president the Republicans (or in this case the Democrats) might go with another Buchanan. Someone extremely safe, someone that would put everyone at ease, but someone without the ability to lead. Buchanan sat and watched the events unfold that led to the Civil War, offering no leadership or doing anything to stop it.
Now as I am writing this in 2021 there is some good news. If my 2019 article was correct and Trump is Pierce and Biden is Buchanan, then our next president is Lincoln. We can only hope for our sake that this time history does repeat itself.
(Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha. He is Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at

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