Political Realignment in the 1850s

The presidential election of 1852 marked the beginning of the end of the Whig party. With its northern and southern wings divided over the Fugitive Slave Law, the best the party could do was nominate another hero of the Mexican War, General Winfield Scott. The Democrats turned away from Millard Fillmore, Taylor's vice president, who had succeeded to the presidency upon Taylor's death in 1850, and chose Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire as their candidate. Although both parties supported the Compromise of 1850, the Democrats were able to better overcome their internal differences, and Pierce won a landslide victory in the Electoral College, 254 to 42. The Whigs never recovered from the defeat.

The election of 1852 was an important watershed. As the Whig party fell apart, Americans formed new political alignments. Southern Whigs moved into the Democratic party, while northern Whigs joined the new Republican party, formed in 1855. In addition, another party—the American party (also known as the Know‐Nothings)—attracted anti‐immigration nativists, opponents of the extension of slavery, and voters disillusioned with the performance of both the Whigs and Democrats. The year 1852 also marked the last election for eighty years in which candidates from both parties collected popular and electoral votes from throughout the country; party affiliation and voter support remained largely sectional until the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.

The Kansas‐Nebraska Act. The Compromise of 1850 did not address the issue of slavery in the large unorganized territory in the Great Plains, but with California clamoring for the construction of a transcontinental railroad link to the East, the issue had to be addressed. Senator Douglas, who favored a northern rail route to California that would benefit Chicago, was the author of the Kansas‐Nebraska Act. It created two territories—Kansas and Nebraska—and declared the Missouri Compromise null and void; the matter of slavery in the new territories would be decided by popular sovereignty. Personally, Douglas assumed that Nebraska would become a free state and that Kansas would allow slavery.

The Kansas‐Nebraska Act created far more problems than it purported to solve. Antislavery northerners, who held the Missouri Compromise sacrosanct, thought the legislation sold Kansas into slavery, and they condemned Douglas for being a dupe of southern interests. Their suspicions gained credibility with the ratification of the Gadsden Purchase at the end of 1853. President Pierce had sent James Gadsden, a railroad expert who happened to be a southerner, to Mexico to negotiate the purchase of the Mesilla Valley, the area south of the Gila River in present‐day Arizona. An army survey had indicated this region to be a feasible route for a southerly transcontinental railroad, which had considerable support in the South. The treaty originally included Baja California, but opposition from free‐soilers limited the purchase to the land that makes up the southern borders of Arizona and New Mexico today. The purchase completed the continental expansion of the United States.

Bleeding Kansas.” Senator Douglas did not anticipate the violence that would accompany the creation of the Kansas Territory, as both proslavery and antislavery settlers rushed in to gain control of the government. Competing territorial legislatures were established in 1855, and the free‐state force drafted a constitution prohibiting not only slavery but also the settling of free blacks in Kansas. On May 21, 1856, a proslavery mob attacked the free‐state stronghold at Lawrence, burning buildings and destroying property. John Brown, a militant abolitionist, and a small band of supporters retaliated by killing five men at Pottawatomie Creek a few days later. Violence erupted in the U.S. Senate over Kansas as well. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts condemned southerners for their actions in Kansas in extremely strong language. Preston Brooks, a congressman from South Carolina, decided to punish Sumner for his insults and beat him with his cane in a confrontation in the Senate chamber. Onlookers from the South did nothing to help Sumner.

The election of 1856. The new Republican party chose Californian John C. Fremont, explorer and military leader, as its presidential candidate in 1856. The party's platform, which condemned the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and called for free soil, was more important than the nominee; the Republicans were the first major political party to fake a position on slavery. James Buchanan, an experienced politician and diplomat who had served in both the House and Senate and had been secretary of state in the Polk administration, was the Democratic candidate. He ran on a platform that endorsed the Kansas‐Nebraska Act and congressional noninterference in slavery. The American party turned to former president Millard Fillmore.

The Republicans recognized that they had no chance of winning in the slave states, so there were in effect two sectional campaigns: Frémont against Buchanan in the North and Buchanan against Fillmore in the South. The American party's anti‐Catholic and anti‐immigrant stand cost it dearly. The Democrats swept the South with the exception of the border states of Maryland and Delaware and also showed strength in key northern states, where their attacks against nativism and calls for religious freedom gained the party support from ethnic voters. Fremont won eleven of the sixteen free states and came close to winning the election without any backing at all in the South, which was significant because it showed that a party with an antislavery platform and an exclusively northern base could win the presidency.

Back to Top