Each presidential election, people lament that it will be the most treacherous ever, one party sure to disappear forever.
It seems no different this time – the pallor of unpopular candidates, the metaphorical rending of garments over the nation’s fate – but history shows the 2016 election pales to that of others seemingly similar, like 1856.
Then, two of the three parties – the Republicans and the Know-Nothings – were in their first race. As in 2016, Republicans nominated a celebrity, John Fremont, “The Pathfinder,” his five expeditions through the West having blazed the way for settlers.
Fremont’s wife, Jessie Benton, was the daughter of the longest-standing U.S. Senator, Democrat Thomas Benton.
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Then there were the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings, who were mostly against Germans and Irish taking away jobs from “natives.” Their standard-bearer, former president Millard Fillmore, wanted back in the presidency badly.
The Democrats had elected nine of the past 12 presidents but dumped incumbent Franklin Pierce for the “safe” James Buchanan, later to their lasting regret.
Buchanan still has the longest pre-presidential resume, serving in the the U.S. House and Senate and also serving as secretary of state, among other positions. He got the nomination at age 65, the oldest man to run until Ronald Reagan.
The Republicans, whose main plank was halting slavery’s expansion, were not on ballots in the Deep South. The Know-Nothings had no base outside of big cities.
The established Democrats were able to raise far more money. They also had the Jay-Z of the time, Stephen Foster, on their side; he was Buchanan’s sister-in-law’s brother and pumped out campaign songs for him.
The Republicans did musical treachery, putting their campaign songs to Foster melodies, making it seem like even Buchanan’s relatives would not support him. But Fremont, the Republican candidate, couldn’t get the support of his own father-in-law, Democratic Sen. Benton.
Buchanan won, and he quickly formed his loser reputation. Thinking he had a “mandate” between election and inauguration, he got Congress to pass the Tariff of 1857, which let imports undercut American manufacturing. He then convinced two Northern Supreme Court justices to go along with five Southerners for a decision he thought would settle the slave controversy – Dred Scott v. Sandford.
Dred Scott said any slave descendent could never be free and Congress could not change that, even in “free” territory. That stopped a 20-year economic expansion, no one knowing where to settle any more. Major railroads declared bankruptcy, as did large manufacturers dependent on them. Every New York bank effectively closed, refusing to honor scrip. The Panic of 1857 was dire, but Buchanan was unmoved, saying speculators deserved what they got and we would come back with American grit.
That comeback happened, but it took a war to do so. In the 1860 election, Buchanan refused to endorse rival Stephen Douglas, so the Democrats split in three, ensuring Abe Lincoln’s election. When seven states seceded at the end of Buchanan’s term, he said the Constitution did not allow them to secede, but he had no power to make them stay. The Civil War was inevitable.
Buchanan’s ineptness sent the Democratic Party to near-oblivion. In the next 72 years, the party won the White House only twice. No matter how dire the Commentariat make it sound, it is unlikely such a dubious record awaits 2016’s loser.
The author of “Worst. President. Ever.” Robert Strauss will be at Park Road Books on October 29.