Can any past presidential campaign help us understand the election year now beginning? There never was a sitting president like Donald Trump. But if we widen our lens, we find timely echoes in an era when America was rapidly changing, the old political order was coming apart, and it seemed like the country was about to split at the seams.
An early version of modern-day America was already visible in June 1856. At a music hall in Philadelphia, delegates of the recently founded Republican Party gathered for their convention and chose their first-ever presidential nominee. Supporters unfurled an American flag onstage that bore his name: John C. Frémont.
The crowd in that music hall was cheering a historic moment: the commencement of the first presidential campaign by a major party that was meaningfully opposed to the spread of slavery. Southern states held close to four million people in bondage, and the national electoral reality had always required presidential candidates to accommodate the South. Republicans, based in the free states of the North, sought a different path to power under their slogan “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Men and Frémont.”
Their candidate was a bearded explorer of the American West and among the most admired men of his time. Friendly newspapers called him “the Rocky Mountain candidate,” a rugged and heroic agent of progress.
Opponents soon remade his image through a cascade of lies. They accused him of radical beliefs that he did not hold. They also revealed he was the out-of-wedlock son of an immigrant (true) and then claimed that he was an immigrant himself (false), born outside the United States and thus ineligible for the presidency. The birthers of 1856 added an even more devastating false claim that Frémont was an adherent of a dangerous and alien religion, Catholicism.
These attacks played out across a deeply divided nation. Beyond the clash over slavery, a movement against immigration was reshaping politics. Native-born citizens voted out lawmakers sympathetic to foreigners and promoted conspiracy theories that the pope would use Irish Catholics to control the country. They led marches into immigrant neighborhoods, deliberately provoking violence. Some politicians saw anti-immigrant fervor as a perfect distraction, which they could use to unite proslavery and antislavery voters against a common foreign enemy. But slavery was too much for the hatred of outsiders to obscure.
In theory, new technology could have brought the country together. The recent invention of the telegraph miraculously sped communications, making it possible for newspapers across the country to print the same news almost simultaneously. In reality, voters were horrified by what they learned about one another.
In May 1856, Preston Brooks, a proslavery representative from South Carolina, walked into the United States Capitol and used a cane to beat Senator Charles Sumner, a critic of slavery from Massachusetts. The telegraph sped the news both north and south — but it was filtered through partisan editors, who described it differently to their tribes. Northern voters were outraged by the attack, and even more outraged when the telegraph informed them that Southern voters were celebrating it.
“The question of slavery, at the present day, should not only be the greatest question, but very nearly the sole question,” said the Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln in an 1856 campaign speech for Frémont. He was correct — yet from our distant vantage point, we can see that the disagreement in the 1856 election was relatively narrow. Republicans did not actually favor abolition, which was considered an extreme position; they merely wanted to block slavery from spreading into newly opened territories of the West. Their main rivals from the Democratic Party did not technically favor slavery’s expansion; they wanted to avoid prohibition and leave the matter to the voters in new territories.
This policy difference became explosive for a reason that feels very modern: It touched on the country’s demographic change. Northern states had grown far more rapidly than the South in population, which gave them increasing political power. The admission of California as a free state in 1850 gave them even more leverage over the South. In 1856, Republican leaders saw an opportunity to win the presidency with Northern votes alone.
White Southern leaders perceived a plot to shut them out of power and believed they would be permanently outnumbered if they were blocked from creating new slave states in the West. They threatened to secede from the Union if Republicans won. Pamphlets made this threat explicit. “The fearful issue,” one said, was whether the Union would “stand or fall” — and its destruction would be Frémont’s fault if he won, even though white Southerners were making the threat.
Anyone who has witnessed the past decade of American politics cannot be surprised by how destabilizing this demographic change was in the 1850s. Progressives — and Republicans then were the more progressive party — confidently expected that population changes would help them win without having to compromise with conservatives. Conservatives — who then were proslavery Democrats — vowed to wreck the system if they could not reinforce it against the change they dreaded.
Fear prevailed over demographics in 1856. A Democrat won the election: James Buchanan, a Northerner strongly tied to Southern interests. Buchanan then manipulated the courts to entrench his proslavery views. He lobbied the Supreme Court to make its Dred Scott decision in 1857, which proclaimed that black people were not citizens and that the phrase “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence did not mean what it said.
The true meaning of this story is in its aftermath. Republicans persisted through another election, trying again in 1860 to win the presidency with Northern votes alone. This time their demographic gamble succeeded as their nominee, Abraham Lincoln, prevailed against divided opposition. Southerners followed through on their threat to destroy the system, firing the first shot of the Civil War in 1861. Yet their efforts backfired. The war led to a leap in human progress that few political leaders contemplated at the start: Congress abolished slavery by passing a constitutional amendment soon after the war.
What are lessons for 2020? Expect a terrifying year. What drives Americans to extremes is not losing an election but the fear of losing for all time. As Democrats and progressives count on an evermore diverse population to ensure victory, some of President Trump’s supporters foresee permanent defeat. Fox News stokes dread of demographic change with repeated images of migrants climbing fences. The president told supporters as a candidate in 2016 that he was their “last chance” to save the country.
Some of Mr. Trump’s critics fear permanent defeat for their side as he appoints judges who could remake the courts for a generation and dismisses limits on his power by asserting “the right to do whatever I want as president.” He has tweaked his critics’ anxieties, once sharing a social media meme that showed him unconstitutionally returned to office after 2020 — in 2024, 2028, 2032 and far beyond.
When politicians exploit such fears, voters can find an antidote by recalling the aftermath of 1856. Whatever the result in 2020 — and it’s a safe bet that close to half of us will consider it a disaster — another election will follow. We hope.
Steve Inskeep is a co-host of “Morning Edition” on NPR and the author, most recently, of “Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War.”