It’s 1856 All Over AgainRoundup
tags: Civil War, political history, 2020 Election, 1856
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.”
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.
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