Imagine for a moment a US presidential election between two candidates, neither of whom is particularly beloved to the populace. One candidate is an undistinguished former Senator and lackluster Secretary of State who had few if any accomplishments in office but is breaking a social barrier by running for the presidency, and the other is a wealthy businessman with dictatorial tendencies and a populist streak and inspires devotion in his followers and fear and loathing in his adversaries. Even members of his own extended family support his opponent. Imagine also that exactly four years after one of these individuals is elected – after four years in office of abject failure, with simmering problems and no solutions – that utter catastrophe befalls the nation.
We need not let our imagination run that wild because such was the fateful election of 1856 that pitted James Buchanan against John C. Fremont. Buchanan, a Democrat, had served without distinction in the House and Senate, and as Secretary of State under President Polk. His sole qualification for the presidency, aside from the boxes checked off on his resume, was that immediately before the election season he was serving as American ambassador in Great Britain and so was removed from the disputes then raging over slavery. He remains the only lifelong bachelor ever to serve as president, shattering once and for all that important impediment to high office.
His opponent was the colorful Republican John C. Fremont, whose long locks flowed over his ears and whose beard gave him a dashing appearance. Fremont was a wealthy businessman who gained his fortune in an unorthodox way. He was by profession an explorer, one of many Americans to go west in the 1840’s blazing new trails and expanding America’s horizons. He ventured as far as California, and when the Mexican-American War erupted in 1846, Fremont was awarded a commission as a Lt.-Colonel, won several battles in California (including in the area of Santa Barbara) and almost immediately declared himself the military governor of California.
That did not sit well with his superiors. Fremont was eventually court-martialed and convicted but had his sentence commuted by President Polk. Back in California, Fremont found his fortune when his Mexican workers discovered enormous quantities of gold on land Fremont claimed as his own. He parlayed that gold into the purchase and development of extensive real estate holdings, especially around San Francisco, and into a career in politics, briefly as Senator from California and then the run for President as the first candidate ever of the newly-minted Republican Party.
There was a third-party candidate as well in this election. Former president Millard Fillmore ran on the ticket of the self-proclaimed “American Party,” nicknamed the “Know-Nothings.” They were a party with a single cause – opposition to immigration; at that time, the disfavored immigrants were Catholics from Europe. There is no truth to the rumor that Fillmore promised to build a wall along the Eastern seaboard to prevent Catholic immigration and have the Vatican pay for it. In any event, American society today is much more efficient, so Fillmore’s party has been subsumed by one of our two parties.
All things considered, Fremont was the superior candidate and despite his intriguing resume would have made a better president, but who knows? Buchanan the Democrat was pro-slavery in an understated way, and as a northerner (the only president ever to be born in Pennsylvania), it was assumed he would attract some Northern votes along with those of the Southern pro-slavery crowd. Fremont the Republican was anti-slavery, as were most Republicans of that era, and that moral stance forced his own father-in-law, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, to oppose Fremont and support Buchanan.
Democrats accused Fremont of being unfit for the presidency and claimed that he would surely provoke a civil war. In the end , of course, it was Buchanan who won and whose failures as president made the Civil War, the bloodiest in American history, inevitable. The election was closer than it seemed. Buchanan won 45% of the vote to Fremont’s 33%, but the anti-immigrant Fillmore earned a startling 22% of the vote as the third-party candidate. Absent Fillmore’s involvement and siphoning of votes from the other two candidates, Fremont might have won and American history might not have taken the dark turn it did. Fremont carried most of the north, but even lost his own state of California; Buchanan swept the slave south and his home state of Pennsylvania (then, the second largest state after New York). Fillmore won Maryland and that’s all, and soon faded into obscurity.
Buchanan as President, despite his gaudy resume, allowed the fight over slavery to escalate. He supported the Dred Scott decision wherein the Supreme Court ruled that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in the territories and basically allowed this moral and civil problem to fester. It festered into the outbreak of the Civil War a month after Buchanan left office and Abraham Lincoln was sworn in. Such is the price for failed leadership in a time of crisis and for stale ideas when new thinking is required.
Fremont fought in the Civil War for the Union, later moved to New York, died in 1890, and is buried in Sparkill, New York in Rockland County, just a few miles south of the Tappan Zee Bridge.
Is past prologue? There has never been an election in American history as the one we are enduring this year, in which both major candidates are despised and distrusted by large majorities of the populace – the crank versus the crook. It is fair to say that this is the first election in which few, if any, supporters can make a plausible argument for the candidacy of their favorite, and must suffice with the contention that the other candidate is simply awful and whose election will be catastrophic. And perhaps everyone is correct.
It recalls the old joke of the preacher who was asked to eulogize the most hated man in town. He starts to speak, falls silent, and realizes that he has nothing to say. He pauses, and then asks the assembled: “Is there anyone present who can say anything nice about the deceased?” The audience is silent, for a minute, and the preacher asks again: “Can anyone say anything nice about the deceased?”
Silence, again, until a man in the audience stands up and says: “His brother was worse.”
Unfortunately, there are consequential issues facing an America in decline that will not be seriously addressed because of the quality of these candidates – one whose policy positions are unformed, to say the least, and therefore fluid, and the other because it’s hard to believe a word she says. These issues will define the America of the future far more than most people realize. A few examples:
Is there such a concept as an “illegal immigrant” or are foreigners who enter this country without authorization merely people lacking documentation? Should the United States have open borders like Europe has today? Does America still aspire to be a world leader or should it be content to follow the lead of international organizations? The United States’ engagement in the past century in world affairs allowed the good guys to prevail in both World Wars and the Cold War. Does the US have a dominant role to play in the conduct of the current world war?
Should the government control the economy or should government allow the marketplace to pick winners and losers, products and services, prices and wages? How much government involvement is necessary and how much is stifling? Must government guarantee to every person equality of outcome or just equality of opportunity? Should government enforce an equitable distribution of income and assets among the citizenry, even if it means confiscatory action against those perceived as too wealthy?
Which takes precedence in the hierarchy of values in America – religious liberty or political correctness? Should individual freedoms and personal liberty be curtailed if a minority or even a majority finds them offensive?
Neither candidate has addressed these questions beyond the issuance of platitudes. Neither seems capable of or interested in addressing them with any degree of cogency or sophistication. We all still have to vote but the only clear outcome is that this polarized country will be even more polarized regardless of who wins. That does not bode well.
Welcome to the election of 2016, whose analogies to an election 160 years ago should not be ignored. Somewhere, Buchanan, Fremont and Fillmore are smiling. Or, maybe, given the outcome of their election process and the horrendous war that broke out several years later, they too are crying.