is the author of "Worst. President. Ever: James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents"
There seems to be a lot of lamentation over the 2016 presidential election, the TV Commentariat and Facebook Punditry declaring it the race around which the American Republic will rise or fall.
I can easily nominate 1856 as a bit more bizarre and transformational a presidential race.
That election has a great Philadelphia connection. It was a three-way race, with a new party, the Republicans, becoming forged from a coalition of Northern Whigs and antislavery Democrats, whose main plank was to thwart the extension of slavery into the new states and territories.
The new party needed a boost, so it had its convention, patriotically, in Philadelphia, at Musical Fund Hall, which still stands, a small condo complex, at Eighth and Locust. It chose a celebrity, John Fremont, to run.
Fremont was "the Pathfinder," who led five expeditions to map out the West from the Rockies to the Pacific. He had married the belle of Washington, 17-year-old Jessie Benton, the favorite daughter of the longest-serving Democratic senator, Thomas Benton of Missouri. Jessie saw the potential of her husband's exploits, and like a 19th-century Kris Kardashian for her Bruce Jenner, she reedited his otherwise-dry journals and spread them around Washington, making them best-sellers.
The Know-Nothing Party is said to have gotten its name because its partisans would say they "know nothing" when asked about secret meetings. It met at National Hall at 12th and Market Streets. Its main plank was against most immigration, particularly the Catholics streaming in from Germany and Ireland. The Know-Nothings nominated the last Whig president, Millard Fillmore, who desperately wanted to get back into the White House.
Nine of the last 12 presidents had been Democrats, so they felt a bit confident nominating their oldest warhorse, James Buchanan, from Lancaster. Buchanan had the longest governmental resumé in presidential-candidate history - member of the state legislature, congressman, U.S. senator, minister to Russia and Britain, and secretary of state.
Buchanan's connection to Philadelphia was the saddest moment of his life. He was engaged to Ann Coleman, the daughter of the richest man in the state. Gossip, though, had placed him admiring a beautiful young woman at his friend's house, and Ann broke off the engagement. In her grief over the breakup, she and her younger sister went to Philadelphia to visit their older sister, who lived at Fifth and Walnut. Ann complained of a cold, so she stayed home one night while the other sisters went to the theater. When they arrived back home, Ann was in hysterics. By morning, she was dead at age 23 - the rumor being that she had committed suicide over the breakup.
In 1856, because the Democrats were better funded and more established, Buchanan won in a walk-off. There were lots of brickbats back and forth, primarily about slavery, race, and immigration, fortified by many campaign songs. The brother of Buchanan's sister-in-law was the Jay Z of his age, Stephen Foster, the most well-known songwriter in America. Foster wrote songs for Buchanan, many to his popular tunes like "Camptown Races."
President Buchanan saw his "mandate" as settling the slavery question. Two days before his inauguration, Congress passed his Tariff of 1857, stifling Northern manufacturing by making foreign goods cheaper. Three days later, the Supreme Court case he influenced, Dred Scott v. Sandford, was decided. Roundly thought of as the worst Supreme Court decision ever, it nullified previous compromises and fortified the Fugitive Slave Law, essentially keeping everyone in bondage no matter where in the country they lived.
Those two actions ended up thwarting the 20-year run of growth in the country because people didn't know where to locate vis-á-vis slavery. Railroads, which had been the main movers in the boom, ground to a virtual halt, and many went into bankruptcy, as did a number of industries dependent on them. The Panic of 1857 was quick and deep, with every bank in New York effectively closing.
Buchanan took a hands-off attitude, saying those who speculated deserved their economic fate. He believed the country would revive when people went back to real work, like the plantation owners in the South. He then continued to look for more slave territory - supporting mercenaries in Central America and seeking to purchase Cuba from Spain. He delayed thwarting the slavery fights surrounding Kansas statehood and chasing the crazed slave-revolt "general" John Brown.
Buchanan had said he would be a one-term president, but in his wake, he refused to support his longtime rival Stephen Douglas, which allowed the Democratic Party to split into three, handing Abe Lincoln the presidency. Seven states seceded during the time between Lincoln's election and inauguration, thus on Buchanan's watch. He said his interpretation of the Constitution was that states could not secede, but the president also could not stop them from doing so, an odd construct at best.
That long Democratic streak also died with Buchanan - there were only two Democratic presidents in the next 72 years. Pennsylvania's only president was, sadly, the Worst. President. Ever.