Dickinson College and the Election of 1856

In the fall of 1856, Horatio Collins King was a junior at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  As such, for King and the rest of the Dickinson community, it was an exciting time, for one of their own was running for president.  James Buchanan, a native Pennsylvanian and Dickinsonian of the class of 1809, was running on the Democratic ticket against the Know-Nothing incumbent Millard Fillmore, and John Charles Frémont, the representative of the fledgling Republican party.  Because of the polarizing views of the opponents on the grave issue of slavery, the presidential election of 1856 held great potential to decide which direction the nation was headed.

“Free soilers, Fremonters, Free niggers and Free booters,” a well-known derision of Republican John C. Frémont’s slogan of “Free Soil, Free Men, Frémont for Victory”may have been one of the slogans that King or his buddies in the Democratic Club in Carlisle may have shouted as they strolled down High Street.   These young men were ecstatic over their practice victory in an impromptu poll that had taken place on the evening of Saturday, September 20th, 1856, as King describes in his journal:

“Held an election, viva voce, at 5 P.M….  The Poles remained open about 2 ½ hours. There was tremendous excitement: each party running for their men. At 7. Pm. the Poles closed, and shortly after, it was announced. 60 for Buchanan, 60 for Fillmore, and 13 for Fremont. Several Fremont men voted for Fillmore, in order to defeat Buchananists.”

As November crept ever closer, Horatio Collins King and his friends looked forward to the official national election that would take place on November 4th.  Far more so than the musings of disenfranchised school boys playing politics, this election would help decide the fate of the nation.  Indeed, that disenfranchisement must have bit harder than the nippy air on that November morning, when King yearned to participate in an election that was so dear to him, especially as a Dickinsonian:

“Arose at 6. College exercises are suspended in consideration of the importance of the day. On this day, we Democrats hope to make Buchanan Presd’t of the U.S, and I think we will succeed in doing so. Went down to Polls, and loafed around for awhile. Borous— because I have no vote.”

Although King and his fellow classmates could not participate in this election, the country’s election results followed suit to Dickinson College’s mock vote and James Buchanan won the bid for the Presidency, which resulted in delaying the American Civil War for at least four more years.  The election of 1856 was a crucial one in American history, and if Frémont had won, and put the Republicans in power, the American Civil War may have started earlier, with possibly much different results in store for the nation.  However, the following presidential election in which King did participate would have a profound and lasting impact upon himself, as well as the entire nation.

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