1856 Democratic National Convention

Date: From 1856-06-02 to 1856-06-06

Place: Cincinnati, Ohio

The 1856 Democratic National Convention was a presidential nominating convention held from June 2 to June 6, 1856, in Cincinnati. Delegates gathered in Cincinnati as the Democratic Party was still reeling from outrage over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which had led to setbacks for the party in the 1854 Federal Elections. Compounding the party’s problems was rising violence in the Kansas Territory. The convention convened against the backdrop of three sensational events in May 1856--the sacking of Lawrence by pro-slavery “border ruffians,” the caning of Charles Sumner in the U.S. Senate, and John Brown’s retaliatory raid against a pro-slavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek. These events drew attention to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Democrats’ inept handing of the Kansas Crisis. The convention opened with no clear front-runner. Four nominees eventually emerged: James Buchanan, Lewis Cass, Stephen A. Douglas, and President Franklin Pierce. Pierce and Douglas were tainted by the Kansas imbroglio, and Cass received little support. Buchanan quickly emerged as the party’s choice. He could boast a long and distinguished political career. Perhaps more important, Buchanan had been out of the country serving as minister to Great Britain when the Kansas issue became explosive, leaving him relatively untainted by sectional controversy. In early balloting, the Pierce and Douglas delegates worked to prevent Buchanan’s nomination, but Buchanan’s convention managers effectively lobbied on Buchanan’s behalf, and he received the nomination on the eighteenth ballot. Delegates balanced the ticket by nominating John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky for vice-president. The platform endorsed a federal government of limited power, strict economy in the conduct of public affairs, and no constitutional provision for a national bank or a national system of internal improvements. On the slavery issue, the platform included planks denying Congress any constitutional right to interfere with slavery and other domestic institutions in the states, pledging support of the Compromise of 1850, calling for the vigorous enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, and supporting the Kansas-Nebraska Act and popular sovereignty.

David M. Potter and Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 259-60; Philip C. Auchampaugh, “Campaign of 1856,” Dictionary of American History , rev. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976), 1:421; Jean H. Baker, James Buchanan (New York: Times Books, 2004), 69-70; Larry Gara, The Presidency of Franklin Pierce (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991), 161, 165-67; History of the State of Kansas (Chicago: A. T. Andreas, 1883), 131; Official Proceedings of the National Democratic Convention, Held in Cincinnati. June 2-6, 1856 (Cincinnati: Enquirer, 1856), 24-26.