GOP Convention of 1856 in Philadelphia
Musical Fund Hall
Ominous talk of pending civil war was rampant, and there was a real feeling of national crisis when Republicans gathered to choose their first presidential candidate at Philadelphia's Musical Fund Hall in mid June.
Violent civil conflict in "bleeding Kansas" was polarizing the nation. In fact, it was the appeasement of slave interests through the Kansas-Nebraska and Fugitive Slave acts that gave birth to the party.
The new Republican Party was born in 1854 at a meeting in Ripon, Wisconsin. Abolitionists and those opposed to extension of slavery gathered to protest the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened territory to slavery that had been forbidden by the old Missouri Compromise of 1820.
The new party was an umbrella that took in members of the rapidly disintegrating Whig Party, abolitionists, Free-Soilers and anti-slavery Democrats.
It was certainly a regional party — a party of the North and the West. The Evening Bulletin declared it was "somewhat astonished" by the appearance at the convention of delegates from Kentucky, Delaware, Virginia and North Carolina. "We had supposed in accordance with the popular impression that there would be no delegations from any southern or slave states."
The three-day convention kicked off on June 17. The Bulletin noted: "Our town is again alive with the bustle and excitement of a grand convention. The hotels are crowded to the highest flight with politicians of many shades."
James Buchanan: The Last Doughface
The Democrats had met earlier in Cincinnati, and after 17 ballots selected Pennsylvanian James Buchanan as its standard-bearer. Buchanan, declared a Richmond, Va., newspaper, "had never uttered a word which could pain the most sensitive Southern heart." The party platform supported "popular sovereignty" for settling the question of slavery in new territories. And the party vowed to resist "in renewing in Congress or out of it, the agitation of the slavery question."
Prior to the Republican convention, city Democrats held a massive rally in front of Independence Hall on June 10. Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas declared the nation was facing the most important election since 1800.
This was a theme heard constantly. The nation was in crisis; the election would determine the outcome. The Evening Bulletin declared: "It has been correctly remarked that probably a more important convention than the one in question has not been assembled in our city, perhaps not the country, since the days of 1776. The relations of the opposing political parties have aroused a gravity and importance hitherto unknown."
The convention's presiding officer Col. Henry Lane of Indiana declared, "We have assembled at the most important crisis in our post-revolutionary history."
Designed by renowned architect William Strictland, Musical Fund Hall on Locust Street near 8th opened in 1824. It was the site of the convention. It could seat 1,200; it's acoustics were exceptional. However, the year following the GOP convention the concert hall was surpassed by the opening of the grand Academy of Music on Broad Street.
About 600 delegates attended the convention. More than 100 newspaper reporters were seated at tables in the front of the auditorium.
"The Trail Blazer," John C. Fremont
The delegates got right down to business the first day by adopting a platform. The key plank was firm opposition to the extension of slavery. "It is the duty of Congress to prohibit in the territories those twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery." The polygamy reference was aimed at the Mormon settlement in Utah territory.
Then the talk turned to a presidential candidate. The names of Salmon P. Chase of Ohio and U.S. Sen. William H. Seward of New York had been put forward prior to the convention. Both were strong anti-slavery men, both would become important members of Lincoln's cabinet, but neither seemed to have the burning desire or political backing to win the presidency in 1856.
Pennsylvania was solidly behind 71-year-old U.S. Supreme Court Justice John McLean, a cautious, conservative type with a long-standing desire to be president. He didn't seem to be a true antislavery Republican but was popular with old Whigs and American "Know Nothing" nativists.
Fremont Campaign Pin
Without a doubt, the man with the strongest backing was 43-year-old retired Army officer John C. Fremont. "The Trail Blazer" was a national hero for his five courageous crossings of the Rocky Mountains and his leadership role in wresting California from Mexico. He had served briefly as U.S. senator from California. Though born and raised in the South, Fremont opposed slavery. Mostly it was name recognition and not offending any of the party factions that made Fremont the front-runner.
An informal ballot on the first day showed Fremont with 369 delegates to McLean's 196. The formal ballot came the next day with Fremont pulling 530 votes to McLean's 37. "When the vote was announced a scene of the wildest disorder, the most enthusiast excitement and the most decided approbation followed," wrote a Bulletin reporter. There were nine cheers for Fremont, nine cheers for California, nine for the union and a final nine cheers for Kansas.
There was real competition for the office of vice president. Fifteen names were put forward in an informal ballot. The leading candidate was William L. Dayton, a former senator from New Jersey.
The Public Ledger reported: "A delegate from Illinois nominated Abraham Lincoln of Illinois. He would only say he was a good fellow, a firm friend of freedom and an old line Whig.
"Mr. Archer of Illinois spoke in favor of Mr. Lincoln, whom he had known since childhood and who was a pure patriot. He thought Lincoln would carry Illinois beyond a doubt for Fremont; Illinois would be safe without him but doubly safe with him.
"Judge Spaulding wished to ask the question, `Can Mr. Lincoln fight?'
The New York Times gave Archer's reply to the question a bit differently: "Yes! Have I told you he was born in Kentucky? He's strong mentally; he's strong physically. He's strong every way."
On the informal ballot, Lincoln received 110 votes to Dayton's 259. But in the formal vote, Dayton had it sewed up and Illinois withdrew Lincoln's name from consideration.
With the important business done, the delegates and Republican supporters held a mass rally.
"On the outside of the hall and immense crowd was gathered. The steps were transformed into a speakers platform and addresses delivered by various speakers," said the Bulletin.
Banners flew everywhere bearing the slogan: Free Speech. Free Press. Free Soil. Free Men.
Fremont and Victory." An anti-slavery branch of the American (Know Nothing) Party meeting in New York threw its support behind Fremont and Dayton.
The site of that first Republican convention, Musical Fund Hall, still stands on Locust Street. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. After its demise as a music hall, it served as a union hall, basketball arena and cigar warehouse. It stood empty and forlorn for nearly two decades, dangerously deteriorated and threatened with demolition. Developers purchased the historic derelict in 1980 for $25,000 and restored it as an apartment house.