Presidential CandidateElectoral Vote Popular Vote Pct Party Running Mate
(Electoral Votes)
James Buchanan of Pennsylvania (W) 174 1,838,169 45% Democrat John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky (174)
John C. Fremont of California 114 1,341,264 33% Republican William L. Dayton of New Jersey(114)
Millard Fillmore of New York 8 874,534 22% American Party ("Know-Nothings") Andrew Jackson Donelson of Tennessee (8)
Total 100.0%
Other elections: 1844, 1848, 1852, 1856, 1860, 1864, 1868
Source: U.S. Office of the Federal Register

In Kansas the slavery issue reached a condition of intolerable tension, which came to be known as "Bleeding Kansas". In 1855-56, the violence reached an ideological climax after John Brown - regarded by followers as the instrument of God's will to destroy slavery — entered the melee. His assassination of five proslavery settlers (the so-called "Pottawatomie Massacre"), resulted in some irregular, guerrilla-style strife.

But of greater importance than the civil strife in Kansas, however, was the reaction against it nationwide and in Congress. In both North and South, the belief was widespread that the aggressive designs of the other sections were epitomized by (and responsible for) what was happening in Kansas. Consequently, "Bleeding Kansas" would emerge as a symbol of this sectional controversy.

Even before news of the Kansas skirmishes reached the East coast did a related violent escapade occur in Washington on May 19 and 20. Charles Sumner's speech before the Senate entitled "The Crime Against Kansas," which condemned the Franklin Pierce administration and the institution of slavery, singled out in particular Senator Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina, a strident defender of slavery. Its markedly sexual innuendo cast the South Carolinian as the "Don Quixote" of slavery, who has "chosen a mistress [the harlot slavery]… who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him, though polluted in the sight of the world is chaste in his sight." Several days later, Summer fell victim to the Southern gentleman's code, which instructs retaliation for the impugning the honor of an elderly kinsman. Bleeding and unconsciousness after a nearly fatal assault with a heavy cane fell by Butler's nephew, US Representative Preston Brooks — and unable to return to the Senate for four years — the Massachusetts Senator emerged as another symbol of sectional tensions. For many in the North, he illustrated the barbarism of slave society.

Indignant over the developments in Kansas, the Republicans — the first entirely sectional major party in US history — entered their first presidential campaign with confidence. Their nominee, John C. Frémont, was a generally safe candidate for the new party. Although his nomination upset some of their nativist supporters (his mother was a Catholic), the nomination of the famed explorer of the Far West with no political record was an attempt to woo ex-Democrats. The other two contenders— William Seward and Salmon P. Chase — were seen as too radical.

Nevertheless, the campaign of 1856 was waged almost exclusively on the slavery issue—pitted as a struggle between democracy and aristocracy—focusing on the question of Kansas. They condemned the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the expansion of slavery, but advanced a program of internal improvements combing the idealism of anti-slavery with the economic aspirations of the North. The new party rapidly developed a powerful partisan culture, and energetically cultivated armies of party activists surging voters to the polls in unprecedented numbers. Constituents reacted with fervor Young Republicans organized the "Wide Awake" clubs and chanted the catchphrase “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, Frémont. With Southern fire-eaters and even some moderates uttering threats of succession if Frémont won, James Buchanan benefited from apprehensions about the future of the Union.

See also: President of the United States, U.S. presidential election, 1856, History of the United States (1776-1865), Origins of the American Civil War