The 1856 Election


When finished with this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Identify the key issue in the election of 1856
  • Identify some of the key people involved in the election
  • Discuss the role of propaganda in politics
  • Discuss the significance of the election of 1856 to the Civil War

Lesson Abstract

This lesson deals with the election of 1856, which in many ways set the stage for the Civil War in 1860.

Lesson Length

1-2 Class Periods


By clicking on these links below, you leave the website for the Center for American Music. The Center for American Music is not responsible for the content of outside websites.

Primary Sources

1. Lyrics for “The White House Chair” and “The Abolition Show" (aka "The Great Baby Show")

2. 1856 John Fremont campaign songs via Northern Illinois University

Secondary Sources 

Background Information

The election of 1856 was one of the bitterest and most contentious elections in American history. The newly formed Republican Party and their candidate, frontiersman and explorer John Fremont, campaigned on the promise to end “Slave Power” and to repeal the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a law that allowed for the possibility of the rebirth of slavery in the North.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed people in new territories to vote whether or not they wanted slavery. Conflict between pro and anti-slavery groups in Kansas was so intense and bloody that the territory earned the nickname “Bleeding Kansas.”

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party warned that the Republican’s extreme stance would cause a Civil War between the North and South. Incumbent President Franklin Pierce lost the primary, and the Democrats nominated Pennsylvanian and Minister to Great Britain James Buchanan to replace him. Buchanan campaigned on a promise to maintain the status quo: slavery in the South, freedom in the North. This stance outraged many abolitionists and some Northerners as well. Millard Fillmore was the third-party candidate from the anti-immigration Know-Nothing party.

In a hard fought campaign, Buchanan triumphed, although the Republicans came very close. In fact, if the Republicans had won two more states, they would have won the election. This set the stage for the election of 1860, which the Republicans would win, setting off the Civil War.

Recommendations for Using Streaming Audio

Play “The Abolition Show,” “The White House Chair” and some of the Fremont campaign songs from the Northern Illinois University Collection. Have the students think about the following questions:

What is the tone of each song?

  • Is it happy? Sad? Funny?
  • Is it fast or slow?
  • How does the song make you feel when hearing it?

Think about the words:

  • What sort of words do they use to describe their candidate and the opposing candidate?
  • Why do the songwriters use these words?
  • Are the verses long or short?
  • Is there a chorus? If so, does it repeat?

About the songs:

  • These songs were intended to make people vote for one candidate or the other. If you were a voter in 1856, would any of these songs make you vote for either Buchanan or Fremont?
  • What type of audience were these songs intended for?
  • Why did Foster call his song “The Abolition Show”? What does the use of the term “show” suggest?
  • Many of the Fremont songs mention “Bleeding Kansas”? Why do you think this is?

Suggested Points for Discussion

  • Why would the Democrats campaign on a promise to keep slavery?
  • How were political songs and slogans like “The Abolition Show” used to influence voters?
  • Discuss the similarities and differences between these songs and television political advertisements
  • Discuss the major campaign issue: abolition vs. keeping the union together
  • Do the political differences between the North and South still exit today? (Refer to Electoral Map in Links: Compare to 2004 Electoral Map)

Suggested Assignments/Classroom Activities

  • Thinking Creatively About History: After listening to the streaming mp3 of both the Fremont and Buchanan campaign songs, and discussing the major issues of the election of 1856, ask the students to write their own short campaign song for either Buchanan or Fremont. Make sure they include details of what each candidate stood for.
  • Comparison and Contrast: Divide the students into groups and give them each a Fremont song and a Buchanan song. Ask each group to analyze the two songs for similarities and differences and then present their findings to the rest of the class.
  • Class Debate: Divide the class into two groups. One group represents Fremont, one group represents Buchanan. Assign each member of the group a role as “researcher” or “speaker.” Have each group research their candidates and present information in the form of a debate.
  •  Research Skills: Have students utilize the resources presented in this lesson plan and from their own study to write a short report about John Fremont, James Buchanan or third party candidate (and former president) Millard Fillmore.
  • Linking the Past and Present: Each student should “update” one of the political songs for today to discuss a major campaign issue for Democrat or Republican parties.
  • Analyzing Primary Sources: Choose one of the campaign songs. Ask students to analyze the song for both factual data (Who? What? When? Where? Why? And How?) and evaluate the strength of the argument for or against Buchanan or Fremont as presented in the chosen song.

Contact Us

Center for American Music
Stephen Foster Memorial
University of Pittsburgh
4301 Forbes Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15260


Starting August 23, 2021, the Center for American Music Library and Stephen Foster Museum will be open by appointment only.

To request access, please send us a request at least 48 hours in advance.

You do not have to be affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh to use the Collection. 

Stephen Foster Memorial Museum and Center for American Music Library - Facebook Page