This engaging history made clear to me not just why slavery caused the Civil War (which I knew), but that everyone in the 1850s knew that slavery was the issue that would tear the country apart. It also made clear that point that, although the South accused the Republicans of being a sectional party that only won votes in the North, this alleged sectionalism stemmed from the South’s reaction to the Republicans – keeping Frémont off the ballot and sometimes physically attacking his supporters in the South.
Bicknell does a good job providing context in some areas but not others. I learned more about Franklin Pierce than I ever thought I would, for example. Even so, I would have liked to see Bicknell spend more time on how the factions viewed each other, since that was essential in explaining why the Republican coalition could not come together in 1856. Many people saw the American Party (Know-Nothings) and abolitionists as unacceptable extremists, and Catholics as outside the respectable polity. Why? The book gives us those details but not the deeper background that I wanted.
I’d also like more background on why people were passionate over some policy differences that seem minor. Some of the debates reminded me of debates over health-care provisions today – people do feel passionate about them, but it will be hard to explain those differences 150 years from now. More attention to explaining the 1850s passions would have been helpful.
I was also struck by the fact that Bicknell tended to give more attention to Jessie Frémont than to her husband. I can understand wanting to minimize John Frémont’s back story, which many others have told, but the result is an imbalance in the visibility of these political partners. The result is that the character in the book’s title is less well drawn than many of the other figures in the story.
Those comments aside, if you are the kind of reader who has stumbled upon a book about the 1856 presidential election, you’ll want to read it.