The scene around the table at John C. Fremont’s New York home was a grim one.
While the first Republican presidential candidate, who had just lost to Democrat James Buchanan, maintained an air of calm, his teenage daughter was distraught. His closest advisor, Francis Blair, was enraged.
But out in the country, Republicans were not downcast.
“The Republicans here are full of grit,” Schuyler Colfax wrote from Indiana. “No give up — fuller of elasticity & zeal than any defeated party I ever saw.”
Lyman Trumbull of Illinois found his “Republican friends in great spirits for a defeated party. They are bold, confident and united, ready for another fight and feel that they will certainly win next time.”
The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher perhaps summed up the spirit best: “I shall sleep on it one night, and be up and at them again the next morning.”
And so they were.
Poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who had written one of the many Fremont campaign songs, stepped up again in defeat.
Beneath thy skies, November
Thy skies of cloud and rain,
Around our blazing camp-fires
We close our ranks again.
Then sound again the bugles,
Call the muster-roll anew;
If months have well-nigh won the field,
What may not four years do?
For Whittier and Beecher and millions of others, Fremont’s defeat was not the end, because their dedication was to a cause – the restriction of slavery – not to the man.
And the results of the election – Fremont’s strong showing in the North – showed that a sectional candidate could win an Electoral College majority without any Southern support. Indeed, in some Southern states, Fremont didn’t even appear on the ballot. Buchanan carried five free states -- California, Illinois, New Jersey, Indiana and his home state of Pennsylvania – three by plurality and the latter two by bare majorities.
The defeat of the first Republican presidential candidate should give solace to those mourning the defeat of the latest Democratic candidate.
Nothing is forever in politics. Despite the pundits’ predilection for such things, there are not “permanent majorities” for either party. In two years there will always be another election, offering new avenues for change, new possibilities for victory.
In the four years between Fremont’s 1856 defeat and Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 victory, a universe of change took place.
The Dred Scott decision was handed down by the Supreme Court. Northern Democratic leaders like Stephen A. Douglas broke tactically with Buchanan over Kansas. John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry inspired abolitionists and petrified slaveholders.
The next four years, we can all pray, do not include events as momentous as those.
But events no one has considered will occur, and they will change the political landscape, for good or ill.
What is certain is that moaning about the supposedly racist, hate-filled electorate is not going to help Democrats make best use of those events.
Quite the contrary. That kind of dismissive attitude about half the country is in large part responsible for the position in which they find themselves today.
Instead of lashing out, Democrats need to look inward, rededicate themselves to the values they espouse as a party rather than to the relentless advancement of a single candidate.
John C. Fremont was a good man who rendered honorable service to the United States. But he was no Abraham Lincoln.
Hillary Clinton, as Donald Trump said in his victory speech in the wee small hours of Nov. 9, has also rendered honorable service to the United States.
But Democrats will make a mistake if they spend four years agonizing over what might have been. Or four months. Or four weeks.
Instead, they need to stop complaining about how Trump is #NotMyPresident, sound again the bugles and start taking Henry Ward Beecher’s advice: “Sleep on it one night, and be up and at them again the next morning.”
John Bicknell is executive editor of Watchdog.org and author of “Lincoln’s Pathfinder: John C. Fremont and the Violent Election of 1856,” coming in June from Chicago Review Press.