The Cleveland Convention (of 1864): Discontented Republicans Nominate a Brash Self-Promoter

Things were not going very well for President Abraham Lincoln in the spring of 1864.  The Civil War had been dragging on for three years, with no end in sight.  The northern populace, already very tired of the war, were horrified by General Grant’s heavy losses in early May in the Battle of the Wilderness and by the prospect of continued such losses in a bloody war of attrition.

In addition, the Republican Party was by no means united behind Lincoln, with the so-called Radical Republicans especially keen on finding an alternative candidate for the 1864 Presidential election.  These hardline abolitionists didn’t think Lincoln was moving quickly enough on emancipation, and they thought his plan for post-war reunification with the South was too conciliatory.  Lincoln’s overly ambitious Secretary of Treasury Salmon Chase had been the Radical Republicans’ first choice to replace him, but this plan was thwarted in early spring when Chase’s duplicity was exposed.

With Chase out of the way, it soon became clear that Lincoln had enough support to be re-nominated at the Republican convention scheduled for early June in Baltimore (at the convention, the party would be re-named the “National Union Party” due to the inclusion of some of the Democrats who supported the war).  With time running out, a splinter group of about four hundred Radical Republicans held an alternate convention on May 31 in order to nominate a different candidate more to their liking.  They settled on John C. Frémont, the famed western explorer (the “Pathfinder”), Republican presidential nominee in 1856 (when he was defeated by Democrat James Buchanan), and Civil War general.  The new party was dubbed the “Radical Democracy Party”.

When Lincoln was informed of the results of this alternate convention, he picked his Bible up from his desk and began looking for a particular passage, which he soon found.  He then read aloud from 1 Samuel 22 – that would be “First Samuel” – the story of David and the company of men which gathered about him in a cave when he was being pursued by King Saul.  The passage concludes as follows: “And everyone that was in distress, and everyone that was in debt, and everyone that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him; and he became a captain over them; and there were with him about four hundred men.”

Without saying any more, Lincoln had provided his opinion on the four hundred men who had gathered about Frémont, namely that they were desperate malcontents.  Harper’s Weekly seemed to agree, observing that the convention “was the work partly of angry and intriguing, partly of impracticable men.”  By the way, this convention of discontented Republicans who wanted to throw out the “establishment” – Lincoln in particular, but also Secretary of State William Seward and others – took place in Cleveland, Ohio.

Their candidate, John C. Frémont, has been described as, among other things: controversial, impetuous, contradictory, and a brash self-promoter.  He acquired massive wealth but also experienced spectacular business failures, and was subject to many lawsuits.  Prior to joining the new Republican Party, he had been more aligned with the Democrats, having married the daughter of powerful Democratic Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri.  Benton and Frémont crusaded together for “Manifest Destiny”, the expansionist movement which might just as easily have been called “America First”.

Oh, and Frémont didn’t like Mexicans, having fought against them in the Mexican-American War.  In an infamous incident in California, Kit Carson asked Frémont whether three unarmed Mexicans should be taken prisoner, and Frémont replied, “I have got no room for prisoners.”  The subsequent murder of the three men, all members of respected families, was widely publicized during the 1856 Presidential campaign, damaging Frémont’s image.  It didn’t help that Frémont had also once been convicted of mutiny, disobedience, and military misconduct for having proclaimed himself military Governor of California (these charges were later commuted to a dishonorable discharge).  It perhaps comes as no surprise that years later during the Civil War, General Frémont was accused of acting autocratically and was eventually dismissed by Lincoln for insubordination – among other things, for unilaterally emancipating the slaves in his jurisdiction (this well before Lincoln’s proclamation of emancipation) – and for issues of corruption in acquiring supplies.

For the record, all this is not to say that Frémont didn’t have his good points, nor that a particular more recent nominee doesn’t have his own good points.  The items mentioned just seem to be particularly intriguing.

By the way, Frémont abandoned his campaign in September 1864, when Lincoln’s chances suddenly improved following the fall of Atlanta.  But true to form, he did so in a manner that gave him revenge on a political enemy, as Lincoln reluctantly agreed to remove Postmaster General Montgomery Blair from office.  With Frémont out of the way, Lincoln easily defeated another famous Civil War general, George B. McClellan, to become the first president to be re-elected in more than thirty years.

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

July 20, 2016

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