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Cool Things - Fremont Campaign Flags

Freemont  campaign flag from 1856 presidential electionAs these flags attest, Kansas was a major issue in the 1856 Presidential campaign. It was the first national election since the enactment of the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854.

Free-staters and proslavery advocates had been at each other's throats in Kansas Territory in the two years since 1854. The free-state town of Lawrence had been sacked, five proslavery men were killed in the Pottawatomie Massacre, and Charles Sumner was caned in the U.S. Senate chamber for speaking on "The Crime Against Kansas."

A New Party

In this tense atmosphere, a new political party had been formed.  The Republicans replaced the earlier Whig party which had disintegrated. Eager to find a candidate who would appeal to many, the Republicans sought out an explorer of the West, one whose adventures had captured the popular imagination. They turned to the man known as the "Pathfinder," John Charles Frémont. His opposition included James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, a Democrat who was sympathetic to the South. Former President Millard Fillmore was the candidate of the proslavery American Party.

The Republicans took an antislavery stand. The party's catchy slogan was Free Soil, Free Men and Frémont--and Free Kansas. Their strong stance resulted in warnings that if Frémont won, the South would secede from the Union.

Campaigning for president was much different in 1856 than today. The candidates let others promote them and did little actual campaigning themselves. Clubs in support of candidates sprang up around the country, with torchlight parades, rallies, and speeches singing the praises of the nominees.

God Save Kansas banner from 1856 presidential electionIt was not unusual for clubs to spread the word about John C. Frémont. This "God Save Kansas" banner was made by the Ladies of Lancaster, New Hampshire, for the town's Frémont Club. When donated to the Kansas Historical Society in 1883, it was given as "evidence of the sympathy felt by the people of the Granite State with the early settlers of Kansas in the struggle between slavery and freedom."

Frémont supporters could be found in Mansfield, Ohio, as well, where James Smith (who moved to Kansas in 1861) attended political rallies carrying a flag made by his wife and sister. This flag (pictured at top) leaves no doubt about its bearer's sympathies--"Frémont, Dayton, and Free Kansas" (William Dayton was Frémont's running mate).

A third flag in the collections also represents the desires of many Americans at the time. It carries the slogan "Admit Me Free" and a large star representing the hoped-for entry of Kansas into the Union as a free state. Walter Whitehead carried this flag in the first Republican demonstration in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during the 1856 campaign. Whitehead, who later moved to Kansas, also carried the flag in the 1860 presidential campaign in support of Abraham Lincoln.

Although Frémont was not successful in his quest for the presidency--he finished second with a half-million votes out of a total four million--it was a respectable showing for the new Republican party. The election also laid the ground work for the party's next presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, who won in late 1860. Southern states followed through on threats to secede from the Union if a free soil president was elected, Kansas was admitted as a free state on January 29, 1861, and the first shots of the Civil War were fired just three months later.

These flags are in the collections of the Society's Kansas Museum of History.

For more on Bleeding Kansas, see the online exhibit Willing to Die For Freedom.

Entry: Cool Things - Fremont Campaign Flags

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2004

Date Modified: July 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.