“That’s What’s the Trouble with John C.”

July 2, 1864

Frank Bellew

“That’s What’s the Trouble with John C.”

Black Americans; Children, Symbolic; Civil War, Elections; Presidential Election 1864; Symbols, Columbia; Symbols, Uncle Sam; Wars, American Civil War; Women, Symbolic;

Fremont, John C.;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

Mrs. Columbia. "Tell me, Doctor, what is the matter with him? Do you think his Brain is affected?"

Doctor Jonathan. "Oh! no, my dear Madam; it's only a rather, aggravated case of Sore Head!"

In this Frank Bellew cartoon, two personifications of America--Columbia and Brother Jonathan (a precursor to Uncle Sam)--discuss the cause of General John C. Frémont's challenge to President Abraham Lincoln's renomination by the Republican Party in 1864.  Doctor Jonathan reassures Mrs. Columbia that Fremont is not crazy, but only acting out of spite (because of Lincoln's alleged mistreatment of the general).  The cartoonist further emphasizes Frémont's supposed peevishness by portraying him as a child.  The presidential rival cradles a black doll symbolizing his commitment to emancipation and civil rights for black Americans.

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln faced several obstacles to reelection.  Recent history was against him:  no sitting president had been reelected in over three decades since Andrew Jackson won a second term in 1832.  More importantly, Lincoln faced a continual barrage of criticism aimed at his policies and leadership, particularly against emancipation and his management of the Union military effort.  Also, Republicans had lost seats in the 1862 congressional and legislative elections.  That was not surprising for a party in power, but in the context of a protracted war of uncertain outcome, some Republican leaders concluded that their party needed a new helmsman if it was to achieve victory in the 1864 elections.  Challengers to Lincoln for the nomination surfaced as early as 1863.  

One of the president's more serious rivals was John C. Frémont, whose fame as a Western explorer garnered him the Republican Party's first presidential nomination in 1856.  In his youth, Frémont served in the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers.  In 1842, his father-in-law, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, secured Congressional authorization for Frémont to head an expedition to explore, survey, and map the Oregon Trail.  The published reports of the journeys (1843 and 1845), which were part science text, part adventure story, and part travel guide, captivated the imagination of American readers.  Frémont’s third expedition (1845-1847) took him across the Rockies again and to the Pacific Coast, where he participated in California's revolt against Mexican rule.  He was elected as one of California’s first two U.S. Senators, serving the short term (1851-1853). 

In 1856, Frémont became the new Republican Party’s first presidential nominee.  His heroic public persona as “the Pathfinder” generated an enthusiastic following in the North.  In a three-way race, Democratic nominee James Buchanan defeated Frémont and former President Millard Fillmore of the American Party by a comfortable margin. Frémont, however, finished second, thereby establishing the Republican Party as a real political force and the main rival to the Democratic Party.

At the onset of the Civil War, Frémont took the assignment of commanding the Department of the West, headquartered in St. Louis, at the rank of major general.  Missouri was bitterly divided by the war and Confederates quickly gained control of the southwestern region.  On August 30, 1861, Frémont established martial law and issued a decree freeing the slaves of Missouri’s Confederate sympathizers.  President Lincoln rescinded Frémont's emancipation proclamation, fearing it might push other Border States (slave states loyal to the Union) into the Confederate camp.  Staff corruption, opposition from Missouri’s influential Blair family, and military defeats caused Lincoln to relieve Frémont of his command on November 2, 1861.  

In the absence of another willing candidate, Republican critics of Lincoln coalesced around Frémont and held a convention on May 31 in Cleveland, one week before the scheduled Republican convention in Baltimore.  Most of the movement’s supporters were anti-slavery German-Americans from Missouri, along with a small group of New England abolitionists like Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  At first, President Lincoln was genuinely concerned and therefore sent agents to observe and report on the convention. 

Adopting the name Radical Democracy, the delegates ratified a platform that called for the continuation of the war without compromise (a slap at the Peace Democrats); a Constitutional amendment banning slavery and authorizing federal protection of equal rights (ideas later embodied in the post-war 13th and 14th Amendments and civil rights acts); protection of the rights of free speech, free press, and the writ of habeas corpus (aimed at the Lincoln administration’s controversial crackdown on civil liberties); confiscation of rebel property (which Frémont rejected); enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine (with an eye on the French in Mexico); a one-term presidency; and, integrity and economy in government (perhaps an implicit call for civil service reform). 

Next, the delegates nominated Frémont for president and John Cochrane of New York, a former Democratic congressman, for vice president.  Frémont resigned his army commission in order to accept the nomination.  Lincoln’s deputies reported that the convention was a failure, and the president seemed amused by the proceedings.  There was some speculation in the press that the Radical Democracy hoped that the Democrats would endorse the Frémont-Cochrane ticket, but that expectation remained unfulfilled.  In fact, the Frémont campaign failed to pickup momentum and stalled in the wake of a strong, harmonious National Union (Republican) Party convention. 

By the fall, the fear of a Democratic administration, especially the likelihood that it would discontinue and even reverse the emancipation process, gnawed at Frémont, making him open to Senator Zachariah Chandler’s suggestion that he drop out of the race.  Chandler offered to persuade Lincoln to remove Montgomery Blair, the general’s Missouri foe, from the cabinet.  In late September, Frémont and Cochrane issued public letters withdrawing from the campaign.  Although Frémont had not stipulated any conditions, Lincoln, to appease the radicals, asked for Blair’s resignation and the postmaster general complied.

For more information, visit HarpWeek’s Web site on Presidential Elections.

Robert C. Kennedy

“That’s What’s the Trouble with John C.”
July 14, 2024

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