hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News May 2019


Religion, slavery fueled local debate in 1856 campaign

Maury Thompson


Religious freedom was an underlying issue in the 1856 presidential race, 72 years before Democrat Al Smith became the first practicing Roman Catholic nominee for U.S. president in 1928.

Critics of John C. Fremont, the first presidential candidate of the newly formed Republican Party, spread reports that Fremont was a Roman Catholic, insinuating that his faith made him ineligible to be president.

Fremont competed in a three-way race that included Democrat James Buchanan and Millard Fillmore, who ran on the anti-immigrant American Party line.

Fremont carried most of the northeastern states, including New York, Vermont and Massachusetts.

But Buchanan, running strong in the South and West, won the Electoral College.
A Catholic priest had in fact performed Fremont’s marriage ceremony, but the candidate worshipped as a Protestant.

Fremont was married to Jessie Ann Benton, the daughter of U.S. Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, D-Missouri, who disapproved of the marriage. Fremont supporters said the couple went to a Catholic priest to be married because the bride’s father had pressured the local Protestant clergy not to perform the ceremony.

The controversy bubbled up locally when the Albany Statesman reported that the Rev. Michael Olivetti, a Catholic priest in Whitehall, planned to vote Republican in the presidential race because Fremont was a Catholic.

Olivetti disputed the report and delivered a scathing rebuke in a letter to the editor of The Whitehall Chronicle, reprinted in The Glen’s Falls Messenger.

“I am astonished to see the prejudices of people mingling religion with politics,” Olivetti wrote. “Being a minister of the gospel, I appear before the public with reluctance. But my name having been dragged into the political arena against my consent, to give countenance to an understatement, no other course is left me.”

Olivetti denied saying that he intended to vote for Fremont and added that, as a member of the clergy, he abstained from voting.

“The duties of my profession are such as to unfit me to take part in such politics, and I do not now intend to vote for any of the candidates for president at next election,” Olivetti wrote.
The priest insisted that he had never said or implied Fremont was Catholic.

“I have heard of no evidence to prove that he was a Catholic,” he wrote. “The fact that he was married by a Catholic priest, if such was the case, furnished but little evidence to prove that he was a Catholic. Catholic clergymen often marry those who are non-Catholics.”

Algernon S. Paddock, a Glens Falls native who later became a U.S. senator representing Nebraska, insisted Fremont was a Protestant in a statement published Sept. 24, 1856, in The Glen’s Falls Messenger.

“No person of honest heart can enter the home of John C. Fremont, look over his library, examine his paintings, look at his wife Jessie, and converse with him 20 minutes without being satisfied that he is as good a Protestant as lives, and just the man to place at the head of government at this time when slavery propagation threatens us with disunion and destruction,” Paddock wrote.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was a major issue in the 1856 presidential race and a catalyst of the Civil War. The law allowed people in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide for themselves whether slavery would be legal within territorial borders.

Fremont and his supporters said the law violated the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which prohibited slavery north of 36 degrees 30 minutes north latitude.

Buchanan and his supporters contended slavery should be a matter of local control.
“When they declare that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was framed and passed for the purpose of admitting slavery into free territory, tell them that there is not such a sentence or provision in that law that can possibly admit such a construction – that the law simply places in the hands of the actual settlers of Kansas the power to regulate their own internal affairs,” The Glen’s Falls Republican, a Democratic-aligned newspaper, wrote in an editorial on Aug. 19, 1856.
Buchanan’s supporters also accused Fremont of hypocrisy, saying he had once owned slaves.
But J. B. Brant, a relative of Fremont’s wife, said Buchanan supporters must have confused Fremont, the candidate, with Jacob Fremont of Kentucky, a one-time slaveholder who married one of Jessie Fremont’s sisters.


Maury Thompson retired in 2017 after 21 years as a reporter for The Post-Star of Glens Falls. He now is a freelance writer focusing on the history of politics, labor and media in the region.