In early June 1855, after two years as the Commissioner of Public Buildings in Washington, D.C., Benjamin Brown French suddenly found himself without a job, without a solid political footing, and without the close friendship he had cherished with President Franklin Pierce.
Pierce thought French had been disloyal to the Democratic Party by writing articles for a Know-Nothing Party newspaper in Massachusetts, and so he had pushed him out of his administration. French had apparently never joined the Know-Nothings, but it was true that his political views were diverging from Pierce’s. In particular, French saw the potential spread of slavery into the western territories as a threat to the Union, while Pierce supported policies that could allow slavery to flourish west of the Mississippi River.
The Democratic Party National Convention was held in Cincinnati, Ohio, in early June 1856. French had written in his personal journal a few days before, “The political presidential cauldron is boiling fiercely…I do hope Pierce will not be in the field.”
Despite his wish that the President fail in his bid for the nomination to run for a second term, French could not give up his affection for his former friend. He wrote about Pierce, “Cruelly as he has treated me, the old personal feeling of friendship for him remains in my bosom and I cannot eradicate it.”
Pierce hoped, and likely expected, to win the Democratic nomination. However, a general opinion prevailed at the convention that Pierce had been an ineffectual leader and had contributed to the agitation in the country over the slavery issue. The delegates rejected the incumbent and two other contenders for the nomination—Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan. On the 17th ballot James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, then the Minister to Great Britain, was chosen as the nominee. This would be the only time in American history when an elected President failed to win his party’s nomination.
Buchanan, with his running mate Kentucky Congressman John C. Breckinridge, ran against Republican John C. Fremont for President and former President Millard Fillmore, of the Know-Nothing Party, for Vice President.
Fremont, the first Republican presidential candidate, was a popular figure—an intrepid explorer of the West, a major in the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War, and a former California senator. Despite Fremont’s appealing qualifications, Buchanan emerged as the winner, and in 1857 became the 15th President of the United States.
By 1853 former three-term Congressman Amos Tuck of Exeter had long engaged in political activities aimed at combating the institution of slavery. In October that year he organized a meeting of a small group of anti-slavery politicians in a hotel in Exeter. The purpose of the secret gathering was to form a new anti-slavery party in the state, which he suggested be called the Republican Party.
The New Hampshire Republican Party, however, wasn’t officially organized until 1856 when similar efforts in several states coalesced into the major political party that would challenge the Democrats that year in the presidential election.
Benjamin French knew and liked Amos Tuck. On Aug. 1, 1855, he and his half-brother Henry Flagg French, an attorney in Exeter, had arrived there after a two-day visit to their home town of Chester. They had tea at Mr. Tuck’s home, staying until nearly 11 p.m. and “had a very pleasant time…we enjoyed our visit first rate.” He doesn’t mention if the men discussed politics, but it would have been unlikely for the subject not to come up.
The next year French became a member of the Republican Party. In January 1857 he was elected President of the Republican Association of the City of Washington. He wrote in his journal that his remarks delivered upon his installation as President “were received with applause and apparent gratification.” He was reelected in 1858, and also continued to serve as Treasurer of the U.S. Agricultural Society, a position he had first been elected to in 1855.
What French could not have foreseen was that he would again play an important role in a presidential administration —this time during a period of even greater challenges for his country than he had ever witnessed before.