Birtherism is Nothing New: What We Can Learn From the Election of 1856

The man is not fit to be president. He wasn’t born in this country. We can’t be sure of his religion – or even see his birth certificate!  The man’s a dangerous radical. These allegations were hurled at a presidential candidate – not Barack Obama in 2008, nor Ted Cruz in 2016, but the first Republican Candidate for president in 1856.

John Charles Frémont, 1856.  Engraving after a photograph by Matthew Brady.

John Charles Frémont, 1856. Engraving after a photograph by Matthew Brady.

You’ll be forgiven if the name doesn’t trip off your tongue, but John Charles Frémont was perhaps the most well-known American of his day. The explorer, senator and military commander was a 19th-century celebrity, made famous for his exploration of the American west, his role in annexing California for the US and, briefly, as a presidential candidate. Across the country there are streets named after him, and a number of plant species bear his name.  His candidacy for president 160 years ago, and the opposition it elicited, are also eerily familiar. What’s less well known about him is that he was a Franco-American.


Fremont was born in Savannah in 1813, the son of Anne Pryor and a man going by the name Charles Fremon. Fremon, whose real name was Louis-René Frémont, was born in Québec in 1768, but had left the country to escape bankruptcy hearings. He came to Virginia and was hired as a French tutor by Anne Pryor’s husband, Major John Prior.  Anne and “Charles” fell in love, but when the affair was discovered, the couple were force to leave Richmond and head first to Norfolk, Virginia, and then to Savannah, where John was born.  As  his mother was never allowed to divorce, his parents weren’t married and his birth was considered “illegitimate”, a claim that would dog him his whole life.

Although Frémont’s father died when John was only 5 years old, the younger Frémont seems to have identified with his father’s heritage to some extent. Firstly, he spelled his name with the accented e and the final t, rather than using his father’s assumed surname. It also seems that he spoke French. I haven’t seen this in any primary source, but there are some clues.  In his memoirs, Frémont describes a friendship with a Creole family from Saint Domingue (Haiti):

“Since I was fourteen years old I had been intimate with a creole family who had escaped from the. San Domingo massacre. With the mother and grandmother, there were two boys and three girls…In a manner I grew up with the children. Before and after I left college they, but especially one, were the companions with whom I was always happy to spend what time I could seize upon.”
As an adult, his expeditions to the West relied heavily on the help of French Canadian and Creole voyageurs (as did most “American” expeditions). The following is from Frémont’s 1842 expedition and shows his comfort with the French speakers:


“A number of Kansas Indians visited us to-day. Going up to one of the groups who were scattered among the trees, I found one sitting on the ground, among some of the men, gravely and fluently speaking French, with as much facility and as little embarrassment as any of my own party, who were nearly all of French origin. On all sides was heard the strange language of his own people, wild, and harmonizing well with their appearance. I listened to him for some time with feelings of strange curiosity and interest. He was now apparently thirty-five years of age; and, on inquiry, I learned that he had been at St. Louis when a boy, and there had learned the French language.”


Finally, Frémont took a tour of Europe in the 1850s, visiting France. In 1861, president Lincoln considered naming Frémont ambassador to France, but Frémont’s radicalism made him unpopular with some members of the Lincoln administration (he would be relieved of a military command in the Civil War after issuing an emancipation decree freeing all the slaves in Missouri. Lincoln is supposed to have said Frémont  “shouldn’t have dragged the Negro into this war”).

An anti-Fremont cartoon attempts to defame him by associating him with "radical" positions.  From left, temperance, women's rights, fournierism (socialism), free love, Catholicism, abolitionism.

An anti-Fremont cartoon attempts to defame him by associating him with “radical” positions. From left, The Maine Law (temperance), women’s rights, fournierism (socialism), free love, Catholicism, abolitionism.

Which brings us to the election of 1856. The newly-formed Republican Party was looking for a candidate who could bring it name recognition and who could be a standard-bearer for its signature policy of stopping the expansion of slavery into the Western  Territories. Frémont, with his  fame as an explorer of the West, fit the bill, despite his relative lack of political experience and youth (he was the youngest person to be nominated for the presidency to that point).

Election poster from 1856 showing Fremont as "the Pathfinder" atop the Rockies.

Election poster from 1856 showing Fremont as “the Pathfinder” atop the Rockies.

Unfortunately for Frémont and the Republicans, his nomination came at the height of a nativist, anti-immigrant movement in the US. Maine had seen church burnings and  the tarring and feathering of a Catholic priest in 1854.  The 1856 election was a there-way race. In addition to the Republicans, and the Democrats, who nominate James Buchanan, the former Whig President Millard Filmore was running for the anti-immigrant “American Party.”  Frémont’s ancestry and his parents’ unconventional relationship were all use against him. Not content with these, however, his opponents resorted to outright lies (another feature reminiscent of this year’s campaign).

A leading propagator of lies against Frémont was Stephen H Branch, a mudraking journalist for the New York Herald. Branch was nicknamed “The Alligator” after a story he wrote claiming that California was home to alligators which could climb trees. He was later jailed for libel for stories he ran in a short lives publication, also called the Alligator.

In 1856, Branch published this broadside on the eve of the election:


Ogdensburgh, NY, October 31st, 1856.

The Question Decided!

The Republican Candidate for the Presidency, John C. Fremont, of Foreign Birth!!

….To John C. Fremont – Sir – How dare you attempt to serve the American Government through deception? How dare you deny your Catholicism? How dare you disown your sacred birth-place?…Sir, you were born in Montreal, Canada!”

(Click the image above for a larger version and to read it in full).

Like Barack Obama and Ted Cruz, Frémont was an American citizen from birth, and perfectly eligible to run for president. Like them, he was a Protestant. But his status as the son of immigrants was enough to cast doubts on his Americanness, and part of that was his religion (notwithstanding the provision in the constitution which reads “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States“.)

Discrimination against immigrants comes in many forms. Throughout American history there have been those who have insinuated that immigrants and those of a different faith are less than “real Americans.”  For Franco-Americans, this often took the form of allegations that they were too attached to their French heritage, or to the Pope. While Frémont ultimately lost the 1856 election, across US history Franco-Americans have proved their loyalty and served their country in all manner of ways.

Apparently, 160 years later, we’ve yet to move beyond this kind of discriminatory, inflammatory, and often downright false rhetoric in our politics.

James Myall

About James Myall

While I currently work for an Augusta-based non-profit, I spent four years as the Coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, I co-authored "The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn," a general history of that population from 1850 to the present. I was also a consultant for the State Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans in 2012. I live in Topsham with my wife and two young daughters.