While processing the diary of James Oliver Longstreet (class of 1857) last semester, I came across mention of the Wesleyan Young Men’s Republican Club in the context of the presidential election of 1856. After seeing my interest in the political lives of Wesleyan students in the 1850’s, Valerie Gillispie here at Special Collections and Archives gave me the opportunity to read and write a finding aid for the constitution and minutes of the club in the first year of its existence, 1856. This fascinating document records the political activities of Wesleyan students more than 150 years ago, and also documents the political struggle of a generation of college students against the injustice of slavery.
The 1856 election was an extremely controversial one, pitting Republican candidate John C. Fremont against Democrat James Buchanan. The central issue of the election for many voters, and for Wesleyan’s Republican club in particular, was the proposed expansion of the institution of slavery into the territory of Kansas. Buchanan was known as a slavery expansionist, even supporting the annexation of Cuba for the purpose of building slave labor plantations there. Fremont ran on a free soil ticket, opposing the expansion of slavery to Kansas and Nebraska. In response to issues that they considered to be, “the most momentous presented to the American people since the adoption of the constitution,” a group of Wesleyan students founded the club on June 21, 1856. Its listed goals included, “The salvation of Kansas, and the restoration of the purity of the federal government,” which, “can be achieved only by the election of the nominees of the Republican Party.” The constitution of the club follows, describing its methods and regulations. Lastly, the complete minutes of the clubs meetings from 1856 describe those meetings and provide a unique perspective on the election.
On November 6, 1856, the reality of political defeat finally reached the club. The club’s secretary, T.R. Ercanbrack ’58, recorded how the “Republican club convened. Elmer presided. The club bewailed the probable result of the national election. Each and all joined to assert that they would remain firm advocates of Republican principles. Voted that these records be placed in the college library for the investigations of future classes who shall see fit to engage in politics. Club adjourned sine die.” In the midst of our own political awakening, our generation would benefit from understanding the political and moral struggles of the past as they are played out in documents like this one. The efforts of the Young Men’s Republican Club of Wesleyan presage the efforts of more recent Wesleyan students to fight injustice and to effect positive change in our world. For that, they deserve our recognition and appreciation.
For a personal perspective on the presidential election of 1856, check out the diary of James Oliver Longstreet ’57, also in the Special Collections and Archives!