Having declared himself a compromise, Union, Henry Clay-style old-time Whig, and before that given everyone a break to get supper, Lincoln moved on to the meat of the issue. In the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Stephen Douglas repealed the Missouri Compromise’s ban on slavery north of the southern border of the state, except for within Missouri itself. The North promptly caught fire and rose up against the law. Lincoln spoke on behalf of those northerners who saw themselves betrayed and their future sold away by a dangerous cabal of slaveholders and their northern lackeys.
Nineteenth century politicians had to know their stuff. People expected them to display their education and erudition regularly. As the leading men of society, they needed to act the part. That inclined them to a rambling, digressing style with exhaustive references to history and to legal theorists. One might expect the famously unschooled Lincoln to come in at a disadvantage here, but he made up for his lack of formal schooling with voracious reading. He might have spent only one term in the House, but he could play with the big boys. So Lincoln began at the very beginning:
In order to [get?] a clear understanding of what the Missouri Compromise is, a short history of the preceding kindred subjects will perhaps be proper. When we established our independence, we did not own, or claim, the country to which this compromise applies. [...]
These territories, together with the States themselves, constituted all the country over which the confederacy then claimed any sort of jurisdiction. We were then living under the Articles of Confederation, which were superceded by the Constitution several years afterwards. The question of ceding these territories to the general government was set on foot. Mr. Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and otherwise a chief actor in the revolution; then a delegate in Congress; afterwards twice President; who was, is, and perhaps will continue to be, the most distinguished politician of our history; a Virginian by birth and continued residence, and withal, a slave-holder; conceived the idea of taking that occasion, to prevent slavery ever going into the north-western territory. He prevailed on the Virginia Legislature to adopt his views, and to cede the territory, making the prohibition of slavery therein, a condition of the deed. Congress accepted the cession, with the condition; and in the first Ordinance (which the acts of Congress were then called) for the government of the territory, provided that slavery should never be permitted therein. This is the famed ordinance of ’87 so often spoken of. Thenceforward, for sixty-one years, and until in 1848, the last scrap of this territory came into the Union as the State of Wisconsin, all parties acted in quiet obedience to this ordinance. It is now what Jefferson foresaw and intended—the happy home of teeming millions of free, white, prosperous people, and no slave amongst them.
Lincoln skipped a few facts there and made one error, which he later admitted. Virginia’s cession of the Northwest Territory did not come with the condition that Congress allow no slavery there. Rather that provision comes from Jefferson’s Northwest Ordinance. Lincoln then neglects that Jefferson originally wanted to apply the law to the whole of the territory west of the Appalachians, making it all forever free. Jefferson came close to doing it, but the vote he needed to put him over the top rested with a man home sick when the time came.
Instead Jefferson settled for half a loaf. He got his slavery ban over the territory northwest of the Ohio, but not the other quarter of the country. His system for organizing territories in preparation for statehood, however, did set a precedent widely followed in the subsequent decades. Congress generally copy and pasted the Northwest Ordinance, swapping geography as necessary, to each new stretch of land. That said, Congress also frequently neglected to copy and paste the slavery ban when doing so.
But, Jefferson’s failings aside, Lincoln already has one over on doctrinaire southerners, and their supposed tool Stephen Douglas:
Thus, with the author of the declaration of Independence, the policy of prohibiting slavery in new territory originated. Thus, away back of the constitution, in the pure fresh, free breath of the revolution, the State of Virginia, and the National congress put that policy in practice. Thus through sixty odd of the best years of the republic did that policy steadily work to its great and beneficent end. And thus, in those five states, and five millions of free, enterprising people, we have before us the rich fruits of this policy. But now new light breaks upon us. Now congress declares this ought never to have been; and the like of it, must never be again. The sacred right of self government is grossly violated by it! We even find some men, who drew their first breath, and every other breath of their lives, under this very restriction, now live in dread of absolute suffocation, if they should be restricted in the “sacred right” of taking slaves to Nebraska. That perfect liberty they sigh for—the liberty of making slaves of other people—Jefferson never thought of; their own father never thought of; they never thought of themselves, a year ago. How fortunate for them, they did not sooner become sensible of their great misery! Oh, how difficult it is to treat with respect, such assaults upon all we have ever really held sacred.
The South accepted slavery bans and territorial partitions. It had from virtually time immemorial. Now, at this late hour, suddenly it discovered that Congress had no power over slavery in the territories and that its rights demanded nothing less than the abolition of all such bans? And no slaveholder could countenance a policy established by … another slaveholder? Preposterous!
When Lincoln met Douglas at Peoria to debate the latter’s repeal of the Missouri Compromise in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, both men to some degree needed the appearance. For Douglas, the speaking tour gave him the chance to rebuild some of the bridges he burned in the Illinois Democracy with the law and his poor performance in Chicago. Prevailing over even an unremarkable figure like Lincoln who argued the other side would put a nice feather in his cap. Lincoln used his tour to reenter politics and sharing a stage with one of the most famous men in the nation, and certainly the most famous in Illinois, he boosted his profile. He could seal the deal with a great speech, and Lincoln had at least a good one in him.
After everyone had their supper and came back, the man from Springfield began not as an angry partisan but as a deeply moderate man. He knew that he had a large hostile audience. They came for Douglas and, in Lincoln’s own words, to see Douglas skin him. Lincoln set himself up as one of the last national Whigs. He had long taken Henry Clay, the party’s slaveholding, Missouri Compromise-authoring, Great Compromiser and sectional pacificator as his political hero. That Lincoln opened his remarks at Peoria in the same mold:
I do not propose to question the patriotism, or to assail the motives of any man, or class of men; but rather to strictly confine myself to the naked merits of the question.
I also wish to be no less than National in all the positions I may take; and whenever I take ground which others have thought, or may think, narrow, sectional and dangerous to the Union, I hope to give a reason, which will appear sufficient, at least to some, why I think differently.
Here Lincoln declares himself not Douglas’ enemy, or vituperative Salmon P. Chase come again, or even as a Northern man, but rather as an American first and foremost. He tells the audience that they should not see him as a bad guy, but rather simply a man who has principled disagreements about the wisdom of repealing the Missouri Compromise and so prefers to have it brought back. Lincoln doesn’t keep all of those promises, but his invocation of all things National underlines his deep belief in the curative and preservative power of the Union. If the nation had troubles, they could be fixed in the Union. That same Union safeguarded precious American republicanism in a world full of kings and tyrants eager to vanquish it.
Immediately thereafter, Lincoln sets out one of the essential distinctions of the antislavery movement, as opposed to the smaller abolitionist movement:
And, as this subject is no other, than part and parcel of the larger general question of domestic-slavery, I wish to MAKE and to KEEP the distinction between the EXISTING institution, and the EXTENSION of it, so broad, and so clear, that no honest man can misunderstand me, and no dishonest one, successfully misrepresent me.
Opposing slavery, even hating it, whether one hated it for the threat it posed to white freedom or for the wrongs done to black bodies and lives, did not necessarily mean that one wanted its immediate overthrow everywhere. No antislavery person would collapse in grief if it vanished tomorrow, but they sought the peculiar institution’s restriction. They wanted it confined to where it already existed, contained like the United States tried to contain communism in the Cold War. They had in mind that doing so would set it on the road to extinction, but going down that road would take at least a century and involve overcoming numerous and difficult obstacles.
They meant it too. Slaveholders might grumble that this all amounted to a PR campaign to insert secret abolitionists into the South, but the antislavery movement took seriously property rights, the established law on what Congress could and could not impose on states, and the problem of what to do with the freedpeople. They had some solutions, some of them horrifying to modern eyes, but all had problems and Lincoln, no less than any of the rest, grappled with them even at this early date.
Stephen Douglas went on a tour of Illinois to rehabilitate himself after repealing the Missouri Compromise with the Kansas-Nebraska Act and winning so many more friends and admirers by telling the crowd at his own rally to go to hell. The Little Giant didn’t go for a walk of shame. He went around defending himself, eventually with success. It helped that when he got up on stage, Douglas had no one arguing the opposite case. In Springfield, a failed politician and successful lawyer named Abraham Lincoln got up the day after Douglas spoke did and rebutted him. We don’t have those remarks, dating to October 4, 1854. We do have the speech Lincoln gave at Peoria in October 16, where he did not just share space after the fact but actually shared the stage with the Little Giant. Considering that Lincoln (6’4″, 193 cm) had a good foot of height on the Little (5’4″, 163 cm) Giant, it must have been quite a contrast.
I don’t think you could have an event like this today. Douglas spoke for a solid three hours, without even a sound system. I can’t imagine what his throat felt like. He finished to six cheers and a band played. Then people called for Lincoln to have his turn. Lincoln rose and demurred:
I do not arise to speak now, if I can stipulate with the audience to meet me here at half past 6 or at 7 o’clock. It is now several minutes past five, and Judge Douglas has spoken over three hours. If you hear me at all, I wish you to hear me thro’. It will take me as long as it has taken him. That will carry us beyond eight o’clock at night. Now every one of you who can remain that long, can just as well get his supper, meet me at seven, and remain one hour or two later. The Judge has already informed you that he is to have an hour to reply to me. I doubt not but you have been a little surprised to learn that I have consented to give one of his high reputation and known ability, this advantage of me. Indeed, my consenting to it, though reluctant, was not wholly unselfish; for I suspected if it were understood, that the Judge was entirely done, you democrats would leave, and not hear me; but by giving him the close, I felt confident you would stay for the fun of hearing him skin me.
Politicians make cracks like that all the time, but I got a fair smile out of imagining that coming from the grave-voiced Lincoln of so many documentaries.
Lincoln illuminated a good point about period entertainment. I don’t think many contemporary Americans go to political events for the show. Those who do are probably serious news junkies or party diehards for the most part. Back in the nineteenth century, far more people went. You got to see a famous man like Douglas. You got flattery and to hear your foes cursed by men of eloquence. Nineteenth century Americans would come from far around for them, but also for far more obscure figures who would speak at length on far more esoteric topics that few among us would necessarily think of as fun. A good nineteenth century orator could make a healthy living just by touring and giving speeches. Mark Twain and Robert Ingersoll did later on in the century. Many British authors did a tour or two of the United States. Three hours listening to someone talk might sound tedious to us. I don’t know if I could take three hours of my favorite comedians comfortably seated at home in front of a television. But they really did it. If they got bored, they could wander off for a while or make their own fun with heckling.
Seven hours, three for each man and then one for a rebuttal from Douglas, apparently asked too much. The crowd happily agreed to take the time to get a bite and take a break before hearing Lincoln. Doubtless some of them came back only to hear the tall, not very good-looking lawyer get his head handed to him by the Little Giant. They’d see the big oaf, who a later critic called a baboon, shown up and go home happy.
Neither Douglas’ standard (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) story about how everybody secretly, without noticing it themselves, repealed the Missouri Compromise happily back in 1850, nor his performance at the North Market Hall endeared him to Chicago or to most anybody else in the North. He handled the situation very poorly, but given his druthers would have avoided it all. F Street, Phillip Phillips, and Archibald Dixon had him over a barrel. The Little Giant could have told them what he did the angry mob in Chicago, but doing that probably would not only have once again killed his Nebraska bill and also put paid to any other legislation he wanted to get through the Senate. Douglas made the deal and stuck by it. Given he had the aforementioned angry mob jeering and heckling him, thousands strong, one can understand how he lost his composure.
Some in Chicago at least appreciated Douglas’ difficulty. Allen Nevins quotes the Chicago Journal reporting the meeting:
We regret very much that Mr. Douglas was not suffered to proceed without interruption and conclude what he had to say upon the subject, but at the same time do not hold him blameless in the premises. He came among an excited constituency, who felt that he had deeply wronged them, to speak in self-vindication, but at the very outset of his remarks assailed their intelligence, and charged them indiscriminately with not having read the Nebraska Bill, and being ignorant of its provisions. Instead of asking them to “hear him for his cause, and be silent that they might hear” he constantly appealed to the immense throng for answers to the interrogatories propounded, boasted of being an older resident of the State than a majority of the meeting, and wound up with charging those who had come in obedience to his summons to hear him with being an ungovernable mob. We submit to the friends of Senator Douglas whether such a course was calculated or intended to secure for him a respectful hearing. We ask any candid reader whether Senator Douglas is not himself accountable for fanning excitement which he knew existed to a fury which drove him from the stand?
Douglas took the lesson. He toured Illinois, aiming for more southerly locales less incensed over slavery’s potential expansion. He sent handbills ahead of himself, arranged a band, and generally tried to make the affair more entertaining rather than just a lecture from on high. Illinois did not swing easily. Douglas still saw himself burned in effigy and faced hostile crowds. But he controlled his anger and resentment. He stopped attacking the audience, at least directly, and instead denounced abolitionists, Know-Nothings, and “Nigger-lovers.”
The Illinois Democracy came around. Its papers began again to toe the Douglas line and support the party orthodoxy. They knew who paid their bills, but it helped that Douglas had no one touring Illinois arguing the anti-Nebraska side. He stood up, gave his version, and moved on. One could get the idea that even if one had strong private doubts, the political class in general had some kind of consensus on Douglas’ lines and anti-Nebraska opinion belonged on the nutty fringe with the abolitionists. Gradually Douglas got bigger and friendlier crowds.
But events conspired against Douglas’ unchallenged rhetorical performance. In Springfield, an obscure one-term ex-House member and old-time Whig who had quit politics found himself drawn back in. He would not just stand by and let Missouri Compromise go quietly into that good night. Nor would he let Douglas get away with framing the discussion all by himself.
On October 3, Douglas came to Springfield and delivered his now standard speech in the well of the state House. On October 4, Abraham Lincoln occupied the same space, faced the same audience, and made the opposite case. We don’t know precisely what Lincoln said, as we have only newspaper reports of the content, but people came to hear him. Lincoln had friends enough in Springfield that an advertising campaign promoted his appearance. It must have gone over well, because on October 16, Lincoln and Douglas shared the stage and he repeated the same points in expanded form.
Stephen Douglas, fresh off repealing the Missouri Compromise in the Kansas-Nebraska Act and selling the Great Plains and the future of the nation over to slavery, returned home to Chicago. There he found the city set against him. The failure of a homstead bill, thanks to southern Senators, just hammered home to the entire Northwest that the Kansas-Nebraska act, despite opening the plains to everybody on paper, actually opened them to slavery. On top of that, Douglas stayed loyal to his Democratic principles and refused to make any concessions to the nativist hysteria sweeping the nation. He faced a party turned against itself and sought no new allies. The Little Giant had done what he had done. Seeing his home turned against him, he arranged a rally at North Market Hall on September 1, 1854.
Douglas avoided the usual venues, selecting a much smaller one. He skipped Chicago’s open parks and larger halls. The North Market Hall stood in the Irish section of Chicago and, underlining how much he loathed the Know-Nothings, he hired on Irish security to guard it. This all made it look very much like Douglas would stage a meeting for show, get a few resolutions passed in his favor, and take them as evidence that Chicago still loved him. Chicago at large smelled a rat and ugly rumors spread, not helped at all by Douglas man ranging out into surrounding counties to gin up a crowd. Those who grumbled about how Douglas must have a fair hearing…or else received back word that the Chicago Know-Nothings chose the latter. Prominent men did their duty in trying to discourage violence, then went on to say that Chicago should show its genuine feelings.
When the day came, rumors had Douglas with company of armed Irishmen. Sales of handguns emptied the stores. If they could not get into Douglas’ small hall, the Chicago Tribune advised the discontented to hold a larger meeting outside it. Douglas obliged, having a platform built outside the hall. Special trains hauled Douglas men in from elsewhere in Illinois to hear their hero speak…and add to the number of people not sizing him up for a rope, rail, or tar and feathers.
Douglas mounted the platform and told his audience, friendly and hostile alike, that they did not understand the Kansas-Nebraska act. Therefore, he would educate them. That went over well. The Little Giant continued, pointing out that they could not understand a bill they had not read and only his loyal paper had published it in Chicago. The crowd did not sit quiet, but rather interrupted him constantly with boos, hisses, groans, and laughter. Douglas went anyway, telling his usual story. Illinois actually, despite the evidence of their lying eyes, actually supported it. They loved popular sovereignty and out of deference to them and his own conscience, Douglas went over from geographic partition to it. After all, none of them supported admitting slave states south of the line…right? No, so they rejected it too and everyone could come together in a happy political family. Why did they curse him for doing as they wished?
For forty-five minutes, Douglas told his usual story. (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) Then he drifted off script and started insulting the city of Chicago and its citizens for their impertinence. He traded barbs with the audience. He denounced the mob and its sympathetic papers. The Little Giant swore he would silence them or stay until morning. The crowd broke into a song that pledged no departure until sunrise. Douglas flew off the handle, damning Know-Nothings and refusing to take even reasonable questions. Finally he gave it up and, to the mob’s cheers, declared he would leave them.
Too little, too late. They had their chance to cheer Stephen Douglas before all that. The Little Giant donned his hat, waved his fist at the mob, and yelled a parting shot:
It is now Sunday morning; I’ll go to church and you may go to hell!
Ultimately, the Know-Nothings could not master the anti-Nebraska reaction and turn it from an antislavery reaction into an anti-immigrant movement. Whatever hope they had of sidelining slavery through the fact that many antislavery voters also had nativist prejudices crashed hard into the central fact of southern politics: to succeed in the South, you must prove yourself reliably proslavery. Doing that meant sacrificing support in the North, even amongst true blue nativists. The combination went both ways. Furthermore, the Know-Nothings ran up against at least a minority of ex-Whig and barely still-Whig northerners looking for a new party who simply opposed nativism outright. Democrats, at least in the North and almost by definition, favored immigration and the Know-Nothings could not hope to win them over.
Those implacable Know-Nothing foes in the Democracy included Stephen Douglas, who the North might very well have hated above any other man in the summer of 1854. He expected to travel from Boston to Chicago by the light of his own effigies. Before Congress adjourned, he visited New York and could only get applause from the more shameless party sycophants. In Trenton, Douglas got outright boos. In Cleveland, they hung a Douglas effigy wearing a sign damning him, Doughfaces (Northern politicians thought to take orders from the South.), and Nebraska. Free Soilers equated him with Benedict Arnold and Judas Iscariot, just in case Salmon P. Chase calling him the Accomplished Architect of Ruin did not get the point across.
If the Little Giant gained any perverse satisfaction from guessing rightly, Illinois may have taken it away. He came home to find almost all of Chicago against him. Devoted supporters did their best to sing his praises and celebrate Kansas-Nebraska but few listened. Only one Chicago paper would support Douglas. Most of the citizenry and clergy aligned against him. So Douglas decided he ought to have a mass meeting to show that, Nebraska or no Nebraska, Chicago loved him.
Douglas did not opt for the usual venues. Instead he would have his meeting in the Irish section of Chicago and his men sent out the word that he would have Irishmen on hand for security. He chose a hall that could hold only 1,200 or so people. All of this looked like a fake meeting set up to pass pro-Douglas resolutions while gangs of Irish thugs kept out most of Chicago. It inflamed Chicago’s Know-Nothings. If Douglas chose their enmity, and he had declared as much back on the Fourth of July in Philadelphia, then they would happily oblige.
Further complicating things, especially in the Northwest, after Kansas-Nebraska went through a homestead bill failed. The bill made it through the House back in March, promising that after five years of settling and cultivation, the mythic yeoman farmers out of Jefferson’s dreams could have 160 acres for free. Northerners saw their future in that. Yes, they had moved west without the help in the past. But this law would have opened the floodgates to great numbers of them. If the Nebraska bill opened the plains, then northern men could take them.
The southerners in the Senate saw the future in the homestead bill too. Northern men would flood across the fertile plains and close them to slavery. Popular sovereignty would take away their newest triumph. More than that, poor farmers would flood out of the South and take their House seats North with them. The North already dominated the House and it wanted more? Absolutely not! The South’s senators closed ranks against it and defeated the bill.
Events deprived Douglas of any silver lining he could have claimed. He could not say that the homestead bill gave northern freemen a good chance to take the now-open plains for themselves instead of for slavery. He set himself against nativism and so denied himself, to his credit, the chance to exploit anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic fears. The Little Giant would have to meet his less than adoring public as the man who repealed the Missouri Compromise, and that man alone.
What could go wrong?
The Know-Nothing American Party had a Union degree. They had perhaps 1.5 million men pledged to stand for Union and against sectional agitation from North or South. They positioned themselves in every way they could as the new party of the Union and peace. If they lost in Virginia, just barely, they could make it good by winning the White House in 1856. But if they stood for Union, what kind of Union? The Union meant different things to different people. To moderate and pragmatic antislavery sorts, the Union provided a tool to restrain slavery. If the two came into conflict, slavery had to lose. No southern politician could dare to utter such a thing in public, Know-Nothing or not. For a great many of them, in increasing numbers as the 1850s wore on, the Union rested on preserving slavery. If the two came into conflict, the Union had to lose.
The Know-Nothings tried to put these diverse groups together in a single party with a single platform and promptly found out that the Union, to the southern delegates at their National Council in Philadelphia, meant the Union that the Kansas-Nebraska Act made. To many of their northern counterparts, it meant the Union that the Kansas-Nebraska Act unmade. They could agree on hating Catholics, except for the Louisiana delegation, and the foreign-born. But inveighing against “the incubus of Popery” only got you so far. The slave states forced through a pro-Nebraska platform and a large portion of the northern delegates quit the convention. Henry Wilson, the club with which Henry Wise beat Thomas Stanhope Fluornoy back in Virginia, led them out.
The Know-Nothing rump tried to woo them back, but when the party adopted the majority platform with its pro-Nebraska language twelve northern states refused the overtures. They included all of New England and the Old Northwest. The Indiana delegation left with a parting shot that the majority platform, contrary to the party’s stated Unionism, would only sow more sectional discord. This made for quite the spectacle, but the forces of northern nativism did not quite give up on their new party. They hoped for, and got, a second chance in February, 1856.
The party’s second try began auspiciously. The pro-Nebraska platform plank went into the trash. But then the South, with the help of New York, killed a resolution in favor of restoring the Missouri Compromise. If the pro-Nebraska side could not win, then the anti-Nebraska side could not win either. In reaction to that, fifty northern delegates representing eight states walked out and formed their own convention. The rump said good riddance this time and nominated Millard Fillmore for president. The split, foreshadowing later division, resulted in northern, antislavery nativists calling themselves North Americans and southern, proslavery nativists calling themselves South Americans.
Even had the Know-Nothings somehow come together in a miraculous, if horrifying, flowering of racial and religious hatred they would still have had to contend with other weaknesses. Other parties had machines, but at least tried to look democratic and open. The Know-Nothings vested almost unlimited power in single leaders. They deputized men who could create lodges and orders as they wished on their own authority. Then those orders and those alone elected delegates to conventions to make party rules and elect officers. Party machine nothing, this looked more like private fiefdoms directly empowered to buy their own elections and then encouraged to do so. In the New York convention, 1600 could have come. A mere 953 did and of those, only 482 participated in nominating a man for governor…with all of 243 votes. This looked more like a secret oligarchy than any kind of political party. Crusty Virginia and South Carolina aristocrats might swoon at that, but to the rest of the United States mass politics had long ago become the American way.
The original version of this post should have gone live Friday. It did not and I lost it. You can imagine my discontent. So here I have reconstructed it from memory, my sources, chiefly Allen Nevins’ Ordeal of the Union and Potter’s The Impending Crisis, and a copy of the old post forwarded to me after I wrote most of this. You get the best of both worlds, Gentle Readers.
The Know-Nothings lost in Virginia. Henry Wise extracted his narrow victory with accusations that the party, with all its private meetings and secret society trappings, provided a haven for abolitionism. Some antislavery men lived up to Wise’s accusation, even if others did not and still others men disdained nativism the same way they disdained slavery. But parties have come together from less coherent bodies. The Whigs started off as the official party of people who hated Andrew Jackson, though they eventually developed a more coherent ideology built around a national bank, internal improvements, and a more prime ministerial vision of the presidency. Ex-Whigs and rebel Democrats could do the same, and that new ideology might mitigate the American Party’s demographic challenges in the South. If they could get people fired up about other things in addition to immigrants, they had a road to electoral success even where immigrants had barely penetrated.
The election of 1856 would give nativism another chance. They would have a national convention and vote on a party platform. That national platform would serve as their ideological manifesto for the next four years. They had already staked out a position on the Union, introducing a Union degree in their rituals and getting maybe 1.5 million Know-Nothings to swear out an oath to stand against sectionalism from the North or South.
But state conventions fed into the national convention and each one saw in the convention a chance to swing the national platform their way. These state conventions, of course, lived in one section or the other and acted accordingly. Massachusetts and New Hampshire got the ball rolling by approving antislavery resolutions. New Jersey’s delegates arrived instead with a resolution that the party ought to seek the friendship of the South. Illinois found too much division to agree on a resolution either way. But those resolutions did not necessarily bind the delegates down the road. A few nonconforming states could be dragged to orthodoxy easily enough, right?
The Know-Nothing bigwigs got together in a National Council in Philadelphia in June, 1855, with an eye toward using the upcoming presidential race as their next stepping-stone to becoming the one true national Unionist party. The delegates agreed easily on excluding the foreign-born and foreign-schooled from office. They signed on for a twenty-one year wait before naturalization. They condemned Catholicism. (A Louisiana convention later condemned the condemnation on behalf of the righteous, native-born Catholics unfairly lumped in with the newly arrived sorts.) A majority of the platform committee damned Whig and Democrat alike for slavery agitation and pledged the party to preservation of the Union in its existing state. In other words, they pledged themselves to Kansas-Nebraska. The document went on to say that Congress ought not legislate on slavery in the territories again. All the slave state delegates, plus California and New York signed on.
That asked far more than the rest of the Know-Nothing North would give. Their minority report demanded either restoration of the Missouri Compromise or, failing that, refusal to admit any slave states to the Union from its former territory. That would make any future Kansas and Nebraska both free soil. When the majority would not accept those demands, the delegates from all the free states save New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and California seceded from the convention.
This from the party of sectional comity and national Union?
When running for governor of Virginia in 1855, Henry Wise tarred his Know-Nothing opponent and the party behind him as covert abolitionists. He had a point when it came to Know-Nothings in the North, if not those Virginians he actually accused. To some degree, the natural impulses of ex-Whigs, anti-Nebraska men, and nativists ran together. All feared subversive conspiracies to seize control of the nation and dispossess them of what they saw as their birthright. All had a kind of moral panic over scandals, real and imagined, at home and abroad. Rome and slavery both turned the places where they prevailed into giant brothels, as lurid pamphlets and novels told an audience eager for scandal. If that writing also provided a socially acceptable outlet for more prurient interests, few publishers and readers would complain. To many nineteenth century Americans, nativism and antislavery thus seemed logical, congenial bedfellows.
But other northerners very much disagreed. They looked on less than 700,000 of the nation’s 14,235,000 church members and asked why the Catholics prompted such fears. So small a number hardly represented a serious threat of turning the majority-Protestant United States into a majority-Catholic papal fiefdom. They counted 2,234,602 foreign-born against 19,429,185 native-born and wondered at the panic. Nativist demographic challenges did not hold just in the South. If the Catholics intended to work ruin on the nation, they had Chief Justice Roger Taney on their side. He went to their churches, listened to their sermons, and supposedly took his orders from their Pope. Yet what calamity, they asked before Dred Scott, befell from his influence? Or from Lafayette’s decades before?
Viewed the right way, anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic paranoia could look very much like anti-aboltionist paranoia. Mobs attacked convents, but mobs had also attacked abolitionist meetings. One had murdered Elijah P. Lovejoy for the crime of abolitionism. Smart antislavery men took care where they traveled to avoid following his example. Respectable venues once refused antislavery patronage, just as the nativists would have the country refuse immigrants and Catholics. For that matter, the goals of the nativists sounded suspiciously similar to a slave system: one race, and nineteenth century Americans very much saw the Irish and, often, Catholics also, as a racial group subordinated permanently to the other via a form of despotism that would require extension over free, white Protestants to sustain itself. If that happened, the nation would have the anti-democratic impulses of slavery replicated and suffer still more for it. They had more of that than they ever wanted just from sustaining slavery.
Possibly the man who put it best had essentially quit politics some years before, after an uninspiring single term in the House of Representatives. The Kansas-Nebraska Act drew him back in. Looking on the ruins of his chosen party, Lincoln wrote to his slaveholding friend, Joshua Speed:
I am a whig; but others say there are no whigs, and that I am an abolitionist. When I was at Washington I voted for the Wilmot Proviso as good as forty times, and I never heard of any one attempting to unwhig me for that. I now do no more than oppose the extension of slavery.
Still an antislavery Whig in 1855, he knew the Know-Nothings wanted the votes of men like him. He would not have it:
I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.
Virginia’s new governor would have trouble finding a man eager to throw in with the Know-Nothings in all of that, even if he could find others who would.