Rescuing National Whiggery

A poster advertising the Know-Nothing presidential ticket in 1856.

A poster advertising the Know-Nothing presidential ticket in 1856.

If Puritanism could inspire men to fight against slavery and men to fight against those men, its big tent could also contain a movement that overlapped with both. Indeed, it could include a movement that drew the approval of many antislavery men. Those antislavery men thus did their best to avoid direct confrontation with that movement. If the two collided, voters might choose against antislavery. Conversely, if they chose for antislavery then the other movement might lose on ground where many antislavery men preferred it win through. They did not stop caring about other issues when they struck out against Kansas-Nebraska, even if they put stopping slavery at the top of their agenda.

This new movement did not include only Puritans, of course. Everyone in politics in the 1850s could remember a time when issues other than slavery dominated national discourse. Those issues never strained the Union, even if they provoked great controversy. The old political order, in both parties, depended on strategic silence over slavery. Both national parties could have wings in both sections and those wings could work as genuine partners in power, each needing the other but not dominating the other, and the business of the American people could progress. Except on slavery, men like William Seward and Alexander Stephens could see eye to eye and recognize in one another their common Whiggery. Naturally, plenty of politicians wanted the old days back. Whigs felt that urge very keenly indeed with their party falling apart in both sections.

Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore, Know-Nothing for President in 1856

The new movement offered the old days come again. Men of both sections could unite and push slavery out of the limelight while they contended with the new dire peril. The dawning crisis would reforge the Union, testing it and making it stronger. They came together as: Sons of ’76, Sons of Sires, the Druids, the Foresters, and entered politics as The Order of the Star-Spangled Banner. Delegates from thirteen states convened in New York to establish a national party on July 17, 1854, four days after the antislavery movement staged simultaneous state conventions in Vermont, Ohio, and Indiana. The Order made a Grand Council, to which state and local councils would answer. They ordained secret rituals. They would summon the faithful to meetings by sending out heart-shaped bits of paper, white normally but red in times of danger. They forswore all other parties and pledged never to vote for a Roman Catholic or foreign-born candidate. They also swore themselves to secrecy, promising to say only that they knew nothing if questioned. Horace Greeley promptly dubbed them the Know-Nothings.

The Know-Nothings offered the southern Whigs everything they wanted. They could have a new party and so escape the stain of Whiggish antislavery. They would again have a northern wing they could trust. They could ride the movement back to full partnership in a national party which could check the Democracy and its increasingly radical proslavery tilt with the kind of national-minded policy that they had long preferred as Whigs. With genuine New England Puritans fretting as much over the corruption of the national community by alien influences as by domestic slavery, they could expect not only Yankee allies that would not dominate the party but instead share it with them and heed their council. If that Puritan enthusiasm also peeled off some antislavery men from the emerging Republican party and so diluted its power, so much the better.

Know-Nothing nativism could even stop the tide of immigration which had given the North such electoral advantages. Strict limits, even to the point of outright prohibition, would lock the borders of the United States and arrest the long and accelerating trend of immigrant-fueled growth that had so eclipsed the South in the House and made it into a permanent minority section. Given the press of time, the tide might even reverse and let the South regain lost ground. A ban on immigration would also answer the original sin against slavery, the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, with an equal prohibition. If Thomas Jefferson could sign a law to stop unwilling black immigration in 1808, then a future Know-Nothing president could sign one to stop willing white immigration. No Democrat could offer the South that.

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