The Virginia Showdown, Part One

 

 

Henry Wise

Henry Wise

The Know-Nothings had it going on. They made an impressive showing in the 1854 elections. They even took over Massachusetts, host to  so much antislavery drama. Delaware’s Whiggery disbanded to join in the fun. If all the South did not have the North’s immigrant population to stir up nativist fears, then at least its border states and Louisiana did. Those could be the foundation of a new bisectional party, even if it did still tilt to the North. Would states that decided, as a Baltimore paper advised, to sideline slavery in favor of anti-immigrant fears even remain southern enough for it to matter? Stephen Douglas decided, even in the wake of Kansas-Nebraska, that he should worry more about the Know-Nothings than antislavery men. If the Know-Nothings could elect one of their own governor of a major southern state, he might have it right.

Virginians had that major southern state and an election coming up. Unlike half-free Maryland, Virginia still had a healthy slave system. It might also have some discontented people in its extreme west who did not much care for slavery, but aristocratic Virginian planters had bought them off before with incremental advances toward white egalitarianism. They had just done another round of that in 1850, finally giving all white men equal access to state government. Doing that also meant, of course, that the planters voted themselves considerable tax advantages. As a populous state with a healthy slave system, Virginia would be a great feather in the Know-Nothings’ cap.

To take the governor’s post and ring in the Know-Nothings glorious future, they chose an ex-Whig, Richmond lawyer Thomas Stanhope Flournoy. The very model of eighteenth century refinement, Flournoy disdained campaigning. He instructed his voters by letter and refused to make public appearances. He would not stage a circus and prostitute himself for the voting mobs; gentlemen did not do that kind of thing. It drove Virginia’s aging patriarchs wild.

Against Flournoy, the Democracy chose Henry Alexander Wise. A political shapeshifter of the highest caliber, Wise had been a Jacksonite enthusiast turned States Rights Whig before turning Democrat again. Back in 1850, he led the charge to empower poor whites, then switched back and led the charge to secure tax advantages for slavery. He mused that slavery might some day end, then attacked his foes for not defending it strongly enough. This did not endear him to Virginia’s patriarchs. Fire-eater Edmund Ruffin called Wise “a political liar of the first degree.”

Consistency did not much trouble mass politics, though. Wise had risen through the Virginia establishment by alloying eighteenth century ideals about hierarchy to nineteenth century populism. He would use popular appeal to achieve aristocratic goals, spreading the gospel that only age, sex, and race should separate men. Even a propertyless white man still had his skin endowing him with despotic power over every black person.

Wise tore across Virginia, covering three thousand miles in only four months. Every night, for as much as four hours, he screamed in the gaslight until he had only a whisper left. He stomped. He roused the rabble. He put on a show. Wise’s demagoguery could have come from an aristocrat’s worst nightmares. This all sounds like something one would expect of the nativists, playing up public fears. But if the Know-Nothings had unwashed hordes of Irish Catholics to keep them up at nights, then Henry Wise played to a different set of fears: those provoked by the Know-Nothings themselves.

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