The Virginia Showdown, Part Two

Henry Wise

Henry Wise

In 1854, the Know-Nothing Party elected nine governors. It stood over the ruins of Virginia Whiggery, poised to make it ten. The Democracy’s Henry Alexander Wise stood just as poised to make sure they did not. He traveled across Virginia, arraigning the Know-Nothings and their chosen man, Thomas Stanhope Flournoy. Wise screamed himself hoarse. He exhausted himself riding Virginia’s roads for months on end. He made a tremendous show of his campaign in the finest nineteenth century tradition of democratic theatricality. Flournoy refused to attend public meetings. He wrote a letter instructing his voters, as an eighteenth century gentleman might, and called it done.

With that kind of contrast, one might expect Flournoy to lose so hard that his great-grandchildren felt it. Everybody watching the election, however, expected it to go down to the wire. The contest electrified Washington, with everyone seeing its potential. From Virginia, the Know-Nothings could sweep the South. Seeing an exciting election that could go either way and would have great significance for the future of the nation, Washington politicians wagered heavily on it.

Why did they think it could go both ways? Virginia had enough immigrants to fuel some serious nativism, unlike much of the rest of the South. Those nativists had plenty a mix of real concerns and traditional paranoia to stoke their electoral fires. Furthermore, Flournoy’s genteel non-campaign belied the fact that the Know-Nothings operated as a secret society. They did not do typical eighteenth century politics, with public meetings and stump speeches. Know-Nothings convened amongst themselves and behind closed doors. They refused to speak of their party operations in mixed company, insisting that as it says on the tin they knew nothing about it. Despite that secrecy, they elected the governor of Maryland just north of Virginia.

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

But secrecy invites suspicion. What did the Know-Nothings have to hide? What of all these secret passwords, names, and so forth? It looked like a conspiracy, not a political movement. In the South, conspiracy meant slaves gathering and the underground railroad and abolitionists in their midst, preaching rebellion and ruin. Wise dug up a comment Flournoy made years before about how slave populations impeded prosperity. He pointed to the Know-Nothings’ success in Massachusetts, where they had just sent a slightly anti-immigrant but ferociously antislavery Henry Wilson to take moderate Edward Everett’s seat in the Senate. To do that, they openly combined with Free Soilers! Know-Nothing secrecy did not hide anti-immigrant politics. It only wore those as a mask to hide its true, antislavery face. Thomas Stanhope Flournoy would invite servile rebellion. He would raise up a legion of Nat Turners to murder white Virginians in their beds. Why else would he need that secrecy?

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