The Know-Nothing American Party contested Virginia’s gubernatorial election in 1855, hoping to replicate its success in adjacent Maryland and elsewhere. With Virginia in their pocket, the Know-Nothings would have a platform to expand in the South and become a true national party by sweeping up all the South’s discontented ex-Whigs. Against the strange non-campaign of ex-Whig turned Know-Nothing Thomas Stanhope Flournoy, Democrat Henry Wise waged an actual campaign. He toured the state extensively, speaking with theatrical flair. He took aim at the Know-Nothings’ secrecy and branded them a secret abolitionist cabal trying to subvert Virginia’s slave system.
One must expect that of a southern politician. Most every one of them had to prove his proslavery bona fides come election time or risk getting tarred as soft on slavery. But Wise also attacked the Know-Nothings based on the parts of their platform they made little effort to hide. If the Know-Nothings embraced such un-American dogmas as Boston abolitionism in secret, they openly avowed their hostility to the foreign-born and Catholics. Wise called that hostility just as un-American. To make his case, Wise invoked the one Frenchman that every nineteenth century American both knew and admired: the Marquis de La Fayette.
The French aristocrat came close to sainthood in the minds of Americans of the era. When he died, the nation mourned Lafayette like it mourned Washington. He got 24-gun salutes and Congress asked the nation to wear black for thirty days. The Know-Nothings would toss him out and betray the memory of his numerous sacrifices for the cause of American freedom. And for what? For the privileges of the native-born? Native-born like the Protestant Benedict Arnold? Patriotic Americans had to know that the place of a man’s birth and the nature of his faith did not determine his worth. The national epic said as much, as did all the places carrying Lafayette’s name.
Heaping patriotism on top of protecting slavery, Wise finished off with a vision for a new Virginia. He would build internal improvements. He would establish a public school system. He would support the development of industry and agriculture in a Virginia that looked a bit long in the tooth from decades of tobacco decline. Henry Wise, patriot, proslavery man, man of the people, would lead Virginia into the future.
When election day came in May, Virginians turned out in record numbers. Wise won more votes than any other Virginian of the century. The Democracy defeated nativism and kept the South by a margin of 10,180. It very nearly went otherwise. The massive turnout and tremendous enthusiasm the race generated still ended with 47% of Virginian voters choosing Flournoy. A swing of a few percent would have given him and the Know-Nothings their victory. Had Wise made any misstep, most especially had he not tarred the Know-Nothings as abolitionists in hiding, he could easily have failed and heralded the rise of a new party to challenge the Democracy in the South. With his victory, southern democrats could finally relax.