A Partial Vindication of Henry Wise

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

The Know-Nothings did not triumph in Virginia. They put on a very good showing and Henry Wise had to pull out every tool in the rhetorical arsenal to win, but win he did. Along the way, he called the Know-Nothings secret abolitionists. Their hidden meetings and secret society trappings only encouraged rumors about them. What did they have to hide, after all? Wise had a point, if not about the ex-Whigs from Virginia who flocked to the Know-Nothing banner. If the Puritan-minded antislavery men had a nativist problem diluting their ranks and competing for their natural constituency, then the nativists also had an antislavery problem diluting their ranks and competing for their natural constituency. The split ran both ways. If the same type of person favored antislavery and favored nativism, then having a party built around each issue meant splitting those voters.

Or did it? Henry Wilson’s election to the Senate from Massachusetts showed that nativists and antislavery men could work together, even if Wilson proceeded to act much more as an antislavery man than as a nativist. Across the North, the Know-Nothings and antislavery men did their best to avoid collision. Rather than work against one another, as one might expect of parties competing for the same voters, they tended to work around one another. That potential for amalgamation came together with the fact that even if one thought nativism or antislavery the controlling issue of the day, that need not mean one also felt the other should just drop off the face of the earth.

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church's perceived attempt to "take over" American life

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church’s perceived attempt to “take over” American life

Across the North, many antislavery men also feared the hard-drinking, Catholic Irish flooding into their ports. Likewise many nativist men also feared that the Slave Power had taken control of their Union and sold off their future. Nativists could point to Catholic sins abroad and threatening moves at home. Antislavery men could point to their impressive string of defeats since the start of the Mexican War, culminating in Kansas-Nebraska, and imagine a natural alliance of the Slave Power and its northern fellow travelers, as abetted by urban political machines larding the ballot boxes with the votes of easily controlled Irishmen. From a certain mindset, the two issues seem to flow together at every turn. Why wouldn’t these groups come together into a single party, if as wings with differing priorities? Americans have long been terrible at developing political parties with any ideological coherence. Having only two competing groups might actually count as progress.

Henry Wise

Henry Wise

The two groups already coordinated, avoiding direct contest amongst themselves. Some went one step further and did amalgamate, coming together as Know-Somethings and under other titles. If that antislavery nativist movement would go nowhere in the South, it could still frame itself as a northern party of northern interests and northern men. That would at once reverse Calhoun’s old dream of a single, southern political movement to save slavery. Instead a united sectional party would look down the map and down its nose at the South and set slavery on the road to extinction. Thus the end must come, unless the South could have and keep decisive control of national institutions or establish some kind of permanent veto over the national majority. Either solution depended on antislavery interests constantly losing, even as each loss further inflamed antislavery passions. The South could very well lose by winning.

Your input is welcome

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.