Know-Nothings vs. Know-Nothings 2.0

Henry Wise

Henry Wise

The original version of this post should have gone live Friday. It did not and I lost it. You can imagine my discontent. So here I have reconstructed it from memory, my sources, chiefly Allen Nevins’ Ordeal of the Union and Potter’s The Impending Crisis, and a copy of the old post forwarded to me after I wrote most of this. You get the best of both worlds, Gentle Readers.

The Know-Nothings lost in Virginia. Henry Wise extracted his narrow victory with accusations that the party, with all its private meetings and secret society trappings, provided a haven for abolitionism. Some antislavery men lived up to Wise’s accusation, even if others did not and still others men disdained nativism the same way they disdained slavery. But parties have come together from less coherent bodies. The Whigs started off as the official party of people who hated Andrew Jackson, though they eventually developed a more coherent ideology built around a national bank, internal improvements, and a more prime ministerial vision of the presidency. Ex-Whigs and rebel Democrats could do the same, and that new ideology might mitigate the American Party’s demographic challenges in the South. If they could get people fired up about other things in addition to immigrants, they had a road to electoral success even where immigrants had barely penetrated.

The election of 1856 would give nativism another chance. They would have a national convention and vote on a party platform. That national platform would serve as their ideological manifesto for the next four years. They had already staked out a position on the Union, introducing a Union degree in their rituals and getting maybe 1.5 million Know-Nothings to swear out an oath to stand against sectionalism from the North or South.

But state conventions fed into the national convention and each one saw in the convention a chance to swing the national platform their way. These state conventions, of course, lived in one section or the other and acted accordingly. Massachusetts and New Hampshire got the ball rolling by approving antislavery resolutions. New Jersey’s delegates arrived instead with a resolution that the party ought to seek the friendship of the South. Illinois found too much division to agree on a resolution either way. But those resolutions did not necessarily bind the delegates down the road. A few nonconforming states could be dragged to orthodoxy easily enough, right?

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

The Know-Nothing bigwigs got together in a National Council in Philadelphia in June, 1855, with an eye toward using the upcoming presidential race as their next stepping-stone to becoming the one true national Unionist party. The delegates agreed easily on excluding the foreign-born and foreign-schooled from office. They signed on for a twenty-one year wait before naturalization. They condemned Catholicism. (A Louisiana convention later condemned the condemnation on behalf of the righteous, native-born Catholics unfairly lumped in with the newly arrived sorts.) A majority of the platform committee damned Whig and Democrat alike for slavery agitation and pledged the party to preservation of the Union in its existing state. In other words, they pledged themselves to Kansas-Nebraska. The document went on to say that Congress ought not legislate on slavery in the territories again. All the slave state delegates, plus California and New York signed on.

That asked far more than the rest of the Know-Nothing North would give. Their minority report demanded either restoration of the Missouri Compromise or, failing that, refusal to admit any slave states to the Union from its former territory. That would make any future Kansas and Nebraska both free soil. When the majority would not accept those demands, the delegates from all the free states save New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and California seceded from the convention.

This from the party of sectional comity and national Union?

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