Two Conventions, Two Parties, and Two Americans

Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore

The Know-Nothing American Party had a Union degree. They had perhaps 1.5 million men pledged to stand for Union and against sectional agitation from North or South. They positioned themselves in every way they could as the new party of the Union and peace. If they lost in Virginia, just barely, they could make it good by winning the White House in 1856. But if they stood for Union, what kind of Union? The Union meant different things to different people. To moderate and pragmatic antislavery sorts, the Union provided a tool to restrain slavery. If the two came into conflict, slavery had to lose. No southern politician could dare to utter such a thing in public, Know-Nothing or not. For a great many of them, in increasing numbers as the 1850s wore on, the Union rested on preserving slavery. If the two came into conflict, the Union had to lose.

The Know-Nothings tried to put these diverse groups together in a single party with a single platform and promptly found out that the Union, to the southern delegates at their National Council in Philadelphia, meant the Union that the Kansas-Nebraska Act made. To many of their northern counterparts, it meant the Union that the Kansas-Nebraska Act unmade. They could agree on hating Catholics, except for the Louisiana delegation, and the foreign-born. But inveighing against “the incubus of Popery” only got you so far. The slave states forced through a pro-Nebraska platform and a large portion of the northern delegates quit the convention. Henry Wilson, the club with which Henry Wise beat Thomas Stanhope Fluornoy back in Virginia, led them out.

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

The Know-Nothing rump tried to woo them back, but when the party adopted the majority platform with its pro-Nebraska language twelve northern states refused the overtures. They included all of New England and the Old Northwest. The Indiana delegation left with a parting shot that the majority platform, contrary to the party’s stated Unionism, would only sow more sectional discord. This made for quite the spectacle, but the forces of northern nativism did not quite give up on their new party. They hoped for, and got, a second chance in February, 1856.

The party’s second try began auspiciously. The pro-Nebraska platform plank went into the trash. But then the South, with the help of New York, killed a resolution in favor of restoring the Missouri Compromise. If the pro-Nebraska side could not win, then the anti-Nebraska side could not win either. In reaction to that, fifty northern delegates representing eight states walked out and formed their own convention. The rump said good riddance this time and nominated Millard Fillmore for president. The split, foreshadowing later division, resulted in northern, antislavery nativists calling themselves North Americans and southern, proslavery nativists calling themselves South Americans.

Even had the Know-Nothings somehow come together in a miraculous, if horrifying, flowering of racial and religious hatred they would still have had to contend with other weaknesses. Other parties had machines, but at least tried to look democratic and open. The Know-Nothings vested almost unlimited power in single leaders. They deputized men who could create lodges and orders as they wished on their own authority. Then those orders and those alone elected delegates to conventions to make party rules and elect officers. Party machine nothing, this looked more like private fiefdoms directly empowered to buy their own elections and then encouraged to do so. In the New York convention, 1600 could have come. A mere 953 did and of those, only 482 participated in nominating a man for governor…with all of 243 votes. This looked more like a secret oligarchy than any kind of political party. Crusty Virginia and South Carolina aristocrats might swoon at that, but to the rest of the United States mass politics had long ago become the American way.

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