Ultimately, the Know-Nothings could not master the anti-Nebraska reaction and turn it from an antislavery reaction into an anti-immigrant movement. Whatever hope they had of sidelining slavery through the fact that many antislavery voters also had nativist prejudices crashed hard into the central fact of southern politics: to succeed in the South, you must prove yourself reliably proslavery. Doing that meant sacrificing support in the North, even amongst true blue nativists. The combination went both ways. Furthermore, the Know-Nothings ran up against at least a minority of ex-Whig and barely still-Whig northerners looking for a new party who simply opposed nativism outright. Democrats, at least in the North and almost by definition, favored immigration and the Know-Nothings could not hope to win them over.
Those implacable Know-Nothing foes in the Democracy included Stephen Douglas, who the North might very well have hated above any other man in the summer of 1854. He expected to travel from Boston to Chicago by the light of his own effigies. Before Congress adjourned, he visited New York and could only get applause from the more shameless party sycophants. In Trenton, Douglas got outright boos. In Cleveland, they hung a Douglas effigy wearing a sign damning him, Doughfaces (Northern politicians thought to take orders from the South.), and Nebraska. Free Soilers equated him with Benedict Arnold and Judas Iscariot, just in case Salmon P. Chase calling him the Accomplished Architect of Ruin did not get the point across.
If the Little Giant gained any perverse satisfaction from guessing rightly, Illinois may have taken it away. He came home to find almost all of Chicago against him. Devoted supporters did their best to sing his praises and celebrate Kansas-Nebraska but few listened. Only one Chicago paper would support Douglas. Most of the citizenry and clergy aligned against him. So Douglas decided he ought to have a mass meeting to show that, Nebraska or no Nebraska, Chicago loved him.
Douglas did not opt for the usual venues. Instead he would have his meeting in the Irish section of Chicago and his men sent out the word that he would have Irishmen on hand for security. He chose a hall that could hold only 1,200 or so people. All of this looked like a fake meeting set up to pass pro-Douglas resolutions while gangs of Irish thugs kept out most of Chicago. It inflamed Chicago’s Know-Nothings. If Douglas chose their enmity, and he had declared as much back on the Fourth of July in Philadelphia, then they would happily oblige.
Further complicating things, especially in the Northwest, after Kansas-Nebraska went through a homestead bill failed. The bill made it through the House back in March, promising that after five years of settling and cultivation, the mythic yeoman farmers out of Jefferson’s dreams could have 160 acres for free. Northerners saw their future in that. Yes, they had moved west without the help in the past. But this law would have opened the floodgates to great numbers of them. If the Nebraska bill opened the plains, then northern men could take them.
The southerners in the Senate saw the future in the homestead bill too. Northern men would flood across the fertile plains and close them to slavery. Popular sovereignty would take away their newest triumph. More than that, poor farmers would flood out of the South and take their House seats North with them. The North already dominated the House and it wanted more? Absolutely not! The South’s senators closed ranks against it and defeated the bill.
Events deprived Douglas of any silver lining he could have claimed. He could not say that the homestead bill gave northern freemen a good chance to take the now-open plains for themselves instead of for slavery. He set himself against nativism and so denied himself, to his credit, the chance to exploit anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic fears. The Little Giant would have to meet his less than adoring public as the man who repealed the Missouri Compromise, and that man alone.
What could go wrong?