Storms Make Messes

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

We have yet to finish with 1854, that remarkable year when everything happened at once and flowed together into everything else into a confused mix where the South and the Democracy had their great triumph over Kansas and then found themselves nearly ruined by it. Doubling down, whether with new efforts to buy Cuba or with wild, irresponsible threats from the Ostend Manifesto only further got the increasingly antislavery North’s back up. Though meaning just the opposite, Franklin Pierce and Stephen Douglas sure knew how to wreck a party.

The Democrats paid at the ballot box, losing almost half the seats they’d held in the 33rd Congress. Only seven northern Democrats who voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act survived the voters’ wrath. Those who voted against it paid a price too, but where pro-Nebraska northern Democrats found their numbers reduced to a mere seven, losing three quarters of their caucus, the anti-Nebraska northern Democracy came out with only a thirty percent, fifteen seat haircut. It could clearly have gone much worse for the latter. This came on the very heels of the Democracy’s best showing yet, a remarkable reversal of fortune. Douglas got his storm.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Looking back at this it can seem obvious that the new Republican party founded in 1854 picked up the pieces. The Democracy’s loss meant the Republican’s gain. We know what happened next, but people at the time did not have that luxury. In some states the Whigs survived. In others the whole party transitioned relatively smoothly into Republicans. That did not happen in Illinois, where the Republicans tried to draft Abraham Lincoln. He declined and stayed a Whig, interested instead in making Whiggery into the national antislavery party. In many corners of the North, antislavery Whigs, Republicans, and Know-Nothings competed for many of the same votes. The Republicans had only just come on the scene and did not even adopt their name until the summer. This all meant a dizzying array of choices at the ballot box, which David Potter summarizes in The Impending Crisis:

Voters in 1854, therefore, faced a stunning array of parties and factions. Along with the old familiar Democrats, Whigs, and Free Soilers, there were also Republicans, People’s party men, Anti-Nebraskaites, Fusionists, Know-Nothings, Know-Somethings (antislavery nativists), Maine Lawites, Temperance men, Rum Democrats, Silver Gray Whigs, Hindoos, Hard Shell Democrats, Soft Shells, Half Shells, Adopted Citizens, and assorted others.

The who? The whats?

The Maine Law refers to that state’s 1851 prohibition law, which the powerful temperance movement wanted to see enacted in other states. The Anti-Nebraskaites took a somewhat stronger antislavery position than the Republicans. Hard Shell and Soft Shell Democrats disagreed over whether to reconcile the Barnburner Democrats who left the party for the Free Soil party back in 1854 but had since come back. Soft Shell Democrats and Silver Gray Whigs both took less of an anti-immigrant tone and worried about the growing power of the Know-Nothings.

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

The Democracy very clearly lost the 1854 elections, but out of all this mess who had really won? Had the Know-Nothings proved their strength over antislavery, or had it gone the other way around? Where did the Temperance movement fit in? If slavery might break the Union, then nativism could save it and serve as a counterweight to the great sectional tensions of the age. The fact that nativism overlapped with antislavery complicated, and ultimately helped thwart, hope but left matters still more confused. Potter counts

about 121 members who had been chosen with Know-Nothing support and about 115 who had been elected as Anti-Nebraska men, with antislavery support. About 23 were antislavery but not nativist; about 29 were nativist but not antislavery (most of these were Southerners); but some 92 were both antislavery and associated with nativism. This situation meant that most of the nativists were antislavery and most of the antislavery members were in some degree nativists.

Who had the majority? The antislavery men or the nativists? Both did, but they did not flow together seamlessly. Some nativists, like Massachusetts’ Henry Wilson, cared quite a bit more about opposing slavery than opposing immigration and Catholicism. Others went the other way. Given the natural affinities between the movements, one would expect them to stick together. Over time, one faction or the other would gain ascendance and the party would become their party, if with the other still a significant minority.

But that question did not resolve itself directly. The 33rd Congress remained in session until the start of March, 1855. The 34th would not take its seats until December. In the meantime, Kansas had its future in the air. Would it fall to slavery, as Northerners feared and Southerners hoped, or would Stephen Douglas’ popular sovereignty bring about his expected outcome through the hard laws of geography and climate?

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