The Squatter Sovereign on Patrick Laughlin

Patrick Laughlin killed Samuel Collins in a dispute over his published revelations on the Kansas Legion, which I’ve taken some time to examine. I found them reprinted in the Squatter Sovereign for November 6, 1855. The killing itself justified the printing, which consumed most of the Sovereign’s second page. The Sovereign customarily used its first page for short fiction and poetry, this amounted to front page news in the estimation of John Stringfellow and Robert Kelley. After the usual endorsement of David Rice Atchison for President, the Sovereign printed a paragraph on the turning season and then progressed to the matter at hand.

It transpired that not every proslavery paper in Kansas much cared for Laughlin. The Sovereign reports

The “Kickapoo Pioneer,” a Know-Nothing paper published in this Territory is the only pro-slavery (?) Journal that has had the temerity to question the veracity of Mr. Laughlin’s exposition of the midnight order of abolitionists in this Territory. It should be remembered that its editors are Know-Nothings, and that Mr. Laughlin is an Irishman, and therefore in the opinions of these scape-graces, his statements are “not worth much.”

The Know-Nothings dreamed that their anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant movement could save the Union by uniting the sections against the fruit of Rome, Ireland, and Germany. Knowing how things went at the end of the decade, we can easily forget that for a brief time they formed a significant force in American politics. Here we have both a reminder of that and at least a point of tension within the proslavery party. I’d very much like to see what the Pioneer said in its own words, but no one seems to have digitized it.

After dismissing the Pioneer’s editors a bunch of anti-Irish bigots and casting aspersions on their commitment to slavery, Stringfellow and Kelley pressed on to the main event:



I couldn’t do the glee with which the Sovereign reported the killing justice without including the headline. The news so pleased them that their grammar fell over. For the most part, the paper tells the same story as the witnesses did. Collins confronted Laughlin and demanded a retraction. However:

In accordance with this determination, he and some TWELVE brother Abolitionists proceeded Wednesday last to seek out Mr. Laughlin, and demand an unqualified retraction of his recent confession

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Collins had relatives with him and they did involve themselves, but nothing in the witness testimony suggests a band of thirteen abolitionists chasing after Laughlin. Accurate news probably had time to reach the Sovereign before printing, but word of these things can grow in the retelling. Or John Stringfellow could have lied to paint the antislavery party in a darker light. He could say to the South that his party had done so much on their behalf in Kansas but now they had monstrous legions arrayed against them. They desperately needed all the help they could get to hold the line. Should that help not arrive, then Kansas’ proslavery men could go down overwhelmed by numbers or prevail against all odds, valiant specimens of white manhood either way.

Secret Societies of Kansas Stealers

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

All of those people who followed David Rice Atchison’s advice and made themselves temporary Kansans in order to vote in the territory’s first election had to come from somewhere. Moving large numbers of people, especially in an era with poor communications, takes organization. Local newspapers could help, and the United States Postal Service would carry the necessary letters, but without some groups coordinating things, only a diffuse number might come over to steal the election. Clearly more than that crossed the surveyor’s line into Kansas.

They came from Missouri, according to the Howard Report, under the auspices of a secret society

formed in the State of Missouri. It was known by different names, such as “Social Band,” “Friends’ Society,” “Blue Lodge,” and “The Sons of the South.” Its members were bound together by secret oaths, and they had pass-words, signs, and grips, by which they were known to each other; penalties were imposed for violating the rules and secrets of the order; written minutes were kept of the proceedings of the lodges; and the different lodges were connected together by an effective organization. It embraced great numbers of the citizens of Missouri, and was extended into other slave States and into the Territory. Its avowed purpose was not only to extend slavery into Kansas, but also into other territories of the United States, and to form a union of all the friends of that institution.

Passwords, secret handshakes, penalties for breaking secrecy, this all sounds a great deal like the Ku Klux Klan minus the white hoods and burning crosses. It also sounds like the Know-Nothings. The participants would probably prefer we remember them as descendants of the Sons of Liberty and Committees of Correspondence. We need not oblige, but should understand that they saw themselves that way.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

I don’t know that a single organization existed out of all this. The plethora of names sounds to me much more like a network of groups allied for common cause. Either way, they belong together as a movement whether they institutionally merged or not. Their collective method comes as no surprise:

Its plan of operating was to organize and send men to vote at the elections in the Territory, to collect money to pay their expenses, and, if necessary, to protect them in voting. It also proposed to induce pro-slavery men to emigrate into the Territory, to aid and sustain them while there, and to elect none to office but those friendly to their views. This dangerous society was controlled by men who avowed their purpose to extend slavery into the Territory at all hazards, and was altogether the most effective instrument in organizing the subsequent armed invasions and forays.

The aims and rhetoric all sound quite like what B.F. Stringfellow outlined in his Negro-Slavery, No Evil.

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?

Dark Days for the Democracy

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

When Lincoln and Douglas met at Springfield and Peoria, they debated the merits of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Lincoln also made his return to political life and could have done worse than to do it by sharing a stage with and showing up one of the most famous, if also now infamous, men in the nation. But the two men met in the fall of 1854, an election year. Each spoke both for himself and for his party. Though Illinois had a Republican party, Lincoln kept away from them and announced himself still a Whig.

That year began with the reintroduction of a clean, Missouri Compromise affirming Nebraska bill that rapidly mutated through four versions into the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It passed the House only thanks to Alexander Stephens’ firm whip hand. Just as the bill hit Franklin Pierce’s desk, the Anthony Burns (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) affair erupted in Boston. All of this tumult merged with the growing anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic nativist movement. Any one of those could have made for a wild election season. All three together generated a political firestorm of the kind rarely seen in American history.

Douglas, of course, wanted to see his fellow Democrats succeed. They had the Presidency. They had the Congress. During the Second Party System, they had governed the nation almost without interruption. The party might have its problems, and serious ones at that, but things generally worked out for it. The Democracy ran Washington. Then came 1854. Allen Nevins details the Democracy’s many reverses and the following relies heavily on his Ordeal of the Union.

In the Mid-Atlantic states, between strongly antislavery New England and the Border South, New York found the Democracy split and let a Whig, Myron H. Clark, slip into the governor’s mansion. Twenty-nine of the state’s districts elected an anti-Nebraska congressman.  Pennsylvania, home to James Buchanan and other politicians far more compromising than its other famous son, David Wilmot, delivered the Whig-Know-Nothing coalition a governor and control of the legislature. Pennsylvania’s House seats went twenty-one to four in favor of the anti-Nebraska men.

Up in New England, the news predictably came in more of the same. Sixty-three percent of Massachusetts’ votes went to the Know-Nothing-Free Soil coalition. They had plenty of help from the Massachusetts Democracy, which passed what Nevins bluntly calls an asinine resolution proclaiming that Pierce and his administration “confirmed the fraternal feeling among the States.” What kind of families did they come from? Who could they possibly think they would fool? The Bay Sate went completely over to the anti-Nebraska bloc. It’s one-time possession, Maine, had been for the Democracy happily for years but now joined its parent in throwing the Nebraska men out of office.

John Hale

John Hale


The Northwest had no better news for Douglas. Salmon P. Chase’s Ohio gave the Democracy not a single House seat in its October elections. Indiana gave up only two in the same month. Just two years earlier, Ohio favored the Franklin Pierce 47.83% to 43.18 and Indiana 52.05% to 44.17%. Illinois soon followed, surrendering five of its nine House seats to anti-Nebraska candidates. The state legislature fell to the same deluge. Douglas’ fellow Illinois Democrat, James Shields, would soon find himself no longer a senator. Across the Mississippi, Iowa turned on the Democracy too, electing an anti-Nebraska governor who promised continual war against slavery’s expansion. Its anti-Nebraska legislature signaled that Douglas’ compatriot Augustus Caesar Dodge would soon join James Shields in the ex-senator club.

The 33rd Congress, which passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, had 162 Democrats, 91 from free states and 67 from the slave states. The Democracy had never had a better showing. By the time the dust settled, the Democracy lost 4 (5.97%) slave state seats but held only 25 (27.47%) of their 91 free state seats, 66 (40.74%) down from two years earlier. Forty-four members of the Democracy’s northern wing voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. A mere seven (15.90%) of them had jobs in the 34th Congress. Those who defied the party to vote against it, 48 in all, saw only 15 (31.25%) of their number kicked to the curb by angry voters.

The Democracy might have one more president to elect, and did regain control of the House when it put James Buchanan in the White House, but its days as the nation’s natural party of government had ended. From 1854 onward, the Democracy served as a southern party with a minority wing in the North almost completely at the mercy of the South’s proslavery politics. The party that once commanded majorities in both sections as a matter of course would not do anything of the sort again until Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Stephen Douglas had done to his own party what his successes in 1850 and subsequent increasing antislavery agitation had done to the Whigs, only with the sections switched.

Douglas Resurgent

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Neither Douglas’ standard (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) story about how everybody secretly, without noticing it themselves, repealed the Missouri Compromise happily back in 1850, nor his performance at the North Market Hall endeared him to Chicago or to most anybody else in the North. He handled the situation very poorly, but given his druthers would have avoided it all. F Street, Phillip Phillips, and Archibald Dixon had him over a barrel. The Little Giant could have told them what he did the angry mob in Chicago, but doing that probably would not only have once again killed his Nebraska bill and also put paid to any other legislation he wanted to get through the Senate. Douglas made the deal and stuck by it. Given he had the aforementioned angry mob jeering and heckling him, thousands strong, one can understand how he lost his composure.

Some in Chicago at least appreciated Douglas’ difficulty. Allen Nevins quotes the Chicago Journal reporting the meeting:

We regret very much that Mr. Douglas was not suffered to proceed without interruption and conclude what he had to say upon the subject, but at the same time do not hold him blameless in the premises. He came among an excited constituency, who felt that he had deeply wronged them, to speak in self-vindication, but at the very outset of his remarks assailed their intelligence, and charged them indiscriminately with not having read the Nebraska Bill, and being ignorant of its provisions. Instead of asking them to “hear him for his cause, and be silent that they might hear” he constantly appealed to the immense throng for answers to the interrogatories propounded, boasted of being an older resident of the State than a majority of the meeting, and wound up with charging those who had come in obedience to his summons to hear him with being an ungovernable mob. We submit to the friends of Senator Douglas whether such a course was calculated or intended to secure for him a respectful hearing. We ask any candid reader whether Senator Douglas is not himself accountable for fanning excitement which he knew existed to a fury which drove him from the stand?

Douglas took the lesson. He toured Illinois, aiming for more southerly locales less incensed over slavery’s potential expansion. He sent handbills ahead of himself, arranged a band, and generally tried to make the affair more entertaining rather than just a lecture from on high. Illinois did not swing easily. Douglas still saw himself burned in effigy and faced hostile crowds. But he controlled his anger and resentment. He stopped attacking the audience, at least directly, and instead denounced abolitionists, Know-Nothings, and “Nigger-lovers.”

The Illinois Democracy came around. Its papers began again to toe the Douglas line and support the party orthodoxy. They knew who paid their bills, but it helped that Douglas had no one touring Illinois arguing the anti-Nebraska side. He stood up, gave his version, and moved on. One could get the idea that even if one had strong private doubts, the political class in general had some kind of consensus on Douglas’ lines and anti-Nebraska opinion belonged on the nutty fringe with the abolitionists. Gradually Douglas got bigger and friendlier crowds.

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

But events conspired against Douglas’ unchallenged rhetorical performance. In Springfield, an obscure one-term ex-House member and old-time Whig who had quit politics found himself drawn back in. He would not just stand by and let Missouri Compromise go quietly into that good night. Nor would he let Douglas get away with framing the discussion all by himself.

On October 3, Douglas came to Springfield and delivered his now standard speech in the well of the state House. On October 4, Abraham Lincoln occupied the same space, faced the same audience, and made the opposite case. We don’t know precisely what Lincoln said, as we have only newspaper reports of the content, but people came to hear him. Lincoln had friends enough in Springfield that an advertising campaign promoted his appearance. It must have gone over well, because on October 16, Lincoln and Douglas shared the stage and he repeated the same points in expanded form.

“And you may go to hell!”

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas, fresh off repealing the Missouri Compromise in the Kansas-Nebraska Act and selling the Great Plains and the future of the nation over to slavery, returned home to Chicago. There he found the city set against him. The failure of a homstead bill, thanks to southern Senators, just hammered home to the entire Northwest that the Kansas-Nebraska act, despite opening the plains to everybody on paper, actually opened them to slavery. On top of that, Douglas stayed loyal to his Democratic principles and refused to make any concessions to the nativist hysteria sweeping the nation. He faced a party turned against itself and sought no new allies. The Little Giant had done what he had done. Seeing his home turned against him, he arranged a rally at North Market Hall on September 1, 1854.

Douglas avoided the usual venues, selecting a much smaller one. He skipped Chicago’s open parks and larger halls. The North Market Hall stood in the Irish section of Chicago and, underlining how much he loathed the Know-Nothings, he hired on Irish security to guard it. This all made it look very much like Douglas would stage a meeting for show, get a few resolutions passed in his favor, and take them as evidence that Chicago still loved him. Chicago at large smelled a rat and ugly rumors spread, not helped at all by Douglas man ranging out into surrounding counties to gin up a crowd. Those who grumbled about how Douglas must have a fair hearing…or else received back word that the Chicago Know-Nothings chose the latter. Prominent men did their duty in trying to discourage violence, then went on to say that Chicago should show its genuine feelings.

When the day came, rumors had Douglas with company of armed Irishmen. Sales of handguns emptied the stores. If they could not get into Douglas’ small hall, the Chicago Tribune advised the discontented to hold a larger meeting outside it. Douglas obliged, having a platform built outside the hall. Special trains hauled Douglas men in from elsewhere in Illinois to hear their hero speak…and add to the number of people not sizing him up for a rope, rail, or tar and feathers.

Douglas mounted the platform and told his audience, friendly and hostile alike, that they did not understand the Kansas-Nebraska act. Therefore, he would educate them. That went over well. The Little Giant continued, pointing out that they could not understand a bill they had not read and only his loyal paper had published it in Chicago. The crowd did not sit quiet, but rather interrupted him constantly with boos, hisses, groans, and laughter. Douglas went anyway, telling his usual story. Illinois actually, despite the evidence of their lying eyes, actually supported it. They loved popular sovereignty and out of deference to them and his own conscience, Douglas went over from geographic partition to it. After all, none of them supported admitting slave states south of the line…right? No, so they rejected it too and everyone could come together in a happy political family. Why did they curse him for doing as they wished?

For forty-five minutes, Douglas told his usual story. (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) Then he drifted off script and started insulting the city of Chicago and its citizens for their impertinence. He traded barbs with the audience. He denounced the mob and its sympathetic papers. The Little Giant swore he would silence them or stay until morning. The crowd broke into a song that pledged no departure until sunrise. Douglas flew off the handle, damning Know-Nothings and refusing to take even reasonable questions. Finally he gave it up and, to the mob’s cheers, declared he would leave them.

Too little, too late. They had their chance to cheer Stephen Douglas before all that. The Little Giant donned his hat, waved his fist at the mob, and yelled a parting shot:

It is now Sunday morning; I’ll go to church and you may go to hell!

The Most Hated Man in the North

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

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.

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

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?

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.

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?

A Partial Refutation of Henry Wise

Henry Wise

Henry Wise

When running for governor of Virginia in 1855, Henry Wise tarred his Know-Nothing opponent and the party behind him as covert abolitionists. He had a point when it came to Know-Nothings in the North, if not those Virginians he actually accused. To some degree, the natural impulses of ex-Whigs, anti-Nebraska men, and nativists ran together. All feared subversive conspiracies to seize control of the nation and dispossess them of what they saw as their birthright. All had a kind of moral panic over scandals, real and imagined, at home and abroad. Rome and slavery both turned the places where they prevailed into giant brothels, as lurid pamphlets and novels told an audience eager for scandal. If that writing also provided a socially acceptable outlet for more prurient interests, few publishers and readers would complain. To many nineteenth century Americans, nativism and antislavery thus seemed logical, congenial bedfellows.

But other northerners very much disagreed. They looked on less than 700,000 of the nation’s 14,235,000 church members and asked why the Catholics prompted such fears. So small a number hardly represented a serious threat of turning the majority-Protestant United States into a majority-Catholic papal fiefdom. They counted 2,234,602 foreign-born against 19,429,185 native-born and wondered at the panic. Nativist demographic challenges did not hold just in the South. If the Catholics intended to work ruin on the nation, they had Chief Justice Roger Taney on their side. He went to their churches, listened to their sermons, and supposedly took his orders from their Pope. Yet what calamity, they asked before Dred Scott, befell from his influence? Or from Lafayette’s decades before?

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Viewed the right way, anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic paranoia could look very much like anti-aboltionist paranoia. Mobs attacked convents, but mobs had also attacked abolitionist meetings. One had murdered Elijah P. Lovejoy for the crime of abolitionism. Smart antislavery men took care where they traveled to avoid following his example. Respectable venues once refused antislavery patronage, just as the nativists would have the country refuse immigrants and Catholics. For that matter, the goals of the nativists sounded suspiciously similar to a slave system: one race, and nineteenth century Americans very much saw the Irish and, often, Catholics also, as a racial group subordinated permanently to the other via a form of despotism that would require extension over free, white Protestants to sustain itself. If that happened, the nation would have the anti-democratic impulses of slavery replicated and suffer still more for it. They had more of that than they ever wanted just from sustaining slavery.

Possibly the man who put it best had essentially quit politics some years before, after an uninspiring single term in the House of Representatives. The Kansas-Nebraska Act drew him back in. Looking on the ruins of his chosen party, Lincoln wrote to his slaveholding friend, Joshua Speed:

I am a whig; but others say there are no whigs, and that I am an abolitionist. When I was at Washington I voted for the Wilmot Proviso as good as forty times, and I never heard of any one attempting to unwhig me for that. I now do no more than oppose the extension of slavery.



Still an antislavery Whig in 1855, he knew the Know-Nothings wanted the votes of men like him. He would not have it:

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.

Virginia’s new governor would have trouble finding a man eager to throw in with the Know-Nothings in all of that, even if he could find others who would.