Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Millard Fillmore, Know Nothing: Part III

As discussed in earlier posts (Part I; Part II), early in 1854 conservative pro-Union Whigs lost control of the debate over the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Nonetheless, at least in the North, it did not appear that the Whig party was in its death throes. Although some were abandoning the Whigs for a new anti-Nebraska coalition party, many others –- William Seward, for example -- continued to see the Whigs as the beneficiaries of the Democrats’ self-inflicted wounds. Although Millard Fillmore and the Silver Gray Whigs disagreed violently with Sewardites on many issues, Fillmore too stuck steadfastly with the Whigs going into the 1854 elections.

Then the Know Nothings exploded onto the public stage. In retrospect, it is possible to see that immigration and related issues had been assuming increased political importance. Anti-immigration groups had shown local strength going back to the 1840s in certain areas, particularly Philadelphia. But the rise of KNs was astonishing. Tyler Andbinder estimates that in early 1854, the KNs boasted about 50,000 members nationwide. By the middle of the year, membership in KN lodges had increased to one million.

What accounted for this phenomenal growth? It is certainly true that the core of the KN agenda was anti-immigrant and particularly anti-Catholic. But the key to the explosion was the fact that KNs embraced a series of other issues and values that they perceived to be related. Among other things, KNs tended to advocate temperance (those drunk Irish and Germans hung out in saloons and polluted on the Sabbath). Many also espoused moderate anti-slavery (in contrast to degraded Europeans and Catholics who, accustomed as they were to serfdom and to taking orders from the Pope, had no problem with slavery). Finally, they also embodied and benefited from an upsurge in anti-party feeling, which sought to teach unresponsive immigrant-catering politicians and political parties a lesson by throwing the bums out).

The KNs wreaked havoc on both major parties in 1854. The trauma was all the more acute because it came out of the blue: since the KNs were organized in secret lodges, their numbers were unknown and their political strength unrecognized. The results varied from state to state, but they particularly devastated the already-weakened Whigs. Most notably, in Massachusetts, long a Whig stronghold, the KNs elected the governor with 63% of the vote, won all eleven congressional contests, and captured all but three of the more than 400 legislative seats.

To make a long story short, by the end of 1854, the Whig party was on life support. It had been torn apart. In a few upper Midwest states, the anti-Nebraska coalition that was coalescing into the Republican party had become the primary anti-Democratic party. In many other northern and southern states, the Know Nothings had gutted the Whigs. The Whig party was clearly no longer a viable vehicle to serve as a national, pro-Union party.

As mentioned, throughout this disorienting year, Millard Fillmore steadfastly clung to the fading Whig banner, seeking to construct strategies that would position it as the one pro-Union party in both north and south. At no point before all of the 1854 results were in did Fillmore suggest, even privately, that the Whigs should consider abandoning their party. Only at end of the year did Fillmore, viewing the wreckage, admit to himself that the Whig party could not be resuscitated, and that a new vehicle must be found to save the Union.

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