Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Millard Fillmore, Know Nothing: Part IV

I concluded the last post on this topic at the end of 1854. After all the election results were in, it was clear to virtually everyone that the Whig party was expiring, if not already dead. Millard Fillmore needed to find a new party that could be used as vehicle out of which to fashion a nationwide pro-Union party.

By process of elimination, only the Know Nothings might serve that purpose. The Democracy was clearly not an appropriate vehicle. Visceral hatred of the Democrats, nurtured over almost two decades, meant that many former Whigs would never adopt the Democratic banner. Moreover, it was the Democrats who had, by introducing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, fomented the latest crisis that threatened sectional peace by overturning the finality of the 1850 Compromise. The increasing radicalism of the Democrats’ southern wing cemented the impossibility of making that party the center of Unionism.

The emerging Republicans were, if anything, even more clearly out of the question. It was precisely such a sectional party, with an incendiary agenda designed to alienate the south, that conservative Union Whigs like Fillmore wanted to smother.

The structure of the Know Nothing organization also made it an attractive takeover target. Know Nothing lodges decided which candidates were preferred and then instructed members how to vote. Lodge members, who were bound by oath, had demonstrated remarkable discipline in voting for approved candidates during 1854. Therefore, if Unionists joined KN lodges in sufficient numbers to control the machinery, they could potentially direct the votes of large blocs of disciplined members and thus transform the party. The KNs could, as Solomon G. Haven, Fillmore’s law partner, put it in a letter to Fillmore on December 9, 1854, “be worked . . . into a national fabrick which should be of service to” national Whigs.

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