Millard Fillmore had to overcome a number of qualms before deciding to embrace and attempt to infiltrate the KN organization. First, Fillmore was repelled by its structure, which resembled that of a secret society. When Fillmore had first entered politics in 1828, he had done so as a member of the Anti-Masonic party. That party was born of strong feelings against the Masons, a fraternal organization that was perceived to be a secret society whose influence corrupted republican values. In the words of Michael Holt, “As a founder of New York’s Antimasonic party, . . . [Fillmore] abhorred the [KN] order’s secrecy and agreed with Congressman Solomon G. Haven that its initiation rituals were ‘puerile.’”
More important was the fact that Fillmore had little if any sympathy for the nativist agenda of the KNs. To the best of my knowledge, no one has identified any speeches or correspondence by Fillmore before early 1855 endorsing anti-immigrant or anti-Catholic principles. Michael Holt flatly declares that “Fillmore had never condemned Catholics or immigrants,” and had “never publicly expressed any anti-Catholic or nativist sentiments.” To the contrary, the available evidence seems to confirm that Fillmore’s general decency and sense of compassion extended to immigrants. In the words of Tyler Andbinder,
[T]he enrollment of a daughter in a Catholic school and his generous donations for the construction of Catholic churches demonstrated that Fillmore did not sympathize with the militant Protestantism that inspired most American nativists. Fillmore had worked to achieve harmony and consensus, and he valued religious amity as much as sectional tranquility.
Correspondence I have found online confirms that impression. Here, for example, is letter in which Fillmore sought help for and extolled the virtues of a group of German immigrants seeking to move to Kansas. It is particularly noteworthy that Fillmore wrote the letter on December 1, 1854, just as he was wrestling with whether he should join the KNs:
The bearer, Mr John Beyer is a chief man in a religious association of Germans, settled near this city [Buffalo, NY] who contemplate removing to some western state. They have heretofore sent an exploring party to Kansas, but I understand they were not satisfied with that country, and as I have formed a very favorable opinion of your state, I have advised them to look at it before they locate; and I know you will take great pleasure in giving them any information in your power.
As a community, they are most excellent citizens, quiet, peaceable, industrious and honest; excellent agriculturalists and carrying on many branches of manufactures with remarkable skill & neatness. I hope they may find a place to suit them in your state.
A later letter, from 1856, likewise strongly suggests that Fillmore was no hard-core bigot when it came to Catholics. Although he may have had misgivings about the hierarchical nature of the church, it is remarkable that he met and had a long and cordial conversation with the Pope, for whom he expressed admiration. Fillmore’s letter dated January 22, 1856 to Solomon Haven describing the encounter is worth quoting at length because it clearly conveys Fillmore’s basic decency and lack of prejudice. Again, the timing is striking: the KN convention at which Fillmore hoped to be nominated was just a month away. For readability, I have added paragraph breaks:
As in duty bound, I was presented to his Holiness the Pope. He granted me a private audience, but the day before I was to be presented I was told that the etiquette of the Court required all who were presented to kneel and kiss the hand of the Pope, if not his foot. This took me by surprise and when Mr Cass called to accompany me to the Vatican, I informed him of what I had heard, and said if this was the case, I must decline the honor of a presentation. That I could only consent to be presented to the Pope as the sovreign of the State, not as High Priest of a religious sect or denomination. He assured me that I had been misinformed and I consented to accompany him.
I was accordingly presented. His Holiness received me sitting, but very graciously, neither offering hand or foot for salutation, and to my surprise asked me to take a seat and entered very freely and familiarly into conversation for some ten or fifteen minutes. He has a very benevolent face, and I doubt not is a very good man. From all I can learn here, he was really desirous of benefiting those whom he governs, and especially in ameliorating the condition of the common people. But the system which he administers is so bad, and is entrenched so strongly in the political and ecclesiastical despotism of ages, and he is so hedged in by a numerous and selfish priesthood, that he found it impossible. The madness and folly of political demagogues, who without any knowledge of a republican government seized upon the reins of power and committed many excesses, disgusted all well meaning sensible men, and has thrown back all hope of reform here for many years to come.
I was also introduced to Cardinal Antonelli, the minister of foreign affairs. He appears to me like a very intelligent active energetic man and I believe is the chief person in the administration. Some say that he is ambitious but of that I know nothing.
Ironically, Fillmore voiced more doubts about the secular authorities of Europe than he did about the Pope:
Upon the whole I have no cause to complain of the treatment which I have received from the government officials any where in Europe. That they should not like our government, is neither strange nor unnatural, and as long as they do not require me to like theirs I am content. I must say, however, in all candor, that these people seem wholly unfit for a republican form of government. If they can ever reach that it must be by slow degrees through a constitutional monarchy.
Despite these drawbacks, in the end Fillmore concluded that the Know Nothings were the only viable option. Convinced that Know Nothingism provided the “only hope of forming a truly national party, which shall ignore this constant and distracting agitation of slavery” (1/15/55 letter to Alexander H.H. Stuart), “I finally overcame my scruples and at a council in my own house, previous to my departure to Europe, I was initiated into the Order . . ..” (10/30/56 letter to Dorothea Dix)
Fillmore joined the order in late January 1855. In May 1855, he boarded a ship for Europe. He did not return to New York until June 1856.