One of Millard Fillmore’s problems in seeking the presidential nomination of the Know Nothings and, later, their votes was the fact that he had absolutely no record as a nativist. Under the circumstances, it is remarkable how little he was willing to say to establish his credentials.
As I noted in the last post, Fillmore joined a KN lodge in late January 1855 and sailed for Europe in May. It appears that, before he left, the only action that Fillmore took to establish his nativist credentials (other than to join a KN lodge) was to write a single letter containing some mildly pro-American rhetoric.
The letter in question, dated January 3, 1855, was sent to Isaac Newton, a Philadelphia Know Nothing and former Whig. According to Michael Holt, “Fillmore instructed Newton to circulate it among Pennsylvania’s Know Nothings, but he insisted that the letter must not be published.”
Fillmore’s daughter, Mary Abigail, had died on July 26, 1854. Six months later, Fillmore related to Newton that he had been too depressed to follow the Fall campaigns closely, although he had “giv[en] a silent vote for Mr. Ullman for Governor,” referring to Daniel Ullman, the Know Nothing candidate for governor of New York in 1854. Fillmore then continued (as usual, I am adding paragraph breaks for readability):
I have for a long time looked with dread and apprehension at the corrupting influence which the contest for the foreign vote is exciting upon our elections. This seems to result from its being banded together, and subject to the control of a few interested and selfish leaders. Hence, it has been a subject of bargain and sale, and each of the great political parties of the country have been bidding to obtain it; and, as usual in all such contests, the party which is most corrupt is most successful.
The consequence is, that it is fast demoralizing the whole country; corrupting the ballot-box – that great palladium of our liberty – into an unmeaning mockery, where the rights of native-born citizens are voted away by those who blindly follow their mercenary and selfish leaders. The evidence of this is found not merely in the shameless chaffering of the foreign vote at every election, but in the large disproportion of offices which are now held by foreigners, at home and abroad, as compared with our native citizens. Where is the true-hearted American whose cheek does not tingle with shame and mortification, to see our highest and most coveted foreign missions filled by men of foreign birth, to the exclusion of the native born? Such appointments are a humiliating confession to the crowned heads of Europe, that a Republican soil does not produce sufficient talent to represent a Republican nation at a monarchial court.
I confess that it seems to me, with all due respect to others, that, as a general rule, our country should be governed by American-born citizens. Let us give to the oppressed of every country an asylum and a home in our happy land; give to all the benefits of equal laws and equal protection; but let us at the same time cherish as the apple of our eye the great principles of constitutional liberty, which few who have not had the good fortune to be reared in a free country know how to appreciate, and still less how to preserve.
Washington, in that inestimable legacy which he left to his country – his Farewell Address – has wisely warned us to beware of foreign influence as the most baneful foe of a republican government. He saw it, to be sure, in a different light from that in which it now presents itself; but he knew that it would approach in all forms, and hence he cautioned us against the insidious wiles of its influence.
Therefore, as well for our own sakes, to whom this invaluable inheritance of self government has been left by our forefathers, as for the sake of the unborn millions who are to inherit this land – foreign and native – let us take warning of the Father of his Country, and do what we can to preserve our institutions from corruption, and our country from dishonor; and let this be done by the people themselves in their sovereign capacity, by making a proper discrimination in the selection of officers, and not by depriving any individual, native or foreign-born, of any constitutional or legal right to which he is now entitled.
Pretty tame stuff, if you ask me, for a man seeking the presidential nomination of a nativist party, particularly given the overheated political rhetoric routinely used during the period.