Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Millard Fillmore, Know Nothing: Part VIII

Millard Fillmore arrived back in New York harbor at the end of June 1856. His backers arranged for a series of dinners and events to celebrate his return as he traveled from New York City to his home in Buffalo, at which he could deliver impromptu remarks without violating the conventions of the period.

The speeches that Fillmore delivered along the way centered on the preservation of the Union, not on immigrants or Catholics. In the words of Tyler Anbinder, they “revealed how sharply the goals of the American party differed from those espoused during” 1854 and early 1855:
Instead of criticizing the political power of Catholics and immigrants, Fillmore attacked those who disturbed the harmony of the Union. He condemned “the present agitation” of the slavery issue, “which distracts the country and threatens us with civil war,” and insisted that these conditions had been “recklessly and wantonly produced” by the adoption of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Although the Democrats had initiated the crisis, Fillmore blamed the Republicans for the persistence of the sectional hostility . . .. Fillmore promised that the American party would restore sectional harmony by favoring neither North nor South, insisting that “I know only my country, my whole country, and nothing but my country.”

This is not to say that Fillmore ignored nativism entirely. Given the persistent doubts about his commitment to the cause, he could not afford to do so. Solomon Haven warned Fillmore that he needed to make statements that were “strong[ly] American, and a little Protestant.” To satisfy this requirement, Fillmore typically made brief endorsements of “Americanism.” His most detailed statement on the subject appears to have taken place during remarks in Newburgh, New York, in which he asserted that
Americans should govern America. I regret to say that men who come fresh from the monarchies of the old world, are prepared neither by education, habits of thought, or knowledge of our institutions, to govern America. The failure of every attempt to establish free government in Europe, is demonstrative of this fact; and if we value the blessings which Providence has so bounteously showered upon us, it becomes every American to stand by the Constitution and the laws of his country, and to resolve that, independent of all foreign influence, Americans will and shall rule America.

Again, at least to this sympathetic auditor, this is pretty tame stuff. KNs had advocated increasing the naturalization period from five to twenty-one years or more. Fillmore’s speech pointedly failed to endorse even this requirement. So far as one can tell, the existing five-year period might be sufficient to inculcate the values of democracy in “men who come fresh from the monarchies of the old world.” Certainly, neither the Constitution nor the existing laws required more. Likewise, there was no mention of Catholicism or Popish plots. A skeptic might even point out that Ireland was omitted entirely, since it was not really a “monarchy” (unless England was).

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