Sunday, May 04, 2008

Millard Fillmore, Know Nothing: Part XI

Last winter, I posted a number of entries about Millard Fillmore's decision to run for president as the candidate of the American (Know Nothing) party in 1856. I argued, among other things, that Fillmore was not a nativist or anti-Catholic; that he turned to the American party, for want of any other vehicle, to convert it into a non-sectional, pro-Union party; and that, in winning the nomination and running on the American ticket, he used an absolute minimum of nativist, anti-immigrant rhetoric -- so little, that he alienated many of the hard-core members who had swelled the party's ranks in 1854 and 1855.

I am pleased to see that so learned a scholar as William Gienapp appears to agree. Here are are a few of Professor's Gienapp's observations about Fillmore's involvement with the Know Nothings:
Fillmore had begun pursuing the [Know Nothing] nomination as early as 1854. He appealed principally to the Silver Grey element in the order [Silver Greys were conservative New York Whigs, opposed to the Seward-Weed wing of the party] and to southerners who desired the preservation of a national Union party. Although the former president endorsed limited nativist reforms, he had little interest in this aspect of the American movement (indeed, while visiting Rome in January 1856, he had an audience with the Pope). Instead, from the first he envisioned the American party as a conservative, pro-Union replacement for the Whig organization.

* * *

Also important [to the Know Nothings' decline] was the muddling of the party's appeal with Fillmore at the head of its ticket. The Know Nothings had risen to power by crusading against old party hacks, calling for political reform, and shrewdly exploiting both anti-Catholic and anti-Nebraska sentiment so pervasive in the North. Fillmore had no interest in any of these issues. To him and the clique of Silver Grey Whigs around him, the major issue of the contest, indeed the great issue since 1850, was the preservation of the Union. In a series of short campaign speeches that he delivered following his return from Europe, Fillmore over and over again stressed the importance of the Union issue while giving only lip service to the nativist sentiments that motivated the party's rank-and-file. "Do you notice that K N-ism already has utterly sunk all discussion of its leading principles?" one Republican asked near the end of the campaign. From a quite different perspective, a New York Know Nothing nonetheless made a similar observation when he complained that the party's speakers "have said too little about the great American principles."

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