Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Thurlow Weed gravitates to the the Republican movement

As we have seen, 1854 was a year of mass political confusion in New York. A Whig had won the governorship, but as a temperance candidate, and the results were widely viewed as signaling the demise of that party in the state. The true powerhouse appeared to be the Know Nothings, who had come out of nowhere to rack up impressive results.

Meanwhile, the prospects for an anti-Slave Power fusion party appeared grim. The Kansas-Nebraska Act had passed in May 1854 and failed to generate a canvass that turned on slavery and the Slave Power when the issue was fresh. There was every reason to believe that anti-slavery and fusion had missed their chance.

That, of course, proved incorrect in New York, for two reasons. First, continued provocations in Kansas, magnified by anti-slavery propaganda, kept the slavery issue before the public in New York as elsewhere in the North. Second, having achieved the re-election of William Seward to the Senate, Thurlow Weed “gravitated to the Republican movement.”

In some states, such as Ohio, the Republican party emerged out of cooperation among Whigs, Know Nothing elements, and free soil Democrats. In New York, Weed and Seward adopted a different tack, fiercely attacking the KNs. Not only had Seward courted immigrants for years; in New York, the KNs had allied with Seward’s enemies the Silver Greys. Cooperation with mainstream KN elements (other than the Choctaws and a fusion-KN group called the Know Somethings) was impossible.

Instead, the Weed-Seward Whigs courted former Barnburners and Softs. After an intricate summer-long dance, Whig and Republican conventions held simultaneously in Syracuse on September 26, 1855 produced a slate carefully balanced among the parties. Heading the ticket was Preston King, a Barnburner who had also walked out of the Soft convention in 1854, as the nominee for Secretary of State. James M. Cook (Whig) for Comptroller and Abijah Mann (a Free Soiler) for Attorney General rounded out the slate.

The platform was largely devoted to the slavery issue, but it also explicitly denounced Know Nothingism – the only 1855 Republican platform to do so. The most difficult issue proved to be temperance. In the end, a pro-temperance statement was passed as a “sense of the meeting” resolution, but was omitted from the formal platform.

Three other parties were arrayed against the new party:

The Hards ran on a platform endorsing Kansas-Nebraska and condemning the KNs.

The Softs endorsed a platform that attacked Whig economic policies, denounced the KN’s and called for repeal of the state’s new prohibition law. After bitter fighting, the convention also endorsed a resolution, known as the Corner Stone resolution, that had been adopted by the Barnburners in 1848. It “pledged to adhere to all compromises of the Constitution,” but at the same time “proclaimed ‘fixed hostility to the extension of slavery into free territory.’”

Like the Softs, the KN-Silver Greys experienced great difficulty dealing with the slavery issue. In the end, the KNs condemned Kansas-Nebraska. Obviously, their principal appeal was to nativism and anti-Catholicism.

The rump of the Whig party – those seeking to avoid siding with either the Weed-Sewardites or the KN-Silver Greys – held a convention at which only slightly more than half the state’s counties were represented – and that overstated their strength. Rather than nominating a candidate, the attendees contented themselves with denouncing the Republicans. The attempt only demonstrated that the old Whig party was dead.

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