Thursday, January 10, 2008

Millard Fillmore, Know Nothing: Part X

In assessing Millard Fillmore’s 1855-56 candidacy, several conclusions stand out.

First, he sought and accepted the nomination of the National Americans for the best of reasons – reasons having nothing to do with the original nativist agenda of KNs. Both Michael Holt and Tyler Anbinder are unequivocal on the point: Fillmore was convinced that the safety of the Union required locating a non-sectional, pro-Union party; the alternative was increasing sectional animosity, leading to disunion and civil war. The Know Nothings were simply the vehicle that Fillmore believed he had to use to accomplish that goal.

It is entirely reasonable to question or criticize Fillmore’s implicit decision to value the concept of Union more highly than moral qualms over slavery. In this respect, it might be said, he was simply another doughface and no better than the victor in that election, James Buchanan. On the hand, it is fair to observe that in 1855-56 most members of the coalescing Republican party were not acting out of concern for black slaves either. Many hated the Slave Power because of its perceived domination of the North; many others despised slavery because it degraded free, white labor and were seeking to prevent the spread of slavery to preserve the territories for free white men. Virtually no one was proposing to abolish slavery in the southern states.

Second, Fillmore’s few statements in support of the original, nativist principles of the Americans were remarkably bland. The name “Know Nothings” typically conjures up lurid images of rabble-rousing demagogues violently denouncing whiskey-soaked Irishmen and beer-swilling Germans and urging their brutish followers to ransack churches and hunt down imaginary Popish plotters in the streets. I have quoted at length the statements that Fillmore made precisely so that you can see for yourself that his campaign bore no resemblance to such stereotypes. It is fair to say that Fillmore said the bare minimum – or less than the minimum – necessary to justify his credentials as the American nominee. When he did speak, he eschewed ethnic or religious slurs and focused largely on the need to educate immigrants in the ways of democracy.

Would I have preferred Fillmore to have chosen a vehicle other than the Know Nothings for his unsuccessful run? Sure. But even (or especially) from this distance, it is hard to see what other choice Fillmore, and other men of his persuasion, had in the mid-1850s. History is not foreordained. If events such as the Sack of Lawrence and the caning of Sumner had not driven more and more northerners – including former Know Nothings – into the arms of the Republicans during the course of 1856, perhaps Fillmore and his allies might have succeeded in their quest to transform the Americans into a credible, cross-sectional, pro-Union party, jettisoning most of the Americans’ nativist baggage in the process. Millard Fillmore could not know that events would betray him; at least he tried.

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