Although the slavery issue eventually divided both national parties, Whigs split first. During the 1832–52 years, when both parties thrived, Whigs won most often in the North (and especially in the farthest North), while Democrats triumphed most often in the South (and especially in the farthest South). Because of these different power bases, Southern Democrats could wrench slavery concessions from their weaker northern allies, while Southern Whigs could never squeeze slavery safeguards from their stronger northern wing.
As Southern Democrats secured ever more prosouthern laws, Southern Whigs faced ever more dispiriting accusations of remaining “disloyally” in an antisouthern party. In 1852, after the Democracy delivered the Fugitive Slave Law and Northern Whigs screamed in protest, many Lower South Whigs evaded the taint of disloyalty by staying home on Election Day. In 1854, after the National Democratic Party secured the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Yankee Whigs screeched about a Slave Power travesty, Border and Middle South Whigs joined Lower South brethren in searching for alternate allies.1
No new Whiggish national alliance could be based on slavery issues, or Southern Democrats’ charge of soft on slavery would again be killing. Ex-Whigs’ predicament offered another illustration of democracy’s and despotism’s problematic match. While sporadic lynchings such as William Phillips’s horror in Missouri provided the most spectacular evidence that free opinion and coercive tyranny could never be cornerstones for each other, habitual southern accusations of disloyalty more constantly grinded at the national republic (and national party) foundations.
In even the soundest republics, loyalty politics will poison open discourse whenever a foreign enemy threatens. But when the very nature of a prime internal institution forbids dissent, suspicion of secret treason becomes unendingly corrosive. United States slavery for blacks generated omnipresent mistrust of white loyalty for many reasons: because enslaved Cuffees’ pretenses raised awareness of human insincerity; because nonslaveholders judiciously hid doubts about slavery; because slaveholders disagreed about whether loyalty to slavery entailed belief in permanent, unlimited, unreformed absolute power. Rampant suspicions made a counteroffensive the only defense against the charge of being soft on slavery. Southern Whigs had to urge that Democrats were softer still and delivered only compromised proslavery goods. Southern Whigs eventually lost that game.
After Whiggery’s collapse in 1855, ex–Southern Whigs could only tolerate other political games, if the grand old party was ever to rise again. Ex–Northern Whigs’ infatuation with the anti–Slave Power issue, auguring the same old slavery disruptions, thus threatened to cleave Whiggery forever, leaving only the Democracy as a national party. Against that lethal threat to the Union as well as to further national opposition to the Democrats, ex–Southern Whigs desperately sought to interest northern ex-colleagues in any new national issue, based on anything except agitation about slavery.
– 1 –
An alternate northern issue seemed to invite a revived national opposition to the Democracy. Between 1850 and 1854, Northern Whigs faced not only those alleged slaves of the Slave Power, Northern Democrats, but also a new party that denounced European immigrants as slaves of the pope. This socalled nativist movement, dedicated to stopping “disloyal” newcomers from becoming voters anytime soon, flourished amidst the first massive rush of non-English, non-Protestant whites to America. During the 1845–54 decade, some 300,000 Europeans migrated annually to America. By 1854, newcomers comprised about one out of nine Americans. The strangers were overwhelmingly impoverished, Roman Catholic, German or Irish, inexperienced in democratic voting, impressed with papal pronouncements, drawn toward the National Democratic Party—and for all these reasons repugnant to Whiggish Protestants of British ancestry.
Nativist arguments stressed that non-English Catholics, and especially their tyrannical pope, undermined Anglo-American Protestants’ moral and religious supremacy. Impoverished newcomers furthermore coveted old-time Americans’ jobs. Longtime Americans must bar nouveau Americans from voting and perhaps bar immigrants from the so-called land of opportunity, or else no American opportunity would be safe.
Nativist candidates increasingly flaunted these fresh slogans to attract northern voters from the collapsing Whig Party during the early 1850s. Then the Kansas-Nebraska Act demonstrated that outmoded Whigs offered as little protection against the Slave Power as against immigrants. When the 1854 northern electorate turned out northern congressmen who had voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act, anti–Slave Power and anti-immigrant appeals both nourished assaults on the Democracy.2
As ex–Southern Whigs departed their old party, they prayed that ex– Northern Whigs would abandon anti–Slave Power rhetoric. If the old allies ignored the supposed Slave Power and massed only against immigrants, all that had been lately ghastly for Southern Whigs would turn glorious. The hideous politics of sectional disloyalty would give way to the uplifting politics of national patriotism. A new superpatriotic national party would lure 100 percent Americans to save the republic from papal and foreign control.3
In late 1854, this southern prayer emerged as a mysterious, exotic chant. SAM, SAM, SAM went the cry, vote for SAM to make everything right. SAM will save slavery. SAM will fortify the Union. SAM will maul the Democrats.
Who is SAM, who is SAM, who is SAM, went the suspicious response from Southern Democrats, aware that their reinvigorated challengers wielded the glamour of a new secret. As the glamorous mystery spilled out in a hundred political campaigns, it became something yet more seductive: the previously unconsidered cure-all. SAM as quick fix, it turned out, meant S. AM., Southern American, the southern wing of a new antiforeign, newly christened American Party. SAM was a good uncle, an Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam would stop foreign immigrants from destroying American institutions. He would bar newcomers from voting for twenty-one years. Then longtime Americans, united in the American Party, would preserve America for the ages.
To ex–Southern Whigs, SAM’s attractions abounded. At a time when ex–Southern Whigs had to disown northern allies who blasted the Slave Power, SAM invited an alliance with Yankees who blasted the immigrants; and immigrant blasting had lately been a winning northern pursuit. So too, at a time when Southerners and Northerners trembled for the Union, the most trembling Southerners could crusade for a reunited America.
All this and protecting slavery, too. At a time when Southern Democrats claimed to provide all the protections of slavery, SAM would provide the best protection yet. Federal law in 1807 had stopped the South from importing black immigrants. Now, nativists had to stop the North from enfranchising white immigrants. The Democratic Party, darling of immigrant voters, would then secure fewer ballots. The antislavery cause, another alleged immigrant treasure, would be weakened. The North, shorn of its swelling immigrant votes, would receive fewer congressional representatives and fewer voters in new territories. Slavery would also be safer in the Border South, for booming numbers of immigrants could no longer vote to expel waning numbers of slaves.
Back in 1787, explained the Alabama Executive Committee of the new American Party, “the non-slaveholding States, in the House of Representatives,” possessed “only” a “majority of five.” The “majority now is fiftyfour!!” The Yankee advantage has swelled because “two and a half millions of foreigners” have arrived “in this country since the adoption of the Federal Constitution. Nine-tenths make their homes in the nonslaveholding States.” There they exhibit “the most ultra opposition to the institutions of the South.” Worse, at their present rate of increase, immigrants will add “FORTY ADDITIONAL Representatives” to the northern House majority in ten more years.4
The Savannah Daily Republican opined that “in a few years more, unless this tide is checked, the South will be completely at the mercy of the North, and what then will become of our boasted rights, our property, and our firesides?”5 As the question emphasized, a southern antiforeign appeal could take a seductive northern idea, add an alluring southern veneer, fuse a national American Party, and save everything American except the slaveryobsessed Democratic Party.
– 2 –
Still, for all SAM’s potential shrinking of the number of northern voters—and thus SAM’s potential protection of southern voters—foreigners remained, from a Lower South perspective, largely a faraway problem. Immigrants swarmed inside only a few Lower South neighborhoods. In 1860, immigrants comprised 10 percent of Texas’s population (largely Germans living in West Texas) and 23 percent of Louisiana’s peoples (largely foreigners thriving in New Orleans). In these atypical Lower South areas, and especially in New Orleans, nativist passions reached northern-like peaks. But elsewhere in the Cotton Kingdom, foreigners only comprised around 2 percent of the population. That minuscule figure offered thin nourishment to Lower South voters who thought they fattened on the Democratic Party’s proslavery legislation.
In much of the Border South, however, the booming influx of immigrants was fast becoming the local concern. Between 1850 and 1860, the immigrant percentage of the Border South population soared from 8.7 percent to 11.7 percent, while the slaves’ percentage of the population ebbed from 15.6 percent to 12.7 percent. By 1860, Delaware and Missouri both contained more immigrants than slaves. Furthermore, Maryland’s expanding number of nonnative whites almost matched the state’s declining number of slaves.
Throughout this least southern South, but especially in the cities, immigrants captured many jobs and decided some elections. Here, disenfranchising foreigners could improve a native voter’s life. “Let all sectional disputes and all discussion of the slave question be laid aside,” urged the Baltimore Clipper. “Our future should turn upon … whether natives or foreigners shall rule.”6
This sentiment particularly burned through Maryland, the most promising southern state for a nativist conflagration.7 True, Missouri harbored a faster-growing percentage of immigrants. That western outpost of the Border South, however, faced slavery-infested turmoil on its Kansas frontier. Maryland, in contrast, occupied the Border South’s eastern extremity. Here, far-off Kansas turmoil remained an abstraction. A different turmoil heaved up in Baltimore, where the South’s largest urban immigrant population resided. Amidst arson-infested Baltimore streets and roaming gangs of socalled plug uglies, native-born Protestants brawled with Irish and German Catholics. Upper-class patricians wrung their hands over the chaos.
In their first attempt to quell disorder by disenfranchising immigrants, southern nativists elected the previously unknown Samuel Hinks to be mayor of Baltimore in October 1854. Hinks never campaigned at public rallies. Instead, he addressed secret meetings. Who is Samuel Hinks, and what evil is he plotting, Maryland Democrats asked in dismay. We know nothing, answered Hinks’s partisans, thus repeating the nativist motto—Know-Nothings—that swept the North and gave the antiforeigner convulsion its nickname.
In 1855, the Know-Nothing or American Party spread the nativist convulsion from Baltimore across the state, capturing Maryland’s legislature and four of its six congressmen. Two years later, Maryland’s American Party elected Thomas Hicks governor. Meanwhile, Know-Nothingism sprawled over the Border South, securing Delaware’s single congressional seat, six of Kentucky’s ten seats, and three of Missouri’s seven. With nativists simultaneously seizing five of Tennessee’s ten congressional seats, the next question was whether SAM could rout the Democracy throughout the Middle South and then invade the Lower South.
– 3 –
Virginia’s gubernatorial election of 1855 decided the question.8 Antebellum Virginians considered themselves America’s preeminent decision makers. During the republic’s first forty years, their fabled Virginia Dynasty had handed the nation’s presidency to each other. But after James Monroe turned over the White House keys to Massachusetts’s John Quincy Adams in 1825, Virginia’s magic faded, in everyone’s eyes but the Virginians’. The state’s fabulous vein of statesmen ran thin after Monroe. Simultaneously, its once lush tobacco-based economy, already shabby in Thomas Jefferson’s day, turned as worn as its soil.
Worse, Virginia’s attempts at making southern decisions usually produced nondecisions. The divided state drifted on the big question: Could slavery and egalitarian democracy coexist? In 1831–32 after Nat Turner’s slave revolt, western Virginia nonslaveholding egalitarians staged a legislative struggle with eastern Virginia elitists over whether slavery, the basis of the gentlemen’s bloated political power, should be drained out of the state. In part because of rich men’s extra representatives in the legislature, poorer men’s legislators could only pass an unhistoric, vaguely antislavery bill, too riddled with conditions to dent the institution. In 1850, disappointed western Virginia nonslaveholders warned those eastern Virginia slaveholders to surrender their undemocratic power over whites, if they wished to retain dictatorial power over blacks. So rich gentlemen, in constitutional convention assembled, reluctantly gave all whites equal governmental power—and then gave slaveowners unequal tax privileges.9
But if Virginia never could reconcile slaveholders in its eastern black belt areas with yeomen in its western white belt areas, the state seemed perfectly situated to decide whether nativism could become southern as well as northern stuff. North of this Middle South state lay the Border South, where swarming immigrants and waning slaves made Know-Nothingism a natural contagion. Southward lay the Lower South, where few immigrants and many slaves usually made nativism a strangers’ infatuation. Up in Virginia’s northwestern extremity, in Wheeling, located as far north as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the almost entirely white residents had as little use for slaves or for reactionary squires as did Pennsylvania Know-Nothing fanciers. But down in Old Virginia black belts, many reactionary planters cherished South Carolina’s haughty aristocrats. With all varieties of Southerners contending above and below and inside her borders, Virginia could best judge whether Yankees’ anti-immigration prejudice could secure a southern party.
Virginia’s most charismatic compromiser starred in the state’s uncompromising showdown on nativism. Henry A. Wise, approaching fifty years old as he campaigned in Virginia to contain nativism to the Border South and North, had long used dizzying compromises as a means of acquiring state political power. A bony man with perhaps the South’s thinnest, longest face, the frenzied Wise could be unkindly seen, through a Whiggish gentleman’s eyes, as a blur without a core. A worshipper of Andrew Jackson, Wise had leapt to become a State’s Rights Whig, then tumbled back into the Democratic Party. A slaveholder, prone to attacking his opponents’ loyalty to the South, he had hinted that slavery could and should end. Ostensibly a passionate defender of slaveholders’ rights to decide slavery questions, Wise had led the drive to empower nonslaveholders in the midcentury Virginia convention. Then he had led the convention’s drive to give slaveholders tyranny over tax rates on slaves. Through it all, this self-styled conserver of the establishment had played the rough and hardy egalitarian, shrieking from the hustings and spitting like a small ddemocrat. He had also scoffed at Whig old fogies who decried such demagogues as traitors to Old Virginia’s patriarchal tradition.
Wise had in fact traded Old Virginia’s eighteenth-century elitist style for the nineteenth century New South’s more egalitarian, more Jacksonian modes of defending rich white men. That sea change in southern and American mainstream politics had left reactionaries isolated in the most elderly South. Old-fashioned eastern seaboard oligarchs scorned what they ridiculed as “mobocracy”—especially two demagogic parties staging electioneering circuses in quests for the rabble’s votes. Fossils pined for the good old days, when the best men ruled, the poorest men deferred, and all property, including slave property, was safe from the mob. They shuddered at the new southern politics, with its supposedly absurd presumptions that any (white) Tom, Dick, and Harry could equally rule and that supposed equals would never attack the unequally rich. They considered such demagogic nonsense the poison pill of slavery, indeed of civilization itself.
Henry Wise was of the new breed, convinced that defenders of the status quo must use supposedly mobocratic politics to spread the gospel that only race, sex, and age made humans unequal. White male adults, superiors all, must direct blacks, women, and children, inferiors all. But if the superiors who controlled blacks (or wives or children) haughtily sneered at their (white male) equals, the South’s nonslaveholding majority, refusing to cower like black slaves, would assault slaveholders’ presumption. Defenders of slavery must instead plunge into the muck. They must teach muddy toilers the true (racial) foundation of equality. So Wise incited propertyless whites to see themselves not as propertyless but as white—superior folk with a racial interest in keeping inferior folk enslaved.
Because of all this mobocratic electioneering, Wise became, to fading eastern Virginia reactionaries, the foulest faker who ever pretended to uphold superiors’ rights. Edmund Ruffin called Wise “a political liar of the first magnitude.” Beverley Tucker characterized this “petted child” as “incapable of grand ideas.” Wise’s genius consisted of “putting forth petty conceptions with an air of grandeur,” thus “giving to mustard seed” the “velocity … of a cannon ball.”10
Velocity was the word for Wise’s antinativist campaign for governor in 1855. In an unprecedented dash throughout vast Virginia, the Democratic Party’s nominee, decked out in disheveled homespun, sped through 3000 miles in four months, begging his fellows to stop Know-Nothingism at Virginia’s gates. For two, three, four hours every night, the supposed commoner stomped and spit and shrieked before his supposed equals, with gaslights flickering at his every tirade and his voice sinking to an exhausted whisper. It was the greatest show since the circus went on tour.
SAM’s partisans called the spectacle too disgusting to copy. To oppose Wise for the governorship, nativists nominated Richmond’s Thomas Flournoy. This rich lawyer wished to direct poor folk in the manner a gentleman should. The patriarchal ex-Whig scorned Wise’s rude pitches to commoners. Instead, Flournoy loftily instructed voters in an acceptance letter. Then he shunned disgusting public meetings.11
Flournoy’s aristocratic hauteur, standard in the oldest South in the eighteenth century, still saturated old South Carolina and also often survived among Virginia’s coastal State’s Rights Whigs. Abel P. Upshur, the important secretary of state in Texas annexation times, had been tidewater reactionaries’ beau ideal. Now the outmoded crowd cheered Thomas Flournoy’s refusal to prostitute himself before the mob. Not even expelling the immigrant pollution from voting booths, they sniffed, justified polluted electioneering.
In 1855, Henry Wise had his best opportunity to teach such contemptuous squires how egalitarian persuasion, not aristocratic hauteur, offered rich men’s salvation. Throughout other occasions when Wise orated on the stump for hours, his message grew more mystifying with every sentence. This time, this wonderer about slavery did not have to pretend that the institution was a wonder. Nor did this savior of gentlemen have to pretend that he deferred to commoners. Nor did this squirmer at secession have to pretend that he favored disunion. On nativism, Wise was the sincere rabblerouser, determined to teach all native white southern males, rich and poor alike, to see Know-Nothings as traitors to American democracy and to southern slavery, too.
I hold in my hand, the political preacher endlessly repeated, the traitors’ blue book, befouled with nativists’ secret names, passwords, and grips. Why do they maintain this secret mumble jumble? Because they cannot bear a democrat’s scrutiny! They defy freedom of religion, by proscribing Catholics. They defy white men’s equality, by disenfranchising white immigrants. They defy freedom of speech, by refusing to debate in the open air. “If that is ‘Americans ruling America,’” intoned Wise, “I can have nothing to do with it.”12
Wise called Know-Nothings’ secrecy an invitation to antislavery as well as to intolerance. White men who schemed in secret meetings, he demagogically hinted, taught blacks how to plot clandestinely. Discussions of slavery in hidden dens, he sincerely affirmed, allowed wary nonslaveholders to consider abolitionism. Down among Richmond and Norfolk white laborers, he warned, resentful poor men “for ten years have been petitioning the secretary of the navy to forbid the employment of slave labor.” Up in the lilywhite northwestern panhandle of the state, he exclaimed privately after haranguing the folk, Northwesterners “are not Virginians.” Because they live on the borders of the North, they can’t “hold … niggers,” and thus “a white slave has to clean your boots.”13
And now who bids to lead Virginia’s white boot cleaners, with all their resentment of patronizing squires who called their labor “nigger work”? A disloyal Southerner who preferred free labor to slave labor! Years before, Thomas Flournoy had asserted “that no country can be prosperous with a slave population.”14 That declaration, Wise warned, established Flournoy’s softness on slavery. And now SAM’s partisans spread Flournoy’s unsound opinion in dangerously a-southern places, using dangerously secretive tactics.
More damningly still, Wise claimed that Southern Know-Nothings proved their softness on slavery by allying with antisouthern Northerners. In January 1855, at almost the exact moment when the Virginia Democracy nominated Henry Wise, to stop the Border South’s Know-Nothing infatuation from spreading throughout the slaveholding section, the Massachusetts legislature elected the Know-Nothings’ Henry Wilson, to spread anti–Slave Power insistences in the U.S. Senate. Wilson, only nominally anti-immigrant, was ferociously anti–Slave Power. For months, both Wise and his newspapers daily highlighted Thomas Flournoy’s newly notorious northern ally. “What southern man can sympathize,” asked Wise’s main newspaper, with a secret order, “whose headquarters are in Massachusetts, and whose whole basis for action there stands upon religious intolerance and antislavery fanaticism?”15
Wise’s campaign here shrewdly deployed the politics of loyalty against an especially vulnerable candidate. The snobby Thomas Flournoy refused to go public, to explain his supposedly “unsound” opinions. His supporters met only in secret, to discuss heaven knows what opinions. And the whole suspiciously secretive crew stood nakedly guilty of association with the new prince of Northern Know-Nothings, Henry Wilson, worst of anti–Slave Power insulters.
In May 1855, an unprecedented voter turnout demonstrated Wise’s rhetorical power. Henry Wise won more votes than any other Virginia campaigner for any office anytime in the nineteenth century. Deeper in the South, Democratic Party chieftains sighed with relief. While immigration was more the Border South’s problem, they had worried that the SAM solution could become the whole South’s panacea. The nativist program, after all, could disenfranchise millions of Yankee votes. That gambit, far more than an open gate to chilly Kansas, would massively increase the minority South’s relative political power. “If Wise is elected,” wrote Mississippi’s U.S. Senator Albert Gallatin Brown, “we shall have very little trouble in Mississippi.” But if the Virginian loses, “the disorder will run like the cholera all over the South.”16
Yet despite Wise’s electioneering advantages and his huge voter turnout, Flournoy received 47 percent of Virginia’s vote. Less than 2 percent of Wise voters, by switching sides, could have spread the Border South’s nativist gospel to the Middle South. Wise had secured at least that decisive handful by playing the Lower South’s political trump card: the charge that secretly antislavery Southerners proved themselves traitors by associating with openly antisouthern Yankees. The moral of Wise’s victory: If ex–Northern Whigs allowed ex–Southern Whigs to be incinerated in the loyalty politics of slavery all over again, farewell to Whiggery. But if erring Yankees could be brought right—if the Henry Wilsons would at last forget the Slave Power and excoriate only the immigrants—the Middle and Lower Souths might yet repudiate Virginia’s anti–Know-Nothing arbitration.
– 4 –
That was the burden of ex–Southern Whigs’ ensuing attempt to forge a sectionally neutral national Know-Nothing Party that could win in Virginia and perhaps points southward. In June 1855, a month after Wise’s victory, the national council of the Know-Nothing or American Party met in Philadelphia. The southern councilmen asked their northern brethren to read the election returns. “Fools and fanatics in the Legislature of Massachusetts,” a southern nativist ranted, ran “riot during the [Virginia] Canvass”; and Wise partisans “harped upon” their anti-southern “proceedings … with the grossest exaggerations.” If the blundering Henry Wilsons would replace anti–Slave Power slurs with anti-immigrant blasts, nativism could yet deliver the South, consolidate the North, resurrect National Whiggery, rout the Democracy, and win the presidency in 1856.17
In Philadelphia, the American Party’s southern councilmen hoped that a possible national victory would entice northern delegates. The anti-immigrant cause, as often as the anti–Slave Power crusade, had driven northern opposition to the Democracy during Whigs’ waning years. Reassume your anti-immigrant stance and we will together rule our saved nation, southern delegates promised northern compatriots. But if you continue to veer toward anti–Slave Power slurs, they correctly warned, nothing national, least of all the American Party, will endure.
Just here, Missouri ruffians’ seizure of power in Kansas in early 1855 became crucial. If border ruffians’ violent takeover of Kansas had not followed the Kansas-Nebraska Act—if western Missourians had peacefully watched more numerous northern settlers make Kansas free soil—then Northerners might have seen the pope rather than the Slave Power as the worst menace to American republicanism. But from the moment one-day Kansans illegitimately seized the territorial government, anti–Slave Power zeal outpaced antiimmigrant frenzy among the Democratic Party’s northern opponents. Northern nativists had always considered the Slave Power and the immigrants to be twin reasons why the republic staggered. But after the “monstrous outrages in Kansas,” Indiana’s prominent ex-Whig Schuler Colfax stormed, “I cannot give up my hostility to the extension or encouragement of Slavery, & if the Order requires that, I cannot submit.” Unless the American Party’s Philadelphia national council adopts an anti–Slave Power plank, added Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, I will “blow their party to hell.”18
In Philadelphia in June 1855, all southern delegates and just enough northern delegates blew Wilson’s threat back in his face. The American Party’s national council called the existing laws on slavery “final and conclusive.” Thus the American Party must dwell only on immigrants. But a majority of northern delegates, led by Henry Wilson, meant to continue dwelling on the Slave Power. They quit the Philadelphia proceedings.
Eight months later, at the national convention of the American Party in (again) Philadelphia, northern delegates returned. But southern delegates hued to the same line: Only the nativist issue, and never the slavery issue, should be agitated. Many disgusted Yankee anti–Slave Power zealots then left again, this time permanently. The remnant of the February 1856 convention nominated ex-president Millard Fillmore of New York. The candidate called for silence on slavery and agitation on nativism, to save the Union and win the White House.
But Northerners stampeded away from Fillmore three months later, after the Sack of Lawrence (Kansas) and the Brooks-Sumner affair. Proslavery “violence,” warned the usually restrained New York Evening Post, “has now found its way into the Senate chamber,” and “violence has carried election after election” in Kansas. Slave Power violence, having engulfed the Senate, will the more “succeed if the people of the free states are as apathetic as the slaveholders are insolent.”19 For Know-Nothings such as Henry Wilson, the Fillmore-led American Party’s sectional neutrality in the face of Slave Power outrages had zero appeal compared to the emerging alternative: the blooming Northern Republican Party’s slight emphasis on nativism and its heavy stress on containing Slave Power violence.
By failing to rally most ex–Northern Whigs, Millard Fillmore became uninteresting to most ex–Lower South Whigs. A Yankee who could rout the Northern Democrats on a sectionally neutral nativist program might have been intriguing. But if the North had to be lost anyway, a vigorous proslavery campaign could better combat Lower South Democrats. Fillmore’s neutrality on slavery only sufficiently attracted border Southerners, who feared that slavery agitation would imminently blow up the Union—and in the process soak their farms with blood.
The November 1856 election returns demonstrated the American Party’s narrowly regional appeal in the South. Fillmore received a competitive 48 percent of Border South voters. He won in Maryland, that prime southern locale of Know-Nothingism. In contrast, only 43 percent of Middle South voters, 41 percent of Lower South voters, and 11 percent of northern voters favored the New Yorker. The American Party, above and below the Border South, had followed the Whig Party to the grave.
The latest national corpse reemphasized that the slavery issue, in its anti–Slave Power form, most provoked the looming Civil War. Whigs’ inability to reunite demonstrates the point, for no politicians had suffered more from the slavery issue’s contaminations or tried harder to avoid a dread repetition. Nativism, that seductive nonslavery issue, had been wildly popular among the Democracy’s northern opponents in the early 1850s. In the mid1850s, ex–Southern Whigs begged for a party based on only that cause.
But not even southern nativists could escape the lure of the slavery issue’s electoral power. Southern Know-Nothings paraded the proslavery appeal of disenfranchising a fat slice of the North’s swelling majority. So too, after border ruffians and Preston Brooks struck, Northern Republicans’ anti–Slave Power emphasis drowned out anti-immigrant emphases. Once the North’s anti–Slave Power contention hardened, no “loyal” ex–Southern Whigs could ally themselves with Yankee insulters.
– 5 –
After Fillmore’s American Party became extinct, Lower South opponents of the Democracy had only two choices. Most joined their long-hated enemy, the increasingly prosouthern Democratic Party. But ex–Lower South Whig holdouts continued to assault hateful Democratic tormenters as not prosouthern enough. Without a national party, however, ex-Whig assaulters had no hope of winning national concessions. They could only force Lower South Democrats to demand still more concessions from Northern Democrats. Those endangered Yankees faced political oblivion if they conceded another morsel to the Slave Power. Whiggish Lower South patriarchs, no friends of disunion, had ironically become as destructive of compromise, party, and Union as the secessionists.
In the Border South, in contrast, Fillmore’s success gave ex-Whigs a foundation to oppose the Democracy and later the disunionists. In this section where slave populations grew thinner and immigrant populations thicker, the Know-Nothings’ successful anti-immigrant formula proved that nonslavery politics could triumph. The stage was set for a (yet again!) new named party, the Opposition Party, to compete on equal terms with National Democratic politicians throughout the Border South in the 1857–60 period.
Thus where the heavily enslaved Lower South’s experience with nativism had yielded a largely one-party system, with the hapless ex-Whig remnant in position only to carp at the proslavery Democracy, the lightly enslaved Border South had regenerated a competitive two party system, with the powerful ex-Whig fragment in position to defeat the Democracy. The Lower South and Border South had generated different political institutions, compounding their different social institutions. In 1860, the borderland’s powerful surviving ex-Whig partisan organizations would give the region’s Unionist Party a leg up in defeating secessionists. But in the Lower South, the uncompetitive ex-Whigs would offer no such institutional bulwarks against disunion.
The more immediate question, during the presidential campaign and election of 1856, was whether the sole surviving national party, the Democracy, could turn back an almost exclusively northern anti–Slave Power movement’s bid to elect a president. The further question was whether the Union would survive if the new antisouthern party won. And could even a narrowly victorious Democracy survive any further southern demands for protection of slavery, including any further effort to fortify slavery in the southern borderlands?