Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850's

By Tyler Anbinder | Go to book overview

4
The Know Nothings and the Collapse of the Second Party System

With the October contests behind them, many Know Nothings believed that the November elections in New York and Massachusetts would provide the true test of the Order's political potential. Although Know Nothings had dominated the anti-Democratic forces in Indiana and Pennsylvania, in most states the Order had functioned as a minority partner in anti-Nebraska coalitions. In the November elections, however, Know Nothing leaders decided to run independent tickets. This was a risky strategy, because many Know Nothings had not realized when they joined the Order that they would have to vote against all of their old party's candidates. Yet the Know Nothings' surprisingly strong showing in New York and landslide victory in Massachusetts proved that a significant proportion of Northerners had abandoned the conventional parties, and that the Whigs were destined for extinction. In light of these results, Northerners came to realize that the political order in which Whigs and Democrats vied for supremacy -- what political scientists often call the second American party system -- no longer defined American politics.

In New York, Know Nothings approached the upcoming contest with great confidence.1 Whereas in other states the Order first organized just months or weeks before the 1854 elections, in the Know Nothings had been operating for years. While they had never conducted a state-wide campaign, New York Know Nothings had experience operating a communications network and working within a hierarchy of command. Furthermore, the Order had existed in New York long enough to allow Know Nothingism to spread through a large portion of the state by the eve of the election. "I find the Native American feeling very deep, very strong and very general," reported

____________________
1
The 1854 New York contest is the only one thoroughly documented in an extant Know Nothing manuscript collection. For this reason it will be described in some detail, in order to provide a case study of Know Nothing political operations in that critical year.

-75-

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