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

By Tyler Anbinder | Go to book overview

6
The Know Nothings in Office

With more than 10,000 lodges and 1,000,000 members, the Know Nothings entered 1855 brimming with confidence.1 In the first weeks of January, Know Nothing governors were inaugurated in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, and the Order believed (correctly, as it turned out) that upcoming spring elections in New England would provide additional victories. But Know Nothings soon discovered that they could not automatically parlay their electoral successes into legislative accomplishments. In New York, Know Nothing leaders anticipated using their legislative strength to defeat the re-election bid of their archenemy, Senator William H. Seward. However, Know Nothing defections to the Seward camp enabled the senator to win a narrow victory. In Pennsylvania, too, the Order encountered difficulties. Factional divisions ran so deep within the Pennsylvania Order that although a majority of legislators were Know Nothings, they failed to elect anyone to the state's vacant United States Senate seat, and the resentment generated by this stalemate paralyzed the legislature for the remainder of the session. Even in Massachusetts, where their 400-seat majority assured easy approval of the Know Nothing legislative agenda, the session's achievements were partially overshadowed by the improprieties of one of their leaders. Nonetheless, when the legislative sessions of 1855 concluded, northern Know Nothings had enacted numerous laws addressing nativism, slavery, temperance, and political reform -- the four major facets of the Know Nothing agenda.

Of course, the Know Nothings' activities in office were circumscribed by their numerical strength, and despite the impression created by their impressive showings in the elections of late 1854 and early 1855, Know Nothings actually controlled political affairs in only a handful of states. Besides capturing the governorship, Know Nothings in Massachusetts occupied every seat in the senate that convened in January 1855, and all but three of the 378 positions in the house. In Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, Know Nothings also controlled both the executive and legislative branches of government,

____________________
1
Charles Deshler to James A. Henry, Jan. 26, 1855 (letterbook), Deshler Papers, Rutgers University.

-127-

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