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

By Tyler Anbinder | Go to book overview

9
The Know Nothings and the Presidential Election of 1856

On June 22, 1856, after a fifteen-month tour of Europe, American party presidential candidate Millard Fillmore arrived in New York. Although the power and popularity of the Know Nothings had declined precipitously during Fillmore's absence, a warm welcome greeted the former President. Fireworks exploded as Fillmore's ship entered the harbor, Know Nothings fired fifty-gun salutes from both New York and New Jersey, and a committee of New York dignitaries presented him with keys to the city. American party officials did not arrange such festivities merely to demonstrate Fillmore's popularity. Nineteenth-century election etiquette discouraged overt campaigning by political candidates, but Know Nothing leaders realized that Fillmore could make impromptu remarks to the crowds that gathered to celebrate his return without breaching decorum. To provide Fillmore with many such speaking opportunities, his backers arranged similar ceremonies all along the route to his home in Buffalo.1

The speeches Fillmore delivered during his journey revealed how sharply the goals of the American party differed from those espoused during its heyday in late 1854 and early 1855. Instead of criticizing the political power of Catholics and immigrants, Fillmore attacked those who disturbed the harmony of the Union. He condemned "the present agitation" of the slavery issue, "which distracts the country and threatens us with civil war," and insisted that these conditions had been "recklessly and wantonly produced" by the adoption of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Although the Democrats had initiated the crisis, Fillmore blamed the Republicans for the persistence of sectional hostility. He noted that the Republicans had "for the first time" nominated Northerners for both the presidency and vice presidency, "with the avowed purpose of electing these candidates by suffrages of one part of the

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1
Robert J. Rayback, Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President ( Buffalo: Buffalo Historical Society, 1959), 405-6.

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