The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War

By Michael F. Holt | Go to book overview

Chapter 25
"Let, Then, the Whig Party Pass"

SOUTHERN WHIGS' "only chance" was now "a diversion -- a change of names," South Carolina's George S. Bryan concluded two months before the North's crucial October and November elections. Northern Whigs' attacks "against our section" destroyed "the nationality of the Whig party" and rendered it impossible for southern Whigs "to maintain brotherly relations" with them. In the future, therefore, southern Whigs must tout "Fillmore & the Know Nothings -- or whatever better than can be devised." 1

On seeing the returns from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York, John P. Kennedy agreed. Know Nothings could form the core of his long-sought Union party. "National Whigs" and Know Nothings must inevitably combine in New York and other northern states, and "the National Democrats of the North must seek their fellowship hereafter in the same combination." Their interest was to cooperate "with the conservative National party of the South," Kennedy maintained, for in Dixie, Know Nothing "sentiment is thoroughly National and will enlist the support of the whole Whig party and, I doubt not, the National democratic party also." Across the South, he added, those groups "constitute in sentiment and policy one party" that "looks with extraordinary unanimity to Mr. Fillmore" for 1856. 2

Kennedy's dream appalled most northern Whigs. Furious that Know Nothing strength in the North's fall elections had "demonstrated that, by a majority, Roman Catholicism is feared more than American Slavery," they refused "to have the Whig organization broken up, or merged, into either Temperance or Know Nothing organizations." Nor would they surrender antislavery principles to propitiate southern Whigs. "True friends of Freedom," one snarled, must never again allow political cooperation between Northerners and Southerners. 3 Only by intransigently rejecting cooperation with Southerners and reemphasizing their own antislavery, antisouthern credentials, not propitiating Know Nothings, insisted intransigent Sewardites like Orsamus Matteson, could northern Whigs prevent Free Soilers from seizing control of the fusion Republican movement that many of them now believed to be the North's only hope. 4

These dramatically divergent reactions to Know Nothings' success in 1854 outline the millstones between which the Whig party was ground to powder. Starting

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