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

By Tyler Anbinder | Go to book overview

7
"Our Order Must Be Nationalized": Slavery Divides the Know Nothing Party

Many Know Nothing leaders attributed the Order's early electoral success to the party's ability to adapt to local political situations.1 But by early 1855 it became apparent that the loose coalition of councils that had sufficed for state and local contests could not elect a President. To win the White House in 1856 the Order would need to present a single agenda that appealed to voters in all sections of the Union and disseminate that agenda through a coordinated national organization. Consequently, many Know Nothings began calling for "A NATIONAL AMERICAN PARTY. . . , the heart of which will throb from Maine to Texas, from the east to the far west. . . . To carry out our glorious destiny," these nativists insisted, "we must be shaped into a national form."2

The Order had held several conventions that leaders hoped would create a sense of national cohesion. Their first national meeting, which assembled in New York City in June 1854, had done little to foster Know Nothing unity. This gathering selected national officers for the Order, but these officials did little more than sanction state organizations and distribute copies of the initiation ritual.3 A more significant step toward "nationalizing" the party took place at its Cincinnati convention in November 1854. Woefully little is known about this gathering, except that the Know Nothings voted to add a third degree to their ritual. This third level in the Know Nothing hierarchy became known as the "Union degree" because to achieve it, a Know Nothing pledged

____________________
1
Thomas Spooner, Report of the President of the State Council of Ohio, June 5, 1855 (n.p., [ 1855]), 9, OHS; Otis H. Tiffany in Philadelphia Sun, Aug. 27, 1855.
2
Boston Know Nothing quoted in Harrisburg Herald, Nov. 8, 1854.
3
Virtually nothing is known about this initial Know Nothing convention, although a list of delegates can be found in the Charles Deshler Papers, Rutgers University. Also see Louis D. Scisco , Political Nativism in New York State ( New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1901), 97-98; Ray A. Billington , The Protestant Crusade, 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism ( Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1938), 382-84.

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