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

By Tyler Anbinder | Go to book overview

8
"Slavery Is at the Bottom of All Our Troubles": The Decline of the Know Nothing Party

The confidence with which the Know Nothings had originally anticipated the 1856 presidential election had ebbed by the end of 1855, because Section Twelve had disillusioned most northern nativists. Still, many members of the American party remained optimistic in late 1855. Know Nothings had won the most recent state-wide elections in New York, California, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Louisiana, and they had proven in the past that they could carry Pennsylvania and Indiana as well. The Republicans, who like the Know Nothings were trying to establish themselves as the principal challenger to the Democratic party, seemed in much worse shape. The only important state Republicans had carried in 1855 was Ohio, and that victory had required Know Nothing assistance. The Know Nothing victories in New York and Massachusetts had been especially important in reviving optimism within the Order. According to the Philadelphia Times, the November results showed "how firmly, how strongly, how inextricably the great principle of Americanism -- that Americans should rule America -- is rooted in the minds of the American people." On the other hand, continued the Times, northern voters had demonstrated that "the insidious, artful, and dangerous treachery of 'republicanism,' (which was but another name for disunion)" did not interest them. Know Nothing editor Vespasian Ellis agreed that in the wake of the November contests, "we are safe -- the American party will triumph -- & the Union is perpetuated!"1 Yet perceptive Know Nothings recognized that Republicanism had broader appeal than the 1855 election results indicated. In New York, for example, where the Order had just carried the election, a nativist newspaper

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1
Philadelphia Times in Boston Bee, Nov. 10, 1855; V. Ellis to Daniel Ullmann, Nov. 8, 1855, Ullmann Papers, NYHS.

-194-

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