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

By Tyler Anbinder | Go to book overview

10
The Know Nothings and Republican Ascendancy, 1857-1860

The American party continued to decline precipitously after the presidential canvass of 1856, contesting its final election in 1859. Under ordinary circumstances, the swift and predictable demise of a third political party would merit minimal attention. But because scholars agree that the flow of Fillmore voters into the Republican party carried Abraham Lincoln to victory in 1860 (and thus helped precipitate the Civil War), they have thoroughly scrutinized the dissolution of the American party. Two widely divergent interpretations have emerged concerning how the Republicans managed to convert the Americans. One emphasizes Republican endorsements of nativism. Historians espousing this view point to Republican enactment of voting restrictions and church property laws as the quid pro quo with which the Republicans attained the support of former Know Nothings.1 The other questions whether these laws should be considered concessions to the Americans and contends that such legislation played only a minor role in convincing Fillmore voters to become Republicans.2 An examination of the context in which Republicans enacted nativist legislation in the late 1850s and of political conditions in the closely contested states where no such laws were passed indicates that while

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1
William E. Gienapp, "Nativism and the Creation of a Republican Majority in the North before the Civil War", Journal of American History 72 ( 1985): 529-592; Joel Silbey, "'The Undisguised Connection,' Know Nothings into Republicans: New York as a Test Case," in Silbey, The Partisan Imperative: The Dynamics of American Politics Before the Civil War ( New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985), 127-65; Michael F. Holt, Forging a Majority: The Formation of the Republican Party in Pittsburgh, 1848-1860 ( New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1969), 222; Ronald P. Formisano, The Birth of Mass Political Parties: Michigan, 1827-1861 ( Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1971), 284-87.
2
Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War ( New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970), 226-60; Richard H. Sewell, Ballots for Freedom: Antislavery Politics in the United States, 1837-1860 ( New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976), 275; David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 ( New York: Harper and Row, 1976), 259.

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