The Know-Nothing Uproar

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Thus divided, the party approached the presidential election of 1856 with no chance of victory. Yet its leaders clung to a last hope: if the major sectional parties fought to a standstill, they believed, the final decision might be made in the House of Representatives, where they had a strategic position. Thus inspired, they sought unsuccessfully to patch up their internal differences, then nominated former President Millard Fillmore of New York as their candidate.

A more unfortunate choice would have been hard to find. Already hated by northerners for having signed the unpopular Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Fillmore had not only proven himself inept in the Presidency but had exhibited none of the fiery zeal needed to attract nativists to his standard. Actually he scarcely mentioned Catholicism during his campaign, devoting himself instead to vague plans for saving the Union. When the ballots were counted he had received over 800,000 popular votes—almost a fourth of the total—but received the electoral vote of Maryland alone. The Know-Nothing party was as dead as the dodo.

The defeat of Know-Nothingism was also a setback for intolerance. When put to the test, the bigots who had fomented against Romanists and aliens for a generation had nothing to offer save the timeworn clichés of bigotry and a political ineptitude that revealed their own inferiority. Prophets of hatred were to thrust themselves onto the national scene in the future, as the careers of the American Protective Association of the iSgo’s and the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920’s amply demonstrated, yet never was their threat to basic American values so serious as in the 1850’s. By discrediting the cause for which they stood, the Know-Nothings, ironically, made a contribution to the principles of human decency that they opposed so violently.