Whigs, Democrats and "Know-Nothings"

United States History

Because Jackson's political opponents had no hope of success so long as they remained at cross purposes, they attempted to bring all the dissatisfied elements together into a common party called the Whigs. Although they organized soon after the election campaign of 1832, it was more than a decade before they reconciled their differences and were able to draw up a platform. Largely through the magnetism of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, the Whigs' most brilliant statesmen, the party solidified its membership. But in the 1836 election, the Whigs were still too divided to unite behind a single man or upon a common platform. New York's Martin Van Buren, Jackson's vice president, won the contest.

An economic depression and the larger-than-life personality of his predecessor obscured Van Buren's merits. His public acts aroused no enthusiasm, for he lacked the compelling qualities of leadership and the dramatic flair that had attended Jackson's every move. The election of 1840 found the country afflicted with hard times and low wages -- and the Democrats on the defensive.

The Whig candidate for president was William Henry Harrison of Ohio, vastly popular as a hero of Indian conflicts as well as the War of 1812. He was regarded, like Jackson, as a representative of the democratic West. His vice presidential candidate was John Tyler -- a Virginian whose views on states' rights and a low tariff were popular in the South. Harrison won a sweeping victory.

Within a month of his inauguration, however, the 68-year-old Harrison died, and Tyler became president. Tyler's beliefs differed sharply from those of Clay and Webster, still the most influential men in the country. Before Tyler's term was over, these differences led to an open break between the president and the party that had elected him.

Americans, however, found themselves divided in more complex ways than simple partisan conflicts between Whigs and Democrats. For example, the large number of Catholic immigrants in the first half of the 19th century, primarily Irish and German, triggered a backlash among native-born Protestant Americans.

Immigrants brought more than strange new customs and religious practices to American shores. They competed with the native-born for jobs in cities along the Eastern seaboard. Moreover, political changes in the 1820s and 1830s increased the political clout of the foreign born. During those two decades, state constitutions were revised to permit universal white-male suffrage. This led to the end of rule by patrician politicians, who blamed the immigrants for their fall from power. Finally, the Catholic Church's failure to support the temperance movement gave rise to charges that Rome was trying to subvert the United States through alcohol.

The most important of the nativist organizations that sprang up in this period was a secret society, the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, founded in 1849. When its members refused to identify themselves, they were swiftly labeled the "Know-Nothings." In 1853 the Know-Nothings in New York City organized a Grand Council, which devised a new constitution to centralize control over the state organizations.

Among the chief aims of the Know-Nothings were an extension in the period required for naturalization from five to 21 years, and the exclusion of the foreign-born and Catholics from public office. In 1855 the organization managed to win control of legislatures in New York and Massachusetts; by 1855, about 90 U.S. congressmen were linked to the party.

Disagreements over the slavery issue prevented the party from playing a role in national politics. The Know-Nothings of the South supported slavery while Northern members opposed it. At a convention in 1856 to nominate candidates for president and vice president, 42 Northern delegates walked out when a motion to support the Missouri Compromise was ignored, and the party died as a national force.

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Source: U.S. Department of State