September 21, 2019

Springfield and the Know-Nothing Party

It’s not every day that a comparative handful of people can break up a major political party, but it happened in the 1856 Presidential election, and politicians in Springfield, Massachusetts were largely responsible for it.

It all began in the early 1850s with the founding of the American Party, better known as the Know-Nothing Party. They acquired that extra name because if any outsider asked what they were doing, members would answer only, “I know nothing.”

The Know-Nothings distrusted Catholics and loathed the Pope, a few even believing the Pope wanted to take over the United States. The Know-Nothings even stole a Papal commemorative stone meant to be installed in the Washington Monument, and threw the stone into the nearby Potomac River.

They began running candidates across the country, soon becoming a major national party. Their aim was to restrict immigration from predominantly Catholic places such as Italy and Ireland. But—-even the Know-Nothings could not escape the growing dispute over slavery, between the Northern and Southern states.

They certainly tried. Know-Nothing politicians attempted to focus voter attention solely on the Catholic issue. Slavery, if mentioned at all, was to be relegated to the state and territorial governments and people—-they would decide whether to be a free or slave state.

The National Council of the Party held a meeting on June 5, 1855 in Philadelphia, adopting a platform, which included: “It is hereby declared as the sense of this National Council, that Congress possesses no power, under the Constitution, to legislate upon the subject of Slavery in the States where it does or may exist.” Also, “Congress ought not to legislate upon the subject of Slavery within the Territories of the United States.”

Shortly after, a meeting took place in Springfield, Massachusetts on August 6-7, 1855. The resulting Springfield Platform, as it came to be known, adopted an anti-slavery position.

After the usual material about the Pope and Catholicism, came the section about slavery. The federal government should cease supporting slavery, its expansion into the territories should be restricted, and the settlers in the territories should be protected when voting by the federal government.

The Springfield Platform concluded with an appeal to hold a General Convention, and declare all anti-slavery politicians to be in “fusion”—presumably, that is, working with the newly-formed anti-slavery Republican Party in the upcoming 1856 Presidential election.

The majority of Know-Nothing leaders ignored the Springfield Platform, however, and re-affirmed their earlier pro-slavery platform at another National Council meeting, again in Philadelphia, on February 21, 1856. It became known variously as the Washington Platform or the American Platform.

The nationwide Party ended up nominating Millard Fillmore for President. Fillmore had already been President before, from 1850 to 1853. Many of the Springfield Platform supporters deserted the Party at this point, taking their votes elsewhere.

Ironically enough, Fillmore had just finished a month-long visit to Rome, during February 1856, though this writer has been unable to learn if he met the Pope himself.

Both Fillmore and the Republican candidate John C. Fremont lost to James Buchanan, the Democratic candidate, who did nothing about slavery. Fillmore only carried the state of Maryland.

The Know-Nothings began fading away after this. Like many institutions across the country, they too had split over the slavery issue.

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SourcesThe New York Daily Tribune—-August 8, 1855, page 5; August 9, 1855, page 4; August 10, 1855, page 5. The Daily American Organ[D.C.]—February 27, 1855,  page 1; December 24, 1855, page 1; February 26, 1856, page 2; February 28, 1856, pages 1and 2. The New York Times—March 5, 1856, page 1; March 6, 1856, page 1; June 11, 1856, page 1. The Springfield Daily Republican [MA.]—November 4, 1856, pages 1 and 2.

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Written by
John Lockwood

JOHN LOCKWOOD is a park ranger from Washington, D.C. Having spent his past six decades in the nation's capital, he writes with generous assistance from the National Archives and Library of Congress.

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Written by John Lockwood
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