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While the course of events in Kansas was leading, through violence and illegality, to the verge of civil war, the national political organization was also passing through a crisis. The question before the country after the election of 1854 was whether an anti-slavery party should win the support of northern voters, or whether the old Whig party, comprising southern as well as northern members, should be revived under some new form. As the sudden anger over the repeal of the Missouri Compromise died away, and the issue of the control of the territorial government did not for a year come before Congress, old political traditions tended to draw men into organizations that claimed to be national rather than sectional, and which avoided the old danger of arousing the south and endangering the stability of the Union. 

These feelings worked strongly against the Republican party in the year 1855, and aided a vigorous effort, which now began, to create a successor to the old Whig party through the expansion of the Know-Nothings into a national organization. The national council of November 1854, adopted a new Union oath which placed the order on much the same basis as the "Union-saving" compromisers of 1850 and 1851. "You will discourage and denounce," it ran, "any attempt coming from any quarter ... to destroy or subvert it or to weaken its bonds, . . . and you will use your influence to procure an amicable adjustment of all political discontents or differences which may threaten its injury or overthrow. You do further promise and swear that you will not vote for anyone. . . whom you know or believe to be in favor of a dissolution of the Union ... or who is endeavoring to produce that result."

This action paved the way for others besides anti-slavery and anti-foreign enthusiasts to enter the organization; and in the winter and spring of 1855 councils were formed all over the United States, honeycombing the local Republican or anti-Nebraska coalitions of the west with a Know-Nothing oath-bound membership, and practically absorbing the entire southern Whig body.

By the spring of 1855, the wildest claims were made for the order; it was said to have a sworn enrolment of over a million voters and to be able to control every city and nearly every state in the Union.

The spring elections turned over Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Connecticut into the hands of the Know-Nothings, and thus gave color to these assertions; but the Virginia campaign in May 1855, showed that in the south the Know-Nothings were merely the Whigs under a new name. Henry A. Wise, the Democratic candidate for governor, made a powerful canvass of the state and was successful, after a savage contest, by a ten thousand majority. Thenceforward the extravagant claims for the Know-Nothings were discounted, but although it was seen that it could not revolutionize the south, its control of the north was not yet disproved.

By this time, however, two obstacles to the triumphant progress of the Know-Nothing party were becoming visible. In the first place, the attitude of its northern and southern members was fundamentally different on slavery matters. The New England Know-Nothings were anti-slavery men, who had joined the society in order to strike at the Pierce administration; and when they gained control of a state they enacted laws to obstruct the return of fugitive slaves, passed resolutions denouncing the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and elected anti-slavery men to the United States Senate. But the southern Know-Nothings, although old Whigs, and strongly Unionist, were equally pro-slavery, and the chief ground of attack against them by the southern Democrats was not so much their secret and prescriptive platform as the fact of their being in the same order with the New England Americans. "Know-Nothingism," said a Virginia Democratic address, "has its origin and growth in those quarters of the Union where Abolitionism is most powerful. . . . Every election in which Northern Know-Nothingism has triumphed has inured to the benefit of Abolitionism. . . . We appeal to Southern men, without distinction of party, to ponder the consequences before they cooperate with this organization." The danger of sectional difficulty in the new Union party was visible almost as soon as it was created.

The other weakness of the new party lay in the fact that it was almost without strong leaders. Except in the northernmost slave states, where such men as Clayton, of Delaware, and Bell, of Tennessee, gave it some support, the conservative Whigs who might have been in sympathy with its nonsectional and Unionist aspirations recoiled in disgust from its riotous and proscriptive character and its secret machinery. Such men as Winthrop and Choate, of Massachusetts, representing the Webster tradition, were entirely out of sympathy with it. In the south, such influential men as Stephens and Toombs, of Georgia, and Benjamin, of Louisiana, went squarely over to the Democratic party. "I know of but one class of people," said Stephens, "that I look upon as dangerous to the country. . . . This class of men at the North, of which the Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut legislatures are but samples, I consider as our worst enemies; and to put them down I will join as political allies, now and forever, all true patriots at the North and South, whether native or adopted. . . . Their very organization is not only anti-American, anti-Republican, but at war with the fundamental law of the Union and therefore revolutionary in its character."

The abler anti-slavery leaders in the north in the like manner held aloof from the movement. Seward, Chase, and Sumner refused to countenance the party, and Greeley, in the Tribune, openly scoffed at it, declaring, in a phrase that became permanently attached to it, that "it would seem as devoid of the elements of permanence as an anti-Cholera or anti-Potato-rot party would be." Almost the only strong leader in the north was Wilson, of Massachusetts, a sincere anti-slavery man whose political career showed boldness, shrewdness, and a light regard of party ties. Using the Know-Nothing party simply as a means to secure the redemption of Massachusetts from the "Cotton Whigs," and bring about his own election to the Senate, he was entirely willing to destroy it in the interests of the anti-slavery cause. Left, then, to the management of men new to public life or drawn from the ranks of minor politicians, the party showed no efficient leadership.

When the national council of the order met, in June 1855, at Philadelphia, the differences between northern and southern Know-Nothings led to a sharp contest over the attitude of the body upon slavery in the territories. Anti-Catholic and anti-foreign declarations were unanimously accepted; but it took days of hot debate before the council, by a vote of 80 to 59, could adopt the following resolution: "Pretermitting any opinion upon the power of Congress to establish or prohibit slavery in the territories, it is the sense of this National Council that Congress ought not to legislate on the subject of slavery within the territories of the United States and that any interference by Congress with slavery as it exists in the District of Columbia would be ... a breach of the National faith." From this time on the order stood committed to the familiar policy of expressly conciliating the south.

By this time the practical identity of the Know-Nothing, or American party, as it now styled itself, with the Whigs was manifest in membership and character. A year of pretense at mystery had exhausted the efficacy of that device, and when the proceedings of the national council were reported, unchecked, to newspapers day by day, it was evident that the oaths, grips, passwords, and ritual had ceased to serve their purpose. From this time the state organizations ordinarily held open conventions and went before the voters as the "American party," although in popular language the name Know-Nothing lingered on. In the elections of 1855, the southern Know-Nothings carried Maryland, Kentucky, and Texas, and cast a respectable minority in other states; in the extreme west, also as a pro-slavery party, they carried California; but in the north, although they carried New York — where the irreconcilable "Hard" and "Soft" Democrats still ran separate tickets — their vote fell off badly in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, for not even the repudiation of the troublesome twelfth section of the Philadelphia platform could hold anti-slavery members. The Republicans also lost ground, being unable to gain in the states where the Know-Nothings were strong. Their only victory was in Ohio, which elected Chase governor over both a Democratic competitor and a candidate supported by Whigs and Know-Nothings. At the expense of these two parties, the Democrats profited, making a bold campaign in every state, denouncing the sectionalism of the Republicans and the proscriptive aims of the Americans. They carried five southern states and regained Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Maine, the last through Whig assistance. On the whole, the year ended with the political future still doubtful. It looked very much as if the old situation had returned, with the Know-Nothings occupying the place of the Whigs, the Republicans standing as an enlarged Free Soil party, and the Democrats likely to maintain themselves against a divided opposition.

But by this time the rising excitement over the situation in Kansas began to influence the situation. The enthusiasm of the people of the north for the Free State cause in Kansas resembled that of a country at the beginning of a war. Newspapers were crowded with inflammatory editorials, articles, and extracts from letters of northern emigrants describing acts of violence and cruelty. Public meetings were held everywhere, in which speakers made urgent appeals for volunteers, subscriptions, and arms for Kansas. One such, at New Haven, Connecticut, attained national fame. After an address by Henry Ward Beecher, fifty rifles were subscribed for to fit out a party of emigrants sent under the auspices of the Congregationalist clergy and church members of the city. Beecher's advocacy of the use of Sharps rifles by the Kansas settlers led to their being termed "Beecher's Bibles" by friend and foe.

On the other side, the south was thrilled with anger and alarm. Atchison, of Missouri, made an urgent appeal for southern aid, reiterating that the future of the institution of slavery was bound up in the outcome of the contest for Kansas. "If Kansas is abolitionized," he wrote, "Missouri ceases to be a slave state, New Mexico becomes a free state, California remains a free state; but if we secure Kansas as a slave state, Missouri is secure, New Mexico and southern California, if not the whole of it, becomes a slave state; in a word, the prosperity or ruin of the whole south depends on the Kansas struggle." In response to such appeals, an agitation for money and men spread over the south, with public meetings, fiery speeches, subscriptions, and the raising of companies of emigrants. Attempts were even made in the Alabama and Georgia legislatures to pass acts offering state aid to Kansas emigrants.

Yet, although the southern feeling was deeply stirred, the results of this agitation did not equal those of the simultaneous northern propaganda; and the only important reinforcement provided in the winter of 1856 was a company of less than three hundred men raised by Colonel Buford, of Alabama, largely at his own personal expense. This force, which went unarmed, in deference to a proclamation of President Pierce, set forth from Montgomery with gifts of Bibles, amid prayers and enthusiastic popular sympathy; but upon its arrival in the territory, it was immediately armed as part of the territorial militia. By the end of February, it was clear that the coming spring would find men swarming into Kansas, with what results no one could foresee.

In the midst of this increasing excitement, the ill-fated American party tore itself to pieces upon the unavoidable issue. The first proof of its fatal weakness appeared in a contest for the speakership of the House of Representatives, which delayed the conduct of all public business from the meeting of Congress in December 1855, until the end of February 1856. The regular administration Democrats numbered only seventy-five in place of the one hundred and fifty-nine who controlled the previous Congress, and their candidate was Richardson. The opposition, elected in the political whirlwind of 1854, was too heterogeneous to combine. The largest single group comprised about one hundred and seventeen Americans, leaving about forty " straight" Republicans and a number of independents. But of the Know-Nothing plurality, only about forty could be held together in support of Fuller, of Pennsylvania, the avowedly American candidate. Nearly all the rest joined the Republicans in voting for Banks, of Massachusetts, who had just abandoned the Know-Nothing party for the Republicans. For weeks, running into months, the tripartite struggle went on, in an irregular running debate, mainly on the Kansas issue, interrupted with ballotings for speaker.

January 12, 1856, the three candidates explained their views. Banks insisted that Congress had both the power and the duty to prohibit slavery in the territories; Fuller denied that either Congress or the territorial legislature had any power except to protect slavery; while Richardson stood on Douglas's ground that, whether Congress had the right to prohibit slavery or not, it rested with the territorial government to afford protection. Incessant attempts at a coalition between Democrats and southern Know-Nothings, and between Republicans and all other anti-Nebraska men, were fruitless. The House in exhaustion voted to elect by a plurality, and Banks was chosen, on February 2, by 103 votes to 100 for Aiken, of South Carolina. This victory ended a long period of suspense; the defeated southerners acquiesced in the result, and the House was finally ready for business.

A few days later the Know-Nothing party, shattered as a congressional group, also broke into pieces as a political organization. February 18 a national council of the order met at Philadelphia, modified the party platform by striking out the objectionable twelfth section, and inserting a clause that demanded congressional noninterference with "domestic and social affairs" in a territory, and condemned the Pierce administration for reopening sectional agitation by the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. No such attempt to befog the issue could prevent a crisis when the nominating convention of the American party assembled four days later in the same place. The anti-slavery northern members refused to be bound by the platform just adopted by the order and demanded that no candidates be nominated who were not in favor of interdicting slavery north of 36° 30' by congressional action. When this proviso was laid on the table, at once a score of members withdrew. The next day the convention nominated ex-President Fillmore, the man who had signed the fugitive-slave law, with Donelson, of Tennessee, for vice-president. Thereupon more members seceded and joined the earlier bolters in a call for a national convention of all "Americans opposed to the establishment of slavery in any of the territories which was covered by the Missouri Compromise" at New York in June. Plainly the American party as a national organization was bankrupt. Sectional passions were too strong to enable men from the north and south to stand on a common platform ignoring slavery, and the party was moribund before it was two years old.

On the same day with the American convention, the first Republican national convention met at Pittsburg, under a call from the state committees of nine states, but with delegates present from twenty-three. The proceedings were full of enthusiasm, for the leaders felt that with ordinary prudence and adequate organization their party might absorb all the dissatisfied Know-Nothings and follow up its victory in the speakership contest with one in the coming presidential election. Resolutions were adopted looking to a thorough political organization; a national committee was appointed, one of whose members was Governor Robinson, of Kansas; and a national nominating convention was called for June 17. On the Kansas question, the party took the full Free State position by demanding the admission of the territory as a state under the Topeka constitution.

By the end of February 1856, the results of the Kansas excitement were visible in the definite failure of the American party and the practical certainty that the Republican party would take its place in the north. The presidential election was to be contested by a northern sectional party, long dreaded by all conservatives; and the outcome must depend largely on the course of events in Kansas and the way in which Congress and the administration dealt with them. The situation was highly critical, increasing in tension with every week.