Home > 1856 Campaign, 1856-1892 Campaigns > By Hannah Richardson–“Know Nothing” Rhetoric, 1856

By Hannah Richardson–“Know Nothing” Rhetoric, 1856

A third-party candidate has yet to become President but many third-party campaigns have had a major impact on Presidential elections. Perhaps one of the most influential third-party campaigns was that of former United States President, Millard Fillmore, from the American Party, in the election of 1856. The American Party, also known as the “Know Nothing” Party rallied behind the idea of nativism. They strongly opposed immigrants and Catholics and embraced working class values. The Know Nothing campaign was able to influence the election by embracing nativism and opposing Catholicism in their rhetoric.

The election of 1856 began on an interesting note with the Democrats not re-nominating the incumbent President, Franklin Pierce. Instead, the Democratic Party nominated former Secretary of State, James Buchanan. The fairly young Republican Party nominated former U.S. Senator John C. Frémont. The Republican Party was formed just a few years earlier in 1854 to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Slavery and its extension into new territories was a major issue during this time and was on the minds of all voters. The fractured nation was finding its way around several party divisions and creating new parties that represented the new interests in America. The popular Whig Party had split due to their varying stances on slavery and new parties such as the Free Soil Party, the North American Party, the North American Seceders Party and the Liberty Party were formed. Slavery played a very critical role in the rise of the Know Nothing Party and although the party failed in getting their candidate to the White House they were able to have an impact on this election. This election was one of the first years that a third-party candidate had a competitive role in the presidential election. The Know Nothings wanted to keep the rhetoric focused on nativism and found many ways to do so.  The party began a crusade claiming that the Republican candidate, John C. Frémont was Catholic. This accusation was an important aspect of the election.

After rumors broke out the Frémont was secretly Catholic, the Know Nothings perpetuated the idea to get the campaign rhetoric focused on nativism. They argued that he was married in a Catholic church and sent his daughter to Catholic school and therefore must have been hiding his Catholicism. Many Americans had strong anti-Catholicism ideals at this time. They feared Catholicism would take over and the Pope would one day rule America. Frémont expressed that he was Episcopalian but the rumors still tarnished his name to those Americans who held strongly to the idea of nativism. In the cartoon called “The Great Republican Reform Party, Calling on their Candidate,” John Frémont is being targeted for being Catholic as well as supporting other radical social reform movements such as feminism, abolition, religious tolerance, and open marriage. The cartoon has several citizens that represent the various progressive reforms people feared from Frémont. They are all looking to him and he is looking right back at them telling them that they will get what he wants if he becomes president. His progressivism was deeply disturbing to Americans who believed nativism was important. Though this was not enough to focus the campaign dialogue on nativism it did have an impact on the country. One of the reasons the issue of Catholicism and immigration was not as influential  as it may have been in other elections was because there was a much more pressing issue on the public’s mind which was slavery.

Political parties across the nation were divided over the issue of slavery in the 1850s. The passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act played a major role in fragmenting the political parties and remained a major part of the discourse in 1856. The Republican Party strongly opposed slavery expansion and opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act whereas the Democrats supported it. When the Republicans crusaded against slave power the Democrats warned that a Republican victory would bring on a civil war. One of the biggest downfalls to the Know Nothing Party was the fact they did not take a stance on slavery. Their platform focused on nativism and anti-immigration and said nothing of the issue of slavery in America. Since slavery was such an important issue at the time many people strayed away from voting for Fillmore and were forced to choose another party and many people did so solely on their views on slavery. The lack of rhetoric on slavery from the Know Nothing Party was damaging to the parties following.

The election of 1856 ended in a Democratic victory with James Buchanan becoming President and John Frémont in second place. Though Millard Fillmore only received 8 electoral votes he gained 21.6% of the popular vote- enough to sway the election. Though many Americans opposed the Catholic faith and immigration – slavery and its expansion was more important and the Know Nothing party refused to take a stand on slavery. In the election of 1856, the Know Nothing Party served as an instigator that took votes from the other parties and swayed votes away from the Republicans. In the political cartoon called “The Right Man for the Right Place” Fillmore is ironically standing between the two other candidates demanding peace as we see Buchanan (right) associated with violence against antislavery settlers and Frémont (left) associated with anti-slavery sentiments but violently pointing a gun. The faces of Frémont and Buchanan look uneasy while Fillmore is standing strong in the middle with a determined face. Frémont and Buchanan are also angled toward each other while Fillmore is front and center facing out with open arms. Frémont has a gun while Buchanan has a knife suggesting that Buchanan would lose in the current situation. Both Buchanan and Frémont have speech bubbles that relate to slavery while Fillmore is just talking about having peace. This is a great representation of the Know Nothing Party not taking a stand on slavery and therefore loosing votes. The Know Nothing campaign was able to influence the election by embracing nativism and opposing Catholicism in their rhetoric but were unable to rally enough people behind them.


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