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Not Crazy: Anti-Masons, Nativists, Whigs, Free Soilers, Know-Nothings
January 8, 2023
by William P. Meyers

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Millard Fillmore and America's crazy sounding past politics

Watching the craziness in Congress this week, where Kevin McCarthy had to placate a bunch of loony-tunes characters elected to Congress, just to elect a Speaker of the House, I could not help but think that we are in a period like the mid 1800s, or mid 19th century. In the history books, where a decade may be summed up in a few pages or even paragraphs or sentences, large sections of the American people seemed crazy. I was simultaneously reading Millard Fillmore, Biography of a President by Robert Rayback. Among contemporary historians Fillmore is often ranked last, or close to it, among the U.S. Presidents. Having read the book I think there is an argument to be made that Fillmore was one of our greatest presidents. Because he served less than three years, after Zachary Taylor died, and because he was not a Republican or a Democrat (parties most modern historians identify with), his accomplishments are usually overlooked. But before going into the Fillmore story, in a future post, I want to share what I discovered about the minor parties and movements of that era: the Anti-Masons, nativists, anti-slavery (Free Soil Party), American Party, and the larger party they revolved around, the Whig Party.

The Masons are a bit of a joke now, but in early America they played an important role in society. They were the most prestigious of the secret societies, so most of the ruling class belonged, and many in the middle class aspired. On a practical level, Masons favored other Masons in business relationships. But if one took the Masonic doctrines seriously, one had a lot of reading and memorizing to do. There was not a doctrine per se, but a boatload of traditions, both ordinary and esoteric, derived from every religious tradition known in that time, including Jewish mysticism, Egyptian religion, Islamic mysticism and the like. A business man might attend an Episcopal or Baptist Church, but he had learned the simple Christian dogma was just scratching the surface of the knowledge of how the universe really worked.

The hard-core Christian ministers of America did not like that. To them, and their followers, any deviation from their interpretation of the Bible was heresy and evil. Along came William Morgan, in Batavia, New York, who became a prominent Mason, but then decided to expose the Masonic secrets. His main motivation was likely the money he expected to make, but in any case, allegedly, the Masons took offense. William Morgan was arrested on trumped up charges, then kidnapped when released, and disappeared, presumably murdered.

Sound the alarms! The book, Illustrations of Masonry, was published and was a best-seller. Clergymen whipped up the masses, and people questioned who controlled the government. "They controlled key offices and used their official authority to promote the goals of the Order. Now when one of its members had sought to reveal its secrets ... [they] were capable of obstructing and quashing the whole investigation." Not a lot to hang a political party on, you might think. But this was 1827. Many people had grievances, particularly in western New York State. The party system as we know it had not quite evolved. The Federalist Party had died and left a single party, Democratic-Republican, which in 1828 split into two parties: Andrew Jackson's Democratic Party, and John Quincy Adams National Republican Party. One of Adam's henchmen, Thurlow Weed, saw in the Anti-Masonic movement a way to undermine the Jackson movement that was sweeping the nation. Jackson became President, but the Democratic Republicans maintained control of New York State, aided by the Anti-Masons.

What the anti-Masons wanted was good, honest government. To them Masons led a conspiracy of corruption. The ruling class of the United States at that time was dominated by slave owners in the southern states and the big merchants (and budding industrialists). It did not need Masonry to hold it together. A variety of people were attracted to the anti-Masonic fervor, including Millard Fillmore. He went as a county delegate to the first Anti-Masonic Party convention for New York State. He believed in the honest conduct of business, and of law (he had become a lawyer). This convention drew him into politics, and that was good for the nation. Then as now most people were discouraged from meaningful participation.

By 1836 the National Republicans had evolved into the Whig Party, so it might seem we had a two-party system. But while the Democratic Party had its internal differences, the Whig Party was always deeply fractured. It could win local offices where it was strong, even state offices, but only 2 Whig Presidents were ever elected: William Henry Harrison in 1840 and Zachary Taylor in 1848. The Whig Party was sort of the leftovers who did not want to be Democrats, so it attracted men who often did not work well together. The northern and southern Whigs tended to be at odds over the issue of slavery, whereas the northern Democrats did not have an issue with it (those that did could become Whigs or, eventually, join the Free Soil Party). The Democrats were more pro-agriculture, the Whigs more pro-business and industry. To keep alive the Whigs courted the smaller parties, often doing joint tickets, as with the Anti-Masons, the nativists, and eventually the American Party and Free-Soil Party.

Keep in mind too that this was the heyday of newspapers. Most Americans (excepting slaves) could read, and the economics were such that relatively small circulation papers could survive. Almost every small town had a newspaper. Bigger towns had multiple newspapers, usually aligned with different political parties. These newspapers were just as fact-selecting and partisan as today's political media.

Nativism was a reaction to immigration, just as it is today. Proportional to the population, there was a lot more immigration than today. This particular bout started in 1835 when it became known that the Catholic Church hoped to make America Catholic. This resulted in the organization of New York Protestant Association. Catholics tended to support the Democratic Party, so anti-Catholics tended to move to the Whig Party, though it officially did not favor a religion. In October 1841 the Catholic Bishop Hughes of New York called for the formation of a specifically Catholic Party. Though that did not happen, it resulted in the formation of the nativist (white, protestant) American Republican Party, which allied with the Whigs. Eventually this morphed into the American Party, usually referred to, even by historians, as the Know-Nothing Party. It was not that the members were uneducated or ignorant. Instead, they had formed as a secret society to avoid attacks by armed Catholics. When asked about their party, they answered they knew nothing about it. Despite the secrecy they became quite popular for a few years. Mainly they were nationalists who did not want the United States torn apart by the slavery issue. Not really unreasonable, just not politically viable.

The Democratic Party was openly pro-slavery. Its founder, General Andrew Jackson, had not just owned slaves for his plantation, he had traded slaves. Many politicians, businessmen, and voters in the northern states were not interested in ending slavery in the southern states, and they were welcomed by the Democrats. The Whigs were split. In the South they tended to support slavery, though the uncommon people in the south who opposed slavery tended to be Whigs. In the north Whigs tended to be neutral or anti-slavery, but to elect Presidents they needed southern votes. So the Whig Party were in factions on this issue, the Nationals favoring union at any price, the anti-slavery Whigs ranging from not wanting slavery to be expanded to new states like California, to wanting to find some way to end the evil institution.

In the anti-slavery movement there was diversity as well. The free soil movement technically was not abolitionist, it just wanted to prevent the spread of slavery. As it evolved into the Free Soil Party it attracted the more anti-slavery Whigs and some Democrats as well. Former President Martin van Buren ran on the Free Soil ticket for President in 1852.

When things changed, they changed really fast. By 1856 the Whig Party had been absorbed into the new Republican Party. Millard Fillmore ran for the American Party, and, though he came in third, had (as a percentage of the vote, 21.6%) a good showing.

Not every anti-mason, nativist, anti-slavery or know-nothing nationalist ended up in the new Republican Party, but these mostly ordinary people did supply its votes. The merchant and industrial class moved into the Republicans too, and of course had the money and stature to eventually come into near full control of the party.

We tend to see the Democrat vs. Republican dichotomy as stable. But this is not a stable world. The two parties may be here a hundred years from now, or one could be gone by, say, 2028.

The more important lesson is that if you want to learn from the past, it can help to go into some level of detail that you can analyse and think for yourself. Pre-digested history, told from the point of view of the winners, can hide a lot about the dynamics of what really happened.

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