April 11, 2016


How the Republican Party's Founders Defeated Xenophobia (Sean Trainor, April 6, 2016, TIME)

According to historian Tyler Anbinder, however, xenophobia was not the party's only concern. An overwhelmingly northern coalition with a strong reformist bent, Know Nothings also advocated goals long associated with the temperance and antislavery movements. As such, they favored bans on the sale and consumption of alcohol and claimed that wealthy southern slaveholders had hijacked the political process for their own personal gain.

Recognizing these cross-currents in Know Nothing politics, early leaders of the nascent Republican Party sought to reshuffle nativist voters' priorities by putting opposition to slavery ahead of xenophobia. At first, they were unsuccessful. While antislavery was becoming a powerful ideological force in northern life, the movement did not yet possess the organizational footprint that benefitted the supporters of xenophobia, who had been working since the 1830s to build state and local political coalitions.

By the late 1850s, however, that was changing. In the years following the Kansas-Nebraska fiasco and the collapse of the Whigs, both Republicans and Know Nothings had moved to put political organizations in place. The Know Nothings fell back on nativist clubs and fraternal organizations--notably, the ridiculously named Order of the Star Spangled Banner--while the Republicans quickly constructed a party structure from scratch, as grassroots antislavery organizations were not nearly as well developed. It was thus no surprise that the Know Nothings got off the ground more quickly, winning impressive election victories in Congressional and state contests, but by 1856 the Republican Party organization had eclipsed that of its rival. During the remainder of the decade, the Know Nothings would be almost wholly absorbed into the emerging Republican Party, who, according to historian Eric Foner, made few meaningful concessions to nativists' demands.

How did these early Republicans defeat their nativist foes? They did so by considering Know Nothings' grievances in full, and by offering a more compelling explanation for the country's troubles than the one nativist leaders had provided. Yes, Republicans conceded, there were many immigrants in the United States. But, at roughly 14% of the U.S. population, they did not control the country. Nor, as a poor, socially-disenfranchised minority, did they pose a threat to its existence.

Slaveholders, on the other hand, did control the country. Though small in number, they had dominated the presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court for much of the republic's 80-year history. They controlled the majority of the country's wealth. And they held one-fifth of its inhabitants in chains. By any objective standard, these slaveholders were the masters of America. And they were using this power, Republicans argued, to enrich themselves, subvert democracy and limit the opportunities of American northerners. In due time, Republicans warned, they would contrive to reintroduce slavery in the North and force unsuspecting American lads to fight an unending series of imperial wars to win more land for slavery. To combat this, Republicans claimed, northerners must recognize the so-called Slave Power's evil intent and unite in opposition to slavery's territorial expansion.

It was not just philosophizing, however, that won Know Nothings to the Republican cause. The late 1850s also witnessed prodigious feats of backroom political dealings as well as a healthy dose of pragmatism. During these years, Republicans successfully made the case to nativist voters that, while immigrants did not control the country, they did represent a growing portion of the northern electorate. And that any successful political party would have to win a fraction of their votes.

The Republican Party thus offered Know Nothing voters a better product than what their leaders were peddling: a realistic diagnosis of the country's problems and a viable path to redressing those problems. This, combined with the Know Nothings' vacillation on both slavery and immigration, led many former nativist voters out of the Know Nothing coalition and into the Republican Party.

Posted by at April 11, 2016 5:49 AM