restricted access Too Southern to Be Americans: Proslavery Politics and the Failure of the Know-Nothing Party in Georgia, 1854-1856
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Too Southern to Be Americans: Proslavery Politics and the Failure of the Know-Nothing Party in Georgia, i 854-1856 Anthony Gene Carey Georgia Whigs were resilient. Beginning in 1833 as the State Rights party, they adopted the Whig name in the early 1840s and transformed themselves into a branch of the national party. Battling through Henry Clay's 1844 defeat and the tumultuous years of the Mexican War, Georgia Whigs reached a summit in 1848 with the election of Zachary Taylor, their last major triumph. Soon thereafter, the antislavery bent of Northern Whigs, evident throughout the Wilmot Proviso controversy, compelled Georgians to sever their national party ties. The Whigs briefly became the dominant partners in a successful Unionist coalition formed during the crisis of 1 850, only to have Union Democrats desert them and rejoin the national Democratic party. Divided among themselves, bereft of issues, and doubtful about their purposes, Georgia Whigs fared badly in the 1 852 presidential contest. The party appeared moribund, but Whigs did not relinquish hope. Hostility toward the Democracy had sustained them for two decades, and it was with them still. "You may call the party Whig or Conservative , or what you will," the Savannah Republican vowed, "Democratic rule will always give occasion for the formation of some party to arrest its destructive and disorganizing tendencies."1 The search for some national party capable of overthrowing the Democrats occupied old Georgia Whigs for the rest of the 1 850s. The first leg in their quest began in 1 854, when the furorover the passage ofthe Kansas-Nebraska Act and 1 For background on Georgia politics, see, Ulrich B. Phillips, Georgia and State Rights (Washington , D.C: GPO, 1902; reprint ed., Yellow Springs, Ohio: Antioch Press, 1968); Horace Montgomery , Cracker Parties (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1950); Anthony Gene Carey, "Parties and Politics in Antebellum Georgia" (Ph.D. diss., Emory University, 1992). Savannah Republican , Nov. 6, 1852. Civil War History, Vol. XXI, No. 1 © 1995 by The Kent State University Press KNOW-NOTHING PARTY IN GEORGIA23 the simultaneous rise of Know-Nothingism scrambled Northern politics. Sensing an opportunity, Georgia Whigs scanned the North for political allies and tentatively forged links to the Know-Nothing, orAmerican, party. Beset by ambivalence from the onset, GeorgiaAmericans struggled to reconcile their desire for a national party connection with their suspicions that their putative Northern friends were, like Northern Whigs had been, unsound on slavery issues. The troubled career of the Georgia American party revealed the most fundamental forces at work in state politics and exemplified the disintegration of a national political system unable to contain escalating sectional conflict over slavery. Illinois senator Stephen Douglas's introduction of the Kansas-Nebraska bill in January 1 854 opened a new chapter in the controversy over slavery extension . Although no one in Georgia asked for Douglas's measure, state politicians quickly agreed that the Kansas-Nebraska bill embodied the principle that white Southerners had been contending for since 1 846: the right to carry their slaves into the territories without obstruction from Congress. Georgians abstractly considered the Missouri Compromise restriction either unjust or (most commonly ) unconstitutional, and they welcomed the repeal of the long-standing ban on slavery extension. Georgia leaders of all stripes, from Whig champions Alexander Stephens and Robert Toombs to Democratic stalwart Howell Cobb, echoed Stephen Douglas's argument that the Kansas-Nebraska bill extended the universal principles ofpopular sovereignty and congressional nonintervention that had already been established in the Compromise of 1 850. On February 17, 1854, the Georgia House and Senate unanimously resolved "that opposition to the principles of the Nebraska bill, in relation to the subject of slavery, is regarded by the people of Georgia as hostility to the rights of the South."2 Georgia Democrats expected and could have accepted nothing less than the Northern Democratic support that made passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act possible. As the Athens Southern Banner explained, the Union and Southern rights could only be protected "through National parties, organized upon National principles," and "the soundness of a National party upon the slavery question" was paramount to "any and all other issues." Democrats claimed that the Kansas-Nebraska victory...