WHIGS, DEMOCRATS, AND KNOW-NOTHINGS
Jackson’s political opponents, united by little more than a common opposition to him, eventually coalesced into a common party called the Whigs, a British term signifying opposition to Jackson’s “monarchial rule .” Although they organized soon after the election campaign of 1832, it was more than a decade before they reconciled their differences and were able to draw up a platform . Largely through the magnetism of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, the Whigs’ most brilliant statesmen, the party solidified its membership . But in the 1836 election, the Whigs were still too divided to unite behind a single man . New York’s Martin Van Buren, Jackson’s vice president, won the contest .
An economic depression and the larger-than-life personality of his predecessor obscured Van Buren’s merits . His public acts aroused no enthusiasm, for he lacked the compelling qualities of leadership and the dramatic flair that had attended Jackson’s every move . The election of 1840 found the country afflicted with hard times and low wages — and the Democrats on the defensive .
The Whig candidate for president was William Henry Harrison of Ohio, vastly popular as a hero of conflicts with Native Americans and the War of 1812 . He was promoted, like Jackson, as a representative of the democratic West . His vice presidential candidate was John Tyler — a Virginian whose views on states’ rights and a low tariff were popular in the South . Harrison won a sweeping victory .
Within a month of his inauguration, however, the 68-year-old Harrison died, and Tyler became president . Tyler’s beliefs differed sharply from those of Clay and Webster, still the most inf luential men in Congress . The result was an open break between the new president and the party that had elected him . The Tyler presidency would accomplish little other than to establish definitively that, if a president died, the vice president would assume the office with full powers for the balance of his term .
Americans found themselves divided in other, more complex ways . The large number of Catholic immigrants in the first half of the 19th century, primarily Irish and German, triggered a backlash among native-born Protestant Americans . Immigrants brought strange new customs and religious practices to American shores . They competed with the nativeborn for jobs in cities along the Eastern seaboard . The coming of universal white male suffrage in the 1820s and 1830s increased their political clout . Displaced patrician politicians blamed the immigrants for their fall from power . The Catholic Church’s failure to support the temperance movement gave rise to charges that Rome was trying to subvert the United States through alcohol .
The most important of the nativist organizations that sprang up in this period was a secret society, the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, founded in 1849 . When its members refused to identify themselves, they were swiftly labeled the “Know-Nothings .” In a few years, they became a national organization with considerable political power .
The Know-Nothings advocated an extension in the period required for naturalized citizenship from five to 21 years . They sought to exclude the foreign-born and Catholics from public office . In 1855 they won control of legislatures in New York and Massachusetts; by then, about 90 U .S . congressmen were linked to the party . That was its high point . Soon after, the gathering crisis between North and South over the extension of slavery fatally divided the party, consuming it along with the old debates between Whigs and Demo-crats that had dominated American politics in the second quarter of the 19th century .