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
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
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
influential 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 native-born 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
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 Democrats that had dominated
American politics in the second quarter of the 19th century.
Answer Key: (1) Whigs; (2) Martin Van Buren; (3) William Henry Harrison; (4) John Tyler; (5) William Henry Harrison; (6) Ireland and Germany; (7) Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, or "Know-Nothings".
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Text courtesy of the U.S. State Department, Bureau of International Information Programs, 2005