This day in Texas History:
(from the Texas State Historical Association archives)
“Know-Nothings” Abandon Secrecy, Meet in Austin
January 21, 1856
On this day in 1856, the American or Know-Nothing party of Texas met for the first time in open convention in Austin. The party was the political manifestation of the xenophobic, anti-Catholic secret society known as the American Order.
In the summer of 1855 Texas Know-Nothing leaders launched a plan to gain political control of the state. Lieutenant Governor David C. Dickson, who had defected from the Democratic party, headed the ticket, though he and his fellow candidates steadfastly denied that they were members of the American Order.
AMERICAN PARTY. The antiforeign, anti-Catholic secret society called the American Order, more popularly known as the Know-Nothing movement, reached Texas by the mid-1850s. Many Texans joined the movement and especially its political manifestation, the American party. Some feared “foreign ideas,” especially the antislavery views often attributed to persons of Mexican and German origin in the state. Others believed that the state Democratic party was drifting dangerously toward a secessionist position and hoped that the new party might save the Union. Still others were Whigs who, realizing that their party was dying, did not want to join the Democrats. Some Texans were attracted by the secret character of the movement. Texas Know-Nothings, like their counterparts elsewhere in the nation, pledged to vote only for native-born Protestants for public office and to work to increase the residence requirement in the federal naturalization law from five to twenty-one years.
The party’s first success in Texas came in December 1854, when Know-Nothing candidates swept the San Antonio municipal election. Then, in March 1855, Galvestonians elected a mayor who belonged to the secret order. In both towns native-born white voters seemed to be reacting to the growing number of foreign-born residents.
Early in the summer of 1855 Texas Know-Nothing leaders launched a plan to gain political control of the state by subverting the Democratic party. By that time they had secretly won over several Democratic leaders, including John S. Ford, chairman of the state Democratic committee, and Lieutenant Governor David C. Dickson. On June 11, under cover of a river-improvements convention at Washington-on-the-Brazos, the Know-Nothings nominated a slate of candidates to run for state offices and for Congress in the August election. Dickson headed the ticket in opposition to Democratic governor Elisha M. Pease‘s reelection bid. Though the true purpose and actions of the convention were public knowledge within twenty-four hours of its adjournment, the participants and candidates steadfastly denied-then and throughout the ensuing campaign-that they were members of the American Order.
A spirited campaign followed. On June 16 the Texas Democrats held a convention in Austin, at which they passed resolutions condemning secret political factions and the imposition of tests for voting or officeholding. On July 24 United States senator Sam Houston issued a public letter criticizing the sectionalism of the John C. Calhoun wing of the Democratic party and endorsing the principles of the American Order. Throughout the campaign Dickson and his supporters criticized Governor Pease’s unpopular proposal to pay for a railway system for Texas with state funds, while the Democratic leadership hammered away at Dickson’s defection to the American party.
On August 6 Pease defeated Dickson by a vote of 26,336 to 17,968. Most of the Know-Nothing vote was concentrated in the western part of East Texas and in a group of western counties in the vicinity of Travis County. The American party succeeded in electing Lemuel D. Evans to Congress from the eastern district, Stephen Crosby as land commissioner, and about a dozen members of the legislature. The party faithful celebrated their limited victories in November at a rally in Austin at which Senator Houston spoke.
On January 21, 1856, the American party of Texas, abandoning secrecy, met in open convention in Austin. Participants elected delegates to the national convention, nominated candidates for several state offices, and adopted resolutions endorsing the party’s nativism and calling for the preservation and perpetuation of the federal Union, a strict construction of the United States Constitution, the preservation of states’ rights, and the denial of the right of Congress to legislate on the issue of slavery in the states.
In February two Texans, Lemuel D. Evans and Benjamin H. Epperson, attended the party’s national convention in Philadelphia, which nominated Millard Fillmore for president. The failure of the party to include any statement in its platform about protecting the institution of slavery disappointed many Texas Know-Nothings and may have discouraged them from active participation in the campaign. At any rate, the American party candidates suffered local and national defeats in the general election. The movement then declined as it split nationally over slavery. In Texas the opposition of the Democrats was very effective. By 1857 the American party had virtually disappeared in Texas, though many of its former members supported Houston’s unsuccessful bid for the governorship that year.
In its short life, the American party made its mark on the Texas political scene by forcing the Democratic party to organize effectively throughout the state and by focusing on Unionist, nationalist, and nativist issues that perdured long after the movement’s demise.