Franklin Pierce: The American Franchise

Franklin Pierce: The American Franchise

During the 1850s, America experienced a great influx of immigrants, mostly from Ireland and Germany. The campaign of 1852 was the first to acknowledge the foreign born as a political force. Winfield Scott boasted to Irish Catholic voters that his daughter had been schooled in a convent. His campaign operatives tried to pin on Pierce an old New Hampshire statute prohibiting Catholics from holding state office. Pierce forces responded by reminding immigrant voters of how Scott had ordered the hanging of more than sixty men, mostly Irish immigrants who had deserted from the American Army and fought for Mexico.

Immigration and Race Relations

In the three decades before Pierce left office, more than five million immigrants found American shores. Many settled in the poorest sections of the largest cities—New York, Boston, and Chicago in particular—where they competed, often with blacks, for tedious, back-breaking, menial jobs unwanted by native-born white Americans. Most of these Irish immigrants were Roman Catholic. As has happened during many such surges in immigration, entrenched Protestant Americans were unnerved by what they perceived as a threat to American values. Catholics were viewed as less loyal to their new nation than to their pope in Rome. Democrats were less anti-Catholic, and Pierce courageously named as postmaster general James Campbell of Pennsylvania, who became the first Roman Catholic cabinet officer in American history.

The arrival of large numbers of Irish Catholics affected race relations as well. Skilled trades and construction work that had been open to African American freedmen in the North were closed to them between the 1840s and 1850s. Similarly, in upper-class households in the North, some African American household servants were replaced by Irish women, although it is worth remembering that only a quarter million African Americans lived above the Mason-Dixon line. Despite competition in the labor force, residential patterns were not segregated and large numbers of immigrants lived cheek by jowl with African Americans in the poorer sections of Eastern cities.

Political Party Politics

A new party, the Know-Nothings—their official name was the American Party—sought to exploit nativist prejudices against these immigrants. They held secret meetings, and when questioned by outsiders, they were instructed to answer, "I don't know." Led by former President Millard Fillmore in the presidential election of 1856, the Know-Nothings railed against the Catholic faith and sought to restrict Catholic immigration. Their message resonated with many voters, and in the mid-1850s, the party won several governorships and legislative seats. In 1856, the Know-Nothings won more than 20 percent of the vote and actually carried Maryland. Five years later, however, the intense debates over slavery eclipsed the upstart party's anti-immigration cause.

As the Whig party disintegrated and was replaced by the Republican party, voting constituencies fragmented increasingly along ethnic and religious lines. German American voters, particularly those in rural Midwestern areas, moved into the Republican party along with Protestants from the Northeast. Southern whites remained in the Democratic Party, which they dominated. African American slaves in the South, of course, were not part of the electorate, and only five Northern states granted the vote to blacks.