“It is our corrupt political establishment that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people.”
“The Clinton Machine is at the center of this power structure…. Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty.”
“The Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning.”
“I think President Obama is behind it because his people are certainly behind it.”
—Donald Trump, various dates
It’s hard to keep up with who we’re supposed to blame for “American carnage.” Cunning Mexicans. Hillary. The Clinton Machine. Obama. Obama’s people. International banks. Our corrupt political establishment.
This stew of paranoia and scapegoating is easy to feed to voters when you don’t have anything heartier—that is, a real analysis of the world and good ideas about how to make it better. But it doesn’t satisfy for long. Consider, for the first and only time in your life, Millard Fillmore.
'God knows that I detest slavery, but it is an existing evil, for which we are not responsible.' Millard Fillmore
Fillmore is best known, which is to say not at all, as the first of the doughfaces, the three Northern presidents leading up to Lincoln who let the South roll them like a baker making a pie. Fillmore presided over the so-called Compromise of 1850, which was a compromise in the same sense that the Super Bowl was a Falcons-Patriots Compromise. Fillmore enthusiastically enforced the most offensive piece of the arrangement, the Fugitive Slave Act. Among other affronts, it made it a crime to give a runaway slave a glass of water.
But what came before and after Fillmore’s brief presidency is just as instructive. He started in politics in the 1820s as a member of the Anti-Mason Party, which was exactly what it sounds like. It emerged, Dan Brown style, from a momentary panic about the secret tyranny of a fraternal order. Then, after a stint as a member of the mainstream Whig Party, Fillmore ended his career in the 1850s with the Know Nothings, whose ideology consisted of the conviction that the Roman Catholic church was a “cloven-hooved enemy of freedom.”
These parties weren’t as marginal as you’d like to think. They each ran candidates for president who won electoral votes, which is more than you can say for Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, or John Anderson. But they didn’t last. That’s why Fillmore spent his life chasing other people’s displaced passions. He needed to fasten himself to free-floating fervor to make an impression. We are talking, after all, about a guy who was serving as the New York State Comptroller (what the hell is a Comptroller? Is it different from a Controller?) when he lucked into the vice presidency-cum-presidency.
First, the Anti-Masons. In the 1820s and 1830s, they told anyone who would listen that Freemasons had no morals, broke every rule, and got away with it by using secret influence to rig the game. Fillmore claimed that the order “tramples upon our rights, defeats the administration of justice, and bids defiance to every government which it cannot control.”
This line of thinking started with the 1826 murder of William Morgan, an alcoholic former Freemason who decided to earn beer money by writing a tell-all about the order, Illustrations of Masonry. Illustrations revealed all the creepy details of Masonic rituals—everything from being blindfolded and led around by somebody called “Worshipful Master” to assuming the “Due Guard” position, with arms and hands twisted unnaturally.
Masons obviously fetishized their secrecy, which is why they reacted to Morgan’s apostasy by drowning him in the Niagara River. Sucks to be him, but it seems like a weird basis for a political party, right? Right, but the Masons didn’t stop at murder. They used their connections in the courts and the jails to get the culprits off. To anti-Masons, who considered themselves obedient church-goers, it looked like people who worshipped an authority other than God were putting themselves above the law. Worse, there was nowhere to turn. The governor of New York was a Mason. The president of the United States was a Mason.
Pretty soon, the Morgan murder and its aftermath, referred to simply as “the outrages,” played the same role that the words “Benghazi” or “email server” play with Clinton-haters now. They didn’t so much evoke the specific crime as suggest a reprehensible but ultimately unknowable pattern of behavior. This was the window of opportunity that a young lawyer named Millard Fillmore climbed through to get elected to the New York legislature and then the U.S. Congress.
Fast forward 25 years to the Know Nothings. When the Potato Famine drove Irish to the United States in larger numbers in the 1840s, big city political machines started using Irish voting blocs, made even stronger by straight-up fraud, to keep themselves in power.
Many native-born Americans, no stranger to election-day chicanery themselves, reacted by forming anti-Catholic clubs, including one called the Order of the Star Spangled Banner. As rife with secret grips and passwords as the Masons had been, the Order insisted that all initiates respond to prying questions about its activities by saying, “I know nothing,” hence the nickname.
The Know Nothings came along at the right time for Millard Fillmore. When he was not even offered his party’s nomination after his half-term in office, he blamed “foreign Catholics” for the fact that he’d been “cast adrift,” which is the 19th century way of saying that millions of nonexistent illegal Mexican ballots cost you the popular vote. Fillmore’s personal scapegoating aligned perfectly with the population-level scapegoating the Know Nothings were pushing, and he’d found a convenient way to revive, temporarily, a moribund political career.
He wrote a letter to a Know Nothing leader on New Year’s Day 1855 making his play for the party’s presidential nomination in 1856. The Irish, he said, were “corrupting the ballot box—that great palladium of our liberty—into an unmeaning mockery.” A few days later, in his personal library, he received the Order of the Star Spangled Banner’s secret rites. By the time of the election almost two years later, though, the Know Nothings had lost their sheen. Fillmore lost badly and never ran for public office again. It is satisfying that he understood how history was erasing him even while he lived. In retirement, he was prone to maudlin ejaculations such as “All is gone but honor!”
For 150 years, historians have been trying to understand the real grievances that lay beneath these weird, frightening, flash-in-the-pan political parties. This is an extended and obscure version of the process that every liberal who just bought Hillbilly Elegy is going through right now. The Anti-Masons didn’t merely hate secret societies; it turns out they also pioneered abolitionism. The Know Nothings combined Pope-bashing with incipient labor radicalism.
One person who didn’t care about these underlying nuances was Millard Fillmore. He wanted to know, Whose anger do I have to draft off of to get elected? If being Millard Fillmore in 1829 meant raving about bizarre Mason rituals to channel voters’ suspicion that Freemasons were satanic, cool. If being Millard Fillmore in 1855 meant partaking in bizarre Know Nothing rituals to appeal to voters who believed that Catholics were satanic, also cool. Millard Fillmore’s problem was that, in the end, the orgiastic politics of resentment weren’t enough. To build a movement that lasts, you need something more. At least, for the sake of 2018 and 2020, I hope you do.
Millard Fillmore gets the historical literature he deserves. Paul Finkelman wrote the entry in the American Presidents Series, but it’s lazy, including long recitations of standard antebellum political history that don’t address Fillmore’s role and some infelicitous repetitions that the editors should have caught. Robert Rayback wrote a full biography, but it’s over generous and over written. In neither case can you get a real sense of the man, which must have to do with the lack of insights available in his personal papers. I know what you’re thinking. Surely there’s some great stuff on the Anti-Masons and the Know Nothings. But there isn’t! Ronald Formisano wrote a book that I relied on for this essay called For the People, but it’s no fun to read. When I finished, I texted my grad school friend that it “almost seems like an experiment in making something fascinating horrible.” She wrote, “He did that with busing too!” He’s a well-regarded historian, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but no normal person can enjoy this sentence: “Many religious Anti-Masons, in addition, were increasingly participants in an ‘evangelical print culture’ that transcended church congregations and was becoming habituated to core narrative structures produced by publishers of religious tracts and the Bible.” If you want something on the Compromise of 1850, by the way, there are a kazillion books, but you might as well start with David Potter’s Impending Crisis.