The Know-Nothing Party in Florence and the saga of editor Charles Wheeler of the short-lived "American Democrat" newspaper

Subject

Politics; abolition

Description

According to Florence historian Lee Freeman, “Know-Nothing” was the nickname given to the Native American Party, which was comprised of native-born white Protestant Americans who feared America was being overrun by immigrants, esp. German and Irish Roman Catholic immigrants. Founded in 1843 and especially active between 1854-1856, it got the nickname “Know-Nothing” due to the secrecy of its beliefs—when asked members refused to talk about the party’s real aims, claiming to “know nothing.” In the 1840s and early-mid 1850s “Know-Nothingism” was the hot topic of discussion in all the newspapers. The extremity of its views, coupled with the party's secrecy caused it to be mistrusted by many however the fact that many Know-Nothings were also abolitionists made them even more despised politically, esp. in the South. As the party grew in numbers and importance in the 1850s it shed its clandestine character and adopted the name "American Party." With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 the American Party won additional adherents from the ranks of conservatives who could support neither the proslavery Democrats nor antislavery Republicans. When Congress assembled on December 3, 1855, 43 representatives were avowed members of the Know-Nothing party. That was the peak of Know-Nothing power as, the next year, at the American Party convention in Philadelphia the party split along sectional lines over the pro-slavery platform of the Southern delegates. Swept up in the sectional strife, the American Party fizzled out after 1856, as anti-slavery members flocked to the newly-founded abolitionist Republican Party and pro-slavery members defected to the pro-slavery Democratic Party. By 1859 the Know-Nothings were confined mainly to the border states and in 1860 the remnants of the American Party joined forces with the old-line Whigs to form the Constitutional Union Party, which nominated John Bell of Tennessee for president (who of course lost to Abraham Lincoln), coming in fourth in the election.

By the 1850s if not earlier, the Know-Nothing Party had supporters in Lauderdale County. Because our extant newspapers are so scarce for this period we know little of what the Know-Nothing Party in Lauderdale actually did. We do know it had its own newspaper, the *American Democrat* published in Florence, of which we have two extant issues from September of 1856. We know that Centre Star in east Lauderdale County had a large contingent of Know-Nothings because the Tuscumbia (then in Franklin County) *Enquirer* reported on Wednesday, June 27, 1855 that “the know nothing order at Center [sic] Star, in Lauderdale county, has busted asunder from all its oaths, and forty of 125 of that council came out in a card in the Florence Gazette, denouncing the know nothing order.”
Also according to Freeman, "As for the *American Democrat,* it was founded in July of 1855. by "Messrs. Peters and [Charles L.] Wheler" with the intent of supporting the "American Platform, as adopted in Philadelphia," with Wheler as editor.

I have been researching Charles L. Wheler for ten years and unfortunately don’t know much more about him now than I did when I started. Attempts to locate other records about him have proven extremely difficult. He was supposedly born and raised in Concord, New Hampshire, having “been engaged in several literary enterprises here which fell through,” one of which was said to have been the “abolition sheet” the *Concord Tribune,* but I haven’t located him in Concord yet. By July of 1853 Wheeler had relocated to Lewisburg, in Greenbrier County, Virginia (now West Virginia) where he edited the *Western Era* newspaper, which had apparently folded up by September of 1854. That month Wheeler was one of several secretaries listed in connection with a railroad convection held at White Sulphur Springs, Virginia. According to the *Tuscumbia Enquirer* Wheeler was in Franklin County, Alabama for a couple of months before the Know-Nothing Party of Lauderdale County helped him establish the *American Democrat* in Florence in July.


Wheler was "outed" by the *Athens Herald* as a free-soiler and abolitionist and, on October 4, 1855, fled to parts unknown, apparently leaving his bills unpaid. In late September, 1855 Wheler had created a stir by questioning in the pages of the *Democrat* the legality of Lauderdale County Sheriff Robert McClanahan's stint as sheriff based on a legal technicality involving the deadline for newly-elected sheriffs to post their bond.

What became of Wheler is a total mystery. Maury County, Tennessee editor John E. Hatcher (1828-1879) replaced Charles L. Wheeler as editor of the *Democrat.* By November 24 of 1856 the *American Democrat* had ceased publication and John Hatcher took the job as editor of the *Columbia Mirror,* in Columbia, Maury County, Tennessee."

Creator

(1) Hawkins, Wiley T.
(2) McClanahan, Robert.

Source

(1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7) Florence Gazette
(3, 8) Huntsville Democrat
(9) Montgomery Advertiser
(10) West Alabamian
(11) Mississippi Free Trader
(12) NC Democratic Pionee

Publisher

(1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7) Florence Gazette
(3, 8) Huntsville Democrat
(9) Montgomery Advertiser
(10) West Alabamian
(11) Mississippi Free Trader
(12) NC Democratic Pioneer

Contributor

Lee Freeman

Rights

Images are available for educational and research purposes. This image may not be reproduced for commercial purposes without the express written consent of the copyright holder. It is the responsibility of the interested party to identify the copyright holder and receive permission.

Format

JPG

Language

English

Type

Still Image

Identifier

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Original Format

Newspaper

Files

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Collection

Citation

(1) Hawkins, Wiley T. (2) McClanahan, Robert. , “The Know-Nothing Party in Florence and the saga of editor Charles Wheeler of the short-lived "American Democrat" newspaper,” Shoals Black History, accessed December 7, 2019, https://shoalsblackhistory.omeka.net/items/show/752.