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The Know Nothing Movement also Know-Nothingism was a nativist American political movement of the 1840s and 1850s. It was empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by Irish Catholic immigrants, who were often regarded as hostile to U.S. values and controlled by the Pope in Rome. Mainly active from 1854 to 1856, it strove to curb immigration and naturalization, though its efforts were met with little success. There were few prominent leaders, and the largely middle-class and entirely Protestant membership fragmented over the issue of slavery. Most ended up joining the Republican Party by the time of the 1860 presidential election.
The movement originated in New York in 1843 as the American Republican Party. It spread to other states as the Native American Party and became a national party in 1845. In 1855 it renamed itself the American Party. The origin of the "Know Nothing" term was in the semi-secret organization of the party. When a member was asked about its activities, he or she was supposed to reply, "I know nothing."
The immigration of large numbers of Irish and German Catholics to the U.S. in the period between 1830 and 1860 made religious differences between Catholics and Protestants a political issue. The tensions echoed European conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. Violence occasionally erupted over elections.
Although Catholics asserted that they were politically independent of priests, Protestants alleged that Pope Pius IX had put down the failed liberal Revolutions of 1848 and that he was an opponent of liberty and democracy. These concerns encouraged conspiracy theories regarding the Pope's purported plans to subjugate the United States through a continuing influx of Catholics controlled by Irish bishops obedient to and personally selected by the Pope. In 1849, an oath-bound secret society, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, was created by Charles Allen in New York City. It became the nucleus of some units of the American Party.
Fear of Catholic immigration led to a dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party, whose leadership in many areas included Irish American Catholics. Activists formed secret groups, coordinating their votes and throwing their weight behind candidates sympathetic to their cause. When asked about these secret organizations, members were to reply "I know nothing," which led to their popularly being called Know Nothings. This movement won elections in major cities from Chicago to Boston in 1855, and carried the Massachusetts legislature and governorship.
In spring 1854, the Know Nothings carried Boston, Salem, and other New England cities. They swept the state of Massachusetts in the fall 1854 elections, their biggest victory. The Whig candidate in Philadelphia was editor Robert Conrad, soon revealed as a Know Nothing; he promised to crack down on crime, close saloons on Sundays, and to appoint only native-born Americans to office. He won by a landslide. In Washington, D.C., Know-Nothing candidate John T. Towers defeated incumbent Mayor John Walker Maury, causing opposition of such proportion that the Democrats, Whigs, and Freesoilers in the capital united as the "Anti-Know-Nothing Party." In New York, in a four-way race, the Know-Nothing candidate ran third with 26 percent. After the fall 1854 elections, they claimed to have exerted decisive influence in Maine, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and California, but historians are unsure due to the secrecy, as all parties were in turmoil and the anti-slavery and prohibition issues overlapped with nativism in complex and confusing ways. They did elect the Mayor of San Francisco, Stephen Palfrey Webb, and J. Neely Johnson as Governor of California. They were still an unofficial movement with no centralized organization. The results of the 1854 elections were so favorable to the Know Nothings that they formed officially as a political party called the American Party, and attracted many members of the now nearly-defunct Whig party, as well as a significant number of Democrats and prohibitionists. Membership in the American Party increased dramatically, from 50,000 to an estimated one million plus in a matter of months during that year. The same member might also split tickets to vote for Democrats or Republicans, for party loyalty was in confusion. Simultaneously, the new Republican party emerged as a dominant power in many northern states. Very few prominent politicians joined the American Party, and very few party leaders had a subsequent career in politics. The major exceptions were Schuyler Colfax in Indiana and Henry Wilson in Massachusetts, both of whom became Republicans and were elected Vice President. A historian of the party concludes:
The key to Know Nothing success in 1854 was the collapse of the second party system, brought about primarily by the demise of the Whig party. The Whig party, weakened for years by internal dissent and chronic factionalism, was nearly destroyed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Growing anti-party sentiment, fueled by anti-slavery as well as temperance and nativism, also contributed to the disintegration of the party system. The collapsing second party system gave the Know Nothings a much larger pool of potential converts than was available to previous nativist organizations, allowing the Order to succeed where older nativist groups had failed.
– Tyler G. Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery, p. 95
In 1854, members of the American Party allegedly stole and destroyed the block of granite contributed by Pius IX for the Washington Monument. They also took over the monument's building society and controlled it for four years. What little progress occurred in their tenure had to be undone and remade. For the full story, see Washington Monument: History.
In California in 1854, Sam Roberts founded a Know-Nothing chapter in San Francisco. The group was formed in opposition to Chinese and Chilean immigrants as well as Irish, who had come to work in gold mines.
In spring 1855, Levi Boone was elected Mayor of Chicago for the Know Nothings. He barred all immigrants from city jobs. Statewide, however, Republican Abraham Lincoln blocked the party from any successes. Ohio was the only state where the party gained strength in 1855. Their Ohio success seems to have come from winning over immigrants, especially German Lutherans and Scottish Presbyterians who feared Catholicism. In Alabama, the Know Nothings were a mix of former Whigs, malcontented Democrats, and other political outsiders who favored state aid to build more railroads. In the tempestuous 1855 campaign, the Democrats won by convincing state voters that Alabama Know Nothings would not protect slavery from Northern abolitionists.
The party declined rapidly in the North in 1855 and 1856. In the Election of 1856, it was bitterly divided over slavery. One faction supported the ticket of presidential nominee Millard Fillmore and vice-presidential nominee Andrew Jackson Donelson, who won 23% of the popular vote and Maryland's eight electoral votes. Fillmore did not win enough votes in Pennsylvania to block Democrat James Buchanan from the White House. Most of the anti-slavery members of the American Party joined the Republican Party after the controversial Dred Scott ruling occurred. The pro-slavery wing of the American Party remained strong on the local and state levels in a few southern states, but by the Election of 1860, they were no longer a serious national political movement.
Some historians argue that in the South the Know Nothings were fundamentally different from their northern counterparts, and were motivated less by nativism or anti-Catholicism than by conservative Unionism (preserving the Union of states rather than labor unions); southern Know Nothings were mostly old Whigs who were worried about both the pro-slavery extremism of the Democrats and the emergence of the anti-slavery Republican party in the North. In Louisiana and Maryland, the Know-Nothings enlisted Catholics. Historian Michael F. Holt, however, argues, "Know Nothingism originally grew in the South for the same reasons it spread in the North—nativism, anti-Catholicism, and animosity toward unresponsive politicos—not because of conservative Unionism." He quotes ex-Governor William B. Campbell of Tennessee, who wrote in January 1855, "I have been astonished at the widespread feeling in favor of their principles—to wit, Native Americanism and anti-Catholicism—it takes everywhere."
Few Know-Nothings were wealthy: most were workers or small farmers whose jobs or ways of life were threathened by the cheap labor and unfamiliar culture of the new immigrants. Know-Nothings scored startling victories in northern state elections in 1854, winning control of the legislature in Massachusetts and polling 40 percent of the vote in Pennsylvania. Although most of the new immigrants lived in the North, resentment and anger against them was national, and the American Party initially polled well in the South, attracting the votes of many former southern Whigs. But in the 1850s, no party could ignore slavery, and in 1855 the American Party split into northern (antislavery) and southern (proslavery) wings. Soon after this split, many people who had voted for the Know-Nothings shifted their support to another new party, one that combined many characteristics of the Whigs with a westward-looking, expansionist, free-soil policy. This was the Republican Party, founded in 1854.
Usage of the term
The term "Know Nothing" is better remembered than the party itself. In the late 19th century, Democrats would call the Republicans "Know Nothings" in order to secure the votes of Catholics. Since the early 20th century, the term has been a provocative slur, suggesting that the opponent is both nativist and ignorant. In 2006, an editorial in the neoconservative magazine The Weekly Standard by William Kristol attacked populist Republicans for not recognizing the danger of "turning the GOP into an anti-immigration, Know-Nothing party." The lead editorial of the New York Times for Sunday, May 20, 2007, on a proposed immigration bill, referred to "this generation's Know-Nothings...."
The platform of the American Party called for, among other things:
- Severe limits on immigration, especially from Catholic countries
- Restricting political office to native-born Americans
- Mandating a wait of 21 years before an immigrant could gain citizenship
- Restricting public school teachers to Protestants
- Mandating daily Bible readings in public schools
- Restricting the sale of liquor
- Anti-Masonic Party
- Ku Klux Klan
- Order of the Star Spangled Banner
- Nativist Movement
- White Anglo-Saxon Protestant
- White nationalism
- ↑ Welcome to The American Presidency
- ↑ American Party - Ohio History Central - A product of the Ohio Historical Society
- ↑ Britannica Online Encyclopedia: Know-Nothing party
- ↑ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whig_Party_%28United_States%29
- ↑ 1920 World Book, Volume V. pp 3271
- ↑ Holt The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party, p. 856.
- ↑ p. 432 Out of Many A History of the American People
- ↑ Quoted by Craig Shirley, "How the GOP Lost Its Way" Washington Post April 22, 2006; Page A21in
- ↑ "The Immigration Deal," New York Times, May 20, 2007, archive