The NATIVE AMERICAN PARTY, renamed the AMERICAN PARTY 1855 and commonly known as the "KNOW NOTHING" movement, was an American Nativist political party that operated nationally in the mid-1850s. It was an anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant movement, often taking the form of a secret society. The movement briefly emerged as a major political party in the form of the American Party. Adherents to the movement were to reply "I know nothing" when asked about its specifics by outsiders, thus providing the group with its common appellation.
The "Know Nothings" believed a "Romanist" conspiracy was afoot to
subvert civil and religious liberty in America and sought to
politically organize native-born
The collapse of the Whig Party after the passage of the
Kansas-Nebraska Act left an opening for the emergence of a new major
party in opposition to the Democrats . The Know Nothings elected
Nathaniel P. Banks of Massachusetts and several other individuals in
the 1854 elections , and created a new party organization known as the
American Party. Particularly in the South, the American Party served
as a vehicle for politicians opposed to the Democratic Party,
regardless of their views in relation to immigration and Catholicism.
Many also hoped that it would seek a middle ground between the
pro-slavery positions of many Democratic politicians and the
anti-slavery positions of the emerging Republican Party . The American
Party nominated former President
The party declined rapidly after the 1856 election. The 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford further aroused opposition to slavery in the North, and many Know Nothings joined the Republicans. Most of the remaining members of the party supported the Constitutional Union Party in the 1860 presidential election .
* 1 History
* 1.1 Name * 1.2 Underlying issues * 1.3 Rise * 1.4 Leadership and legislation * 1.5 Violence * 1.6 South * 1.7 Decline
* 2 Electoral history
* 2.1 Congressional elections * 2.2 Presidential elections
* 3 Legacy * 4 In popular culture * 5 Notable Know Nothings * 6 See also * 7 References
* 8 Bibliography
* 8.1 Primary sources
* 9 External links
Anti-Catholicism had been a factor in colonial America but played little role in American politics until the arrival of large numbers of Irish and German Catholics in the 1840s. It then reemerged in nativist attacks on Catholic immigration. It appeared in New York politics as early as 1843, under the banner of the American Republican Party . The movement quickly spread to nearby states, using that name or NATIVE AMERICAN PARTY or variants of it. They succeeded in a number of local and Congressional elections, notably in 1844 in Philadelphia, where the anti-Catholic orator Lewis Charles Levin was elected U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania's 1st District. In the early 1850s, numerous secret orders grew up, of which the "Order of United Americans" and the Order of the Star Spangled Banner came to be the most important. They merged in New York in the early 1850s as a secret order that quickly spread across the North, reaching non-Catholics, particularly those who were lower middle class or skilled workmen.
The name Know Nothing originated in the semi-secret organization of the party. When a member was asked about its activities, he was supposed to reply, "I know nothing." Outsiders called them "Know Nothings", and the name stuck. In 1855, the Know Nothings first entered politics under the AMERICAN PARTY label.
The immigration of large numbers of Irish and German Catholics to the
In 1849, an oath-bound secret society , the Order of the Star Spangled Banner , was created by Charles B. Allen in New York City. Fear of Catholic immigration led to a dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party , whose leadership in many cities included Catholics of Irish descent. Activists formed secret groups, coordinating their votes and throwing their weight behind candidates sympathetic to their cause.
Immigration during the first five years of the 1850s reached a level five times greater than a decade earlier. Most of the new arrivals were poor Catholic peasants or laborers from Ireland and Germany who crowded into the tenements of large cities. Crime and welfare costs soared. Cincinnati's crime rate, for example, tripled between 1846 and 1853 and its murder rate increased sevenfold. Boston's expenditures for poor relief rose threefold during the same period. — James M. McPherson , Battle Cry of Freedom , p. 131.
In spring 1854, the Know Nothings carried Boston, Salem , and other
The results of the 1854 elections were so favorable to the Know Nothings, up to then an informal movement with no centralized organization, that they formed officially as a political party called THE AMERICAN PARTY, which attracted many members of the now nearly defunct Whig party as well as a significant number of Democrats. 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 historian Tyler Anbinder concluded:
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.
In San Francisco, California , a Know Nothing chapter was founded in 1854 to oppose Chinese immigration; members included a judge of the state supreme court, who ruled that no Chinese person could testify as a witness against a white man in court. Fillmore –Donelson campaign poster
In the spring of 1855, Levi Boone was elected mayor of Chicago for the Know Nothings. He barred all immigrants from city jobs. Abraham Lincoln was strongly opposed to the principles of the Know Nothing movement but did not denounce it publicly, because he needed the votes of its membership to form a successful anti-slavery coalition in Illinois. 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 American Lutherans and Scots-Irish Presbyterians , both hostile to Roman Catholicism. In Alabama, Know Nothings were a mix of former Whigs, malcontented Democrats, and other political outsiders who favored state aid to build more railroads. Virginia attracted national attention in its tempestuous 1855 gubernatorial. Democrat Henry Alexander Wise won by convincing state voters that Know Nothings were in bed with Northern abolitionists. With the victory by Wise, the movement began to collapse in the South.
Know Nothings scored victories in northern state elections in 1854, winning control of the legislature in Massachusetts and polling 40% 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.
The party name gained wide but brief popularity. Nativism became a
new American rage: Know-Nothing candy, Know-nothing tea, and
Know-Nothing toothpicks appeared. Stagecoaches were dubbed "The
Know-Nothing". In Trescott ,
LEADERSHIP AND LEGISLATION
Historian John Mulkern has examined the party's success in sweeping to almost complete control of the Massachusetts legislature after its 1854 landslide victory. He finds the new party was populist and highly democratic, hostile to wealth, elites, and to expertise, and deeply suspicious of outsiders especially Catholics. The new party's voters were concentrated in the rapidly growing industrial towns, where Yankee workers faced direct competition with new Irish immigrants. Whereas the Whig Party was strongest in high income districts, the Know Nothing electorate was strongest in the poor districts. They expelled the traditional upper-class closed political leadership class, especially the lawyers and merchants. In their stead they elected working class men, farmers, and a large number of teachers and ministers. Replacing the moneyed elite were men who seldom owned $10,000 in property.
Nationally, the new party leadership showed incomes, occupation and
social status that were about average. Few were wealthy, according to
detailed historical studies of once-secret membership rosters. Fewer
than 10% were unskilled workers who might come in direct competition
with Irish laborers. They enlisted few farmers, but on the other hand,
they included many merchants and factory owners. The party's voters
were by no means all native-born Americans, for it won more than a
fourth of the German and British
The most aggressive and innovative legislation came out of Massachusetts, where the new party controlled all but three of the 400 seats; only 35 had any previous legislative experience. The Massachusetts legislature in 1855 passed a series of reforms that "burst the dam against change erected by party politics, and released a flood of reforms." Historian Stephen Taylor says that in addition to nativist legislation
the party also distinguished itself by its opposition to slavery, support for an expansion of the rights of women, regulation of industry, and support of measures designed to improve the status of working people.
It passed legislation to regulate railroads, insurance companies, and public utilities. It funded free textbooks for the public schools, and raised the appropriations for local libraries and for the school for the blind. Purification of Massachusetts against divisive social evils was a high priority. The legislature set up the state's first reform school for juvenile delinquents, while trying to block the importation of supposedly subversive government documents and academic books from Europe. It upgraded the legal status of wives, giving them more property rights and more rights in divorce courts. It passed harsh penalties on speakeasies, gambling houses and bordellos. It passed prohibition legislation with penalties that were so stiff – such as six months in prison for serving one glass of beer – that juries refused to convict defendants. Many of the reforms were quite expensive; state spending rose 45% on top of a 50% hike in annual taxes on cities and towns. Extravagance angered the taxpayers; few Know Nothings were reelected.
The highest priority included attacks on the civil rights of Irish Catholic immigrants. After this, state courts lost the power to process applications for citizenship and public schools had to require compulsory daily reading of the Protestant Bible (which the nativists were sure would transform the Catholic children). The governor disbanded the Irish militias, and replaced Irish holding state jobs with Protestants. It failed to reach the two-thirds vote needed to pass a state constitutional amendment to restrict voting and office holding to men who had resided in Massachusetts for at least 21 years. The legislature then called on Congress to raise the requirement for naturalization from five years to 21 years, but Congress never acted. The most dramatic move by the Know Nothing legislature was to appoint an investigating committee designed to prove widespread sexual immorality underway in Catholic convents. The press had a field day following the story, especially when it was discovered that the key reformer was using committee funds to pay for a prostitute. The legislature shut down its committee, ejected the reformer, and saw its investigation become a laughing stock.
Know-Nothing Party ticket naming party candidates for state and county offices. At the bottom of the page are voting instructions.
Fearful that Catholics were flooding the polls with non-citizens, local activists threatened to stop them. Tensions came to a head on 6 August 1855, in Louisville, Kentucky , where in a hotly contested race for the office of governor, 22 were killed and many injured. The Louisville riot was not the only spectacle of violent riots between Know Nothing activists and Catholics in 1855. In Baltimore the mayoral elections of 1856, 1857 and 1858 were all marred by violence and well-founded accusations of ballot-rigging. In Maine, Know Nothings were associated with the tarring and feathering of a Catholic priest, Father Johannes Bapst , in the coastal town of Ellsworth in 1851 and the burning of a Catholic church in Bath in 1854.
In the South, the American Party was composed chiefly of ex-Whigs looking for a vehicle to fight the dominant Democratic Party and worried about both the pro-slavery extremism of the Democrats and the emergence of the anti-slavery Republican party in the North. In the South as a whole the American Party was strongest among former Unionist Whigs. States-rightist Whigs shunned it, enabling the Democrats to win most of the South. Whigs supported the American Party because of their desire to defeat the Democrats, their unionist sentiment, their anti-immigrant attitudes, and the Know-Nothing neutrality on the slavery issue.
In 1855 the American Party challenged the Democrats' dominance. In Alabama, the Know-Nothings were a mix of former Whig , malcontented Democrats, and other political misfits; they favored state aid to build more railroads. In the fierce campaign, the Democrats argued that Know-Nothings could not protect slavery from Northern abolitionists. The Know-Nothing American Party disintegrated soon after losing in 1855.
In Louisiana and Maryland, the Know Nothings enlisted native-born
Catholics. Know-Nothing congressman
John Edward Bouligny was the only
member of the Louisiana congressional delegation to refuse to resign
his seat after the state seceded from the Union. In Maryland, the
party's influence lasted at least through the Civil War : the American
Party's Governor, and later Senator,
Thomas Holliday Hicks ,
Henry Winter Davis , and Senator Anthony Kennedy , with
his brother, former Representative
John Pendleton Kennedy , all
Results by county indicating the percentage for Fillmore in each county.
The party declined rapidly in the North after 1855. In the
presidential election of 1856 , it was bitterly divided over slavery.
The main faction supported the ticket of presidential nominee Millard
Fillmore and vice-presidential nominee
Andrew Jackson Donelson .
Fillmore, a former President, had been a Whig, and Donelson was the
nephew of Democratic President
Many were appalled by the Know-Nothings.
I am not a Know-Nothing – that is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equals, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.' When it comes to that I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.
Allan Nevins , writing about the turmoil preceding the
American Civil War, states that
was not a member of the party; he had never attended an American gathering. By no spoken or written word had he indicated a subscription to American tenets.
After the Supreme Court's controversial Dred Scott v. Sandford ruling in 1857, most of the anti-slavery members of the American Party joined the Republican Party . The pro-slavery wing of the American Party remained strong on the local and state levels in a few southern states, but by the 1860 election , they were no longer a serious national political movement. Most of their remaining members supported the Constitutional Union Party in 1860.
United States House of Representatives ELECTION YEAR # of overall seats won +/– PRESIDENCY
1844 6 / 227 6 James K. Polk
1846 1 / 230 5
1848 1 / 233
0 / 233
1852 0 / 234
1854 52 / 234 52
14 / 237
1858 6 / 238 8
0 / 239
United States Senate ELECTION YEAR # of overall seats won +/– PRESIDENCY
1844 0 / 58
1846 0 / 60
1848 0 / 62
1850 0 / 62
1852 0 / 62
1854 1 / 62 1
5 / 66
1858 2 / 66 3
0 / 68
ELECTION CANDIDATE VOTES VOTE % ELECTORAL VOTES +/- OUTCOME OF ELECTION
1852 Jacob Broom 2,566 0.1 0 / 294
The Nativist spirit of the
Know Nothing movement was revived in later
political movements, such as the
American Protective Association of
the 1890s and the
Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. In the late 19th
century, Democrats would call the Republicans "Know Nothings" in order
to secure the votes of Germans, as in the
Bennett Law campaign in
The spirit which enacted the Alien and Sedition laws , the spirit which actuated the "Know-nothing" party, the spirit which is forever carping about the foreign-born citizen and trying to abridge his privileges, is too deeply seated in the party. The aristocratic and know-nothing principle has been circulating in its system so long that it will require more than one somersault to shake the poison out of its bones.
The term has become a provocative slur, suggesting that the opponent
is both nativist and ignorant.
George Wallace 's 1968 presidential
campaign was said by Time to be under the "neo-
Know Nothing banner".
Fareed Zakaria wrote that politicians who "encourage Americans to fear
foreigners" were becoming "modern incarnations of the Know-Nothings."
In 2006, an editorial in
The Weekly Standard by neoconservative
William Kristol accused populist Republicans of "turning the GOP into
an anti-immigration, Know-Nothing party." The lead editorial of the
May 20, 2007, edition of
The New York Times
In the 2016
IN POPULAR CULTURE
The American Party was represented in the 2002 film Gangs of New York
, led by William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting (
NOTABLE KNOW NOTHINGS
Nathaniel P. Banks , U.S. Congress Speaker of the House from
Union Army general
Levi Boone , Mayor of Chicago
John Edward Bouligny , U.S. Congressman from Louisiana
Henry Winter Davis , U.S. Congressman from Maryland
71st Infantry Regiment (New York)
John J. Crittenden
James Greene Hardy
Know-Nothing Riot of 1856
* ^ Kemp, Bill (2016-01-17). "\'Know Nothings\' Opposed Immigration
in Lincoln\'s Day".
The Pantagraph . Retrieved 2016-04-11.
* ^ Francis D. Cogliano, No King, No Popery:
* Anbinder, Tyler . Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the politics of the 1850s (1992). Online version; also online at ACLS History e-Book, the standard scholarly study * Anbinder, Tyler. "Nativism and prejudice against immigrants," in A companion to American immigration, ed. by Reed Ueda (2006) pp. 177–201 online excerpt * Baker, Jean H. (1977), Ambivalent Americans: The Know-Nothing Party in Maryland, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins. * Baum, Dale. "Know-Nothingism and the Republican Majority in Massachusetts: The Political Realignment of the 1850s." Journal of American History 64 (1977–78): 959–86. in JSTOR * Baum, Dale. The Civil War Party System: The Case of Massachusetts, 1848–1876 (1984) online * Bennett, David Harry. The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History (1988) * Billington, Ray A. The Protestant Crusade, 1800–1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism (1938), standard scholarly survey; online * Bladek, John David. "'Virginia Is Middle Ground': the Know Nothing Party and the Virginia Gubernatorial Election of 1855." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 1998 106(1): 35–70. in JSTOR * Cheathem, Mark R. "