Excerpts from a 2017 article by Chicago free-lancer Lorraine Boissoneault:
“[…] At its height in the 1850s, the Know Nothing party, originally called the American Party, included more than 100 elected congressmen, eight governors, a controlling share of half-a-dozen state legislatures from Massachusetts to California, and thousands of local politicians. Party members supported deportation of foreign beggars and criminals; a 21-year naturalization period for immigrants; mandatory Bible reading in schools; and the elimination of all Catholics from public office. They wanted to restore their vision of what America should look like with temperance, Protestantism, self-reliance, with American nationality and work ethic enshrined as the nation’s highest values.”
Know Nothings were the American political system’s first major third party. Early in the 19th century, two parties leftover from the birth of the United States were the Federalists (who advocated for a strong central government) and the Democratic-Republicans (formed by Thomas Jefferson). Following the earliest parties came the National Republicans, created to oppose Andrew Jackson. That group eventually transformed into the Whigs as Jackson’s party became known as the Democrats. The Whig party sent presidents William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor and others to the White House during its brief existence. But the party splintered and then disintegrated over the politics of slavery. The Know Nothings filled the power void before the Whigs had even ceased to exist, choosing to ignore slavery and focus all their energy on the immigrant question. They were the first party to leverage economic concerns over immigration as a major part of their platform. Though short-lived, the values and positions of the Know Nothings ultimately contributed to the two-party system we have today.
From 1820 to 1845, anywhere from 10,000 to 1000,000 immigrants entered the U.S. each year. Then, as a consequence of economic instability in Germany and a potato famine in Ireland, those figures turned from a trickle into a tsunami. Between 1845 and 1854, 2.9 million immigrants poured into the country, and many of them were of Catholic faith. Suddenly, more than half the residents of New York City were born abroad, and Irish immigrants comprised 70 percent of charity recipients.
As cultures clashed, fear exploded and conspiracies abounded. Posters around Boston proclaimed, “All Catholics and all persons who favor the Catholic Church are…vile imposters, liars, villains, and cowardly cutthroats.” Convents were said to hold young women against their will. An “exposé” published by Maria Monk, who claimed to have gone undercover in one such convent, accused priests of raping nuns and then strangling the babies that resulted. It didn’t matter that Monk was discovered as a fraud; her book sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The conspiracies were so virulent that churches were burned, and Know Nothing gangs spread from New York and Boston to Philadelphia, Baltimore, Louisville, Cincinnati, New Orleans, St. Louis and San Francisco.
At the same time as this influx of immigrants reshaped the makeup of the American populace, the old political parties seemed poised to fall apart.
“The Know Nothings came out of what seemed to be a vacuum,” says Christopher Phillips, professor of history at University of Cincinnati. “It’s the failing Whig party and the faltering Democratic party and their inability to articulate, to the satisfaction of the great percentage of their electorate, answers to the problems that were associated with everyday life.”
Phillips says the Know Nothings displayed three patterns common to all other nativist movements. First is the embrace of nationalism—as seen in the writings of the OSSB. Second is religious discrimination: in this case, Protestants against Catholics rather than the more modern day squaring-off of Judeo-Christians against Muslims. Lastly, a working-class identity exerts itself in conjunction with the rhetoric of upper-class political leaders. As historian Elliott J. Gorn writes, “Appeals to ethnic hatreds allowed men whose livelihoods depended on winning elections to sidestep the more complex and politically dangerous divisions of class.”
Judging by the size of Poole’s funeral and the Know Nothing party’s ability to penetrate all levels of government, it seemed the third party was poised to topple the Whigs and take its place in the two-party system. But instead of continuing to grow, the Know Nothings collapsed under the pressure of having to take a firm position on the issue the slavery. By the late 1850s, the case of Dred Scott (who sued for his freedom and was denied it) and the raids led by abolitionist John Brown proved that slavery was a more explosive and urgent issue than immigration.
America fought the Civil War over slavery, and the devastation of that conflict pushed nativist concerns to the back of the American psyche. But nativism never left, and the legacy of the Know Nothings has been apparent in policies aimed at each new wave of immigrants. In 1912, the House Committee on Immigration debated over whether Italians could be considered “full-blooded Caucasians” and immigrants coming from southern and eastern Europe were considered “biologically and culturally less intelligent.”
Phillips’s conclusion is that those bewildered by current political affairs simply haven’t looked far enough back into history. “One can’t possibly make sense of [current events] unless you know something about nativism,” he says. “That requires you to go back in time to the Know Nothings. You have to realize the context is different, but the themes are consistent. The actors are still the same, but with different names.”
Cite: Lorraine Boissoneault, “How the 19th-Century Know Nothing Party Reshaped American Politics,” Smithsonian, Jan. 26, 2017 https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/immigrants-conspiracies-and-secret-society-launched-american-nativism-180961915/.
Lorraine is a Chicago-based freelance journalist whose work covers everything from beehive theft to the history of the Holocaust. She’s written about human origins, language revitalization, new technologies used in conservation, and yes, even the complicated history of colonial pillaging and “cabinets of curiosity” like the one pictured above.