I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can anyone 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 begin 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 equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this 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.Abraham Lincoln, letter to Joshua Speed, August 24, 1855
The 1850s were a grim time in American history. Violence erupted in Kansas Territory, foreshadowing the coming Civil War. Tensions across the country were boiling. Some of that anger was, unfortunately, though not uncommonly, directed toward the growing number of immigrants in the United States. Secret nativist organizations formed to resist the perceived foreign invasion. The most famous of these groups was the Know Nothing Party. Originally a fraternal order built on bizarre rituals, the Know Nothings eventually grew into a major force in national politics. For a time, it seemed that they, rather than the Republicans, would become the dominant opposition to the Democratic Party. But as the decade grew to a close, voters’ priorities rapidly shifted away from the nativist cause and toward the issue of slavery. The Know Nothings were torn apart by Northern and Southern divisions, much like the country as a whole. Though their party has long been forgotten in the minds of most Americans, their motivations and methods may be nearer to our current reality than we would like to admit.
Anti-Immigration in the 1800s
Following the War of 1812, it finally became clear to the world that the United States of America was here to stay. As a result, immigration to the US began increasing, its pace quickening with each decade until the Civil War. Anti-immigration sentiment was nothing new in America, but the sudden rise in numbers made it an unavoidable issue. Most immigrants at this time were Irish or German. Initially, the majority were Protestant craftsmen, displaced by rapid industrialization and overpopulation. As transatlantic travel became cheaper, however, a greater number of immigrants were poor, unskilled – and Catholic. The situation reached its peak following the Potato Famine, beginning in 1845. Two million people left Ireland, about three-quarters of which came to the US.
The rise in “undesirable” immigration prompted increased resistance. Nativist organizations formed in cities across the country. These groups were particularly focused on anti-Catholic rhetoric. Conspiracy theories quickly spread warning of cultural take-over by the Vatican. Interest in such organizations usually fluctuated based on local religious controversies, such as funding for parochial schools. Some nativist politicians won local elections in response to these issues. In general, the Whig Party, which formed in the 1830s to oppose Andrew Jackson’s Democrats, was more sympathetic to the nativist cause. Hard-lined nativists, however, believed that both parties were too weak on immigration. Recognizing the need for a national organization, the “Native Americans” of Philadelphia held a presidential nominating convention in 1852. They selected Whig-leader and Secretary of State Daniel Webster as their candidate (though he died before Election Day). The actual Whig Party was split over the expansion of slavery in the territories. The election was a landslide victory for the Democrats, proving that the Whigs were going extinct. They were in no position to resist the growing nativist movement.
The Know Nothings
In 1850, a new nativist group was founded in New York City – the Order of the Star Spangled Banner. Unlike former organizations, the Order was completely secret. Not only were meetings closed to the public, but members were forbidden from openly discussing the group or even acknowledging its existence. Although the origins of their unofficial nickname are uncertain, it was very likely due to the members’ insistence on knowing nothing about the organization.
In addition to opposing immigration generally, the Know Nothings firmly believed that Protestantism was a defining trait of American society. Protestants valued individualism and democracy. Catholics, on the other hand, blindly followed the direction of the Pope, a custom they found completely incompatible with American values. They argued that Catholics, unlike previous generations of immigrants, resisted assimilation, were poor, and brought crime. The Know Nothing’s greatest fear about immigrants, however, was that they had attained a disproportionate amount of political power under the existing establishment. Church leaders controlled a large number of votes by directing their congregations, as evidenced by their loyalty to the Democratic Party. Other immigrants sold their votes for patronage, participated in voter fraud, and instigated Election Day violence. Career politicians caved to Catholic demands, placing party welfare over public good, resulting in all of the country’s problems. If Church leaders were to attain any more power, they would surely institute a ban on Protestantism. Know Nothings claimed that they did not hate Catholics personally, they just wanted to reduce their political power. In their minds, nativists were reformers cleaning up the corruption imposed by the Catholic Church. Their main policies goals were to extended the five-year probationary period for naturalization to twenty-one years, create stricter rules against poor immigrants, and to ensure that only native-born citizens were elected to office.
Potential Know Nothing initiates were proposed by existing members in meetings. Afterwards, an investigative committee would verify (IN SECRET) that each candidate was a natural-born citizen, a Protestant, and a believer in the tenets of the organization. Once the committee provided a favorable report, the council would vote to accept the new member. Those approved would participate in an elaborate ritual reaffirming their religious beliefs and pledging commitment to the secrecy of the organization. Next, they would learn the passwords and codes. The specific rules of each group varied from state-to-state, as there was little central authority. Chapters in the Midwest even allowed Protestant immigrants to become members. In the South, some groups accepted American-born Catholics.
Rise to Prominence
In May 1854, the Know Nothings had about 50,000 members. They were already the largest nativist organization in the country, but they were still limited to urban centers, where laborers faced economic competition with immigrants. By the end of the year, however, membership had soared to over one million thanks to two growing political issues — temperance and slavery.
The prohibition of alcohol had been a minor controversy for decades, but had recently gained momentum due to an anti-liquor bill passed in Maine. When similar bills in other states were blocked, temperance supporters were quick to blame establishment politicians and immigrants (who were already prone to alcohol-based stereotypes). They were drawn to nativist groups and helped expand the Know Nothings into rural areas, where temperance was more popular. The most important issue to the Know Nothings’ growth, however, was slavery. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which ended the status quo of the Missouri Compromise in favor of popular sovereignty in each new state, led to violence and turmoil. As a result, Northerners began to take a firmer stance on the expansion of slavery. While the Whig Party imploded, many anti-slavery advocates considered the Know Nothings to be the best alternative. Oddly, the party actually endorsed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in an earlier platform, but by 1855, anti-slavery members held the majority. Rather than focus the organization’s nativist roots, the new members emphasized its anti-establishment reputation. They argued that the Democrats and Whigs were corrupt and incapable of carrying out the public’s will on slavery. The South’s grip on the nation, therefore, was built on the traitorous Democratic votes of Northern immigrants.
Know Nothing candidates won elections all across the country in 1854. They succeeded in both urban and rural areas, with no relation to the actual presence of immigrants. Normally, the organization simply endorsed existing candidates of any party for office, causing unexpected ballot-splitting across statewide races. As membership increased, however, they began running independent office-seekers, as well. The stereotypical Know Nothing candidate was a young, working-class, political newcomer. This was most accurate in New England, where the party had its best performances. They won massive landslide victories in Massachusetts, including the race for governor. At the Know Nothing victory banquet, they hung a banner depicting the White House, where they hoped to be in two years.
Infighting and Decline
The Know Nothings’ ability to adapt to local issues was the key to their success in 1854, but party leaders understood that this loose coalition was not enough to elect a president. That required a national organization and a unified platform. At their party convention in 1855, however, divisions between Northern and Southern members quickly became evident. Northerners were eager to denounce the Kansas-Nebraska Act and weaken Slave Power. Unfortunately, an alliance of Southerners and conservative Northerners passed a version of their platform that endorsed the slavery status-quo. Many believed that the anti-slavery wing of the party was destined to join the newly-formed Republicans.
At the end of the year, Know Nothings hoped that their party would be reunited during the selection of the Speaker of the House. Neither the Republicans nor Democrats had enough seats to control the election without Know Nothing support. Voting was heavily split by geography. Most Northerners backed Massachusetts Representative Nathaniel P. Banks. Although Banks had been elected as a Know Nothing, he was understood to be a Republican sympathizer. Voting continued for over a month, ending only after a rule change allowed victory by plurality. Banks won, but it was widely regarded as a victory for the Republicans, and a disaster for the Know Nothings.
Just two weeks after Banks’ win, the Know Nothings held a nominating convention for the 1856 presidential election. With more and more anti-slavery voters leaving the Know Nothings, conservatives easily secured the nomination for former President Millard Fillmore. Although he had done nothing to express support for nativism, many patriotic Know Nothings valued Fillmore’s commitment to preserving the Union during his term. He was initially hesitant to support the organization, but as it became clear that the Whigs were disappearing, he chose to join, stating that it was the “only hope of forming a truly national party, which shall ignore this constant and distracting agitation of slavery.” Supporters hoped that he could win just enough electoral votes to send the election to the House of Representatives.
In response to the Southern domination of their party, Northern Know Nothings held a rival convention later in the year. They agreed to endorse the Republican candidate, former California Senator John C. Frémont, in exchange for the selection of a nativist running mate to share his ticket. They maintained that they had not abandoned their nativist beliefs, but rather, felt that the expansion of slavery had momentarily become the most important issue facing the country. They recognized that Fillmore wasn’t really a nativist, either, and that the Republicans were more likely to enact their policies than the former Whig. When the Republican convention came, however, they broke their promise of VP-selection. Know Nothings were angry, but it was not a big enough issue to seriously threaten Frémont’s chances.
The winner of the 1856 presidential election was Democratic candidate James Buchanan. He carried the entire South, plus a few states in the North and West. Frémont performed best in the North, particularly in the former Know Nothing stronghold of New England. Fillmore only carried one state — Maryland. He earned 44% of the vote in the South, but only 13% in the North.
Know Nothing leaders insisted that the organization would not disband, but canceled all future meetings at their 1857 national convention. Former members in the North continued to be absorbed into the Republican Party. As time went on, Republican gestures to nativists became less and less frequent. Their 1860 presidential nominating convention made no attempts to appeal to anti-immigrant groups. They selected moderate candidate Abraham Lincoln for the ticket. Supporters borrowed Know Nothing tactics by forming “Wide Awake” political clubs with elaborate initiation rituals to generate enthusiasm. Most Fillmore voters backed the Constitutional Union Party in 1860. This group of former Whigs once again hoped to send the election to the House. In the end, Republicans remained loyal to their party in a way that Know Nothing voters had not.
Nativism nearly vanished once the Civil War began. Anti-immigrant sentiment returned to its former ebb-and-flow in response to local religious controversies. While some new nativist organizations were formed, their members recalled the Know Nothings’ failure to form a third political party. By the turn of the century, anti-immigrant fears had shifted their focus away from Catholicism and towards labor issues. Though it took time, Catholicism was eventually normalized in American society. The first Catholic presidential nominee was Democrat Al Smith in 1928. Some voters believed he would build a tunnel all the way to the Vatican in order to take orders from the Pope. In 1960, John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic to win the presidency. He used humor to deflect bigoted accusations and relied on the primary elections to prove his electability. Today, the President, the Speaker of the House, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court are all Catholics. At the time of this writing, the US remains independent from the papacy.
So what can we learn from the Know Nothings? Well, unfortunately, anti-immigrant rhetoric has made a resurgence on the Right in recent years. Donald Trump flaunts über-patriotism and relies on white cultural grievance. QAnon believers follow secret codes, espouse anti-establishment views, and are driven by wild conspiracies. This movement is nothing new! It’s important to understand that, while the Know Nothings disappeared, bigotry and racism did not. At first glance, the eventual normalization of Catholicism might seem to demonstrate a moral determinism in American history. But would knowing that we elected the first Catholic president in 1960 benefit the struggling Irish-American family one hundred years earlier? It was tempting for me to write here that we beat nativism once, and we could do it again! But the real story is that nativism was not defeated. The targets changed, but the results stayed the same. Immigrants of all cultures continued to face discrimination — they were easy targets of big business during the Gilded Age, they were the subject of hate by the second formation of the Ku Klux Klan, and some were forced into internment camps by our own government during World War II. The Know Nothings had one thing right: the government was structurally incapable of responding to the will of the people. The Republicans of the 1850s, though sometimes sympathetic to nativism, understood that a truer evil was already being committed by natural-born Americans in the South. Thankfully, for a moment, the cause of ending slavery was strong enough to diminish other forms of prejudice.
As one observer noted, “Neither the Pope nor the foreigners can ever govern the country or endanger its liberties, but the slavebreeders and slavetraders do govern it, and threaten to put an end to all government but theirs. Here is something tangible to go upon, an issue which… will… surely succeed in the long run.”
1. Flag of the Know Nothing Party, c. 1850 — Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
2. The Propagation Society, 1855 — Popular Graphic Arts / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
3. Citizen Know Nothing, 1854 — Sarony & Co. / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
4. Know Nothing Ticket, 1855 — Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
5. The Great Presidential Sweepstakes of 1856 — Popular Graphic Arts / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
6. Al Smith, c. 1920s-1930s — Harris & Ewing / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
7. John F. Kennedy, 1963 — Cecil Stoughton / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
8. Joe Biden, 2021 — Adam Schultz / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
9. Donald Trump, San Diego, 2018 — Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
10. QAnon Flag, 2020 — Anthony Crider / Wikimedia Commons
Anbinder, Tyler. Nativism & Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings & the Politics of the 1850s. Oxford University Press, 1992.