Who Were the Know-Nothings?

know-nothing_flagAmericans of our day who oppose immigration and reject science are often compared to the “Know-Nothing” party, which had a brief heyday in the decade before the Civil War.  But the comparison is unfair to the Know-Nothings, who were actually considerably more interesting.

The Know-Nothing, or “American,” party came into being at a time of chaos and disintegration, and it swept up a motley collection of fears, resentments, and hopes.  Both major political parties, the Democrats and the Whigs, were splitting apart over the questions of slavery and secession.  In the South the Whigs, who favored a strong central government and support for the expansion of commerce, had lost their northern allies to the anti-slavery cause, and were looking desperately for a party that would work to hold the Union together.  Like the northern Know-Nothings they sought to limit immigration, but for southerners the major fear was that the huge influx of free foreign workers, from countries in which slavery did not exist, posed a danger to the South’s “peculiar institution.”

anti-Pope cartoonNorthern Know-Nothings, more populist than those of the South, rejected the establishment  leaders who had formerly dominated the Whig party.  Elected to state legislatures, they focused on restricting the civil rights of Irish Catholics, who were competing with white Protestant workers for jobs.  They saw Catholics as followers of a foreign ideology opposed to true American values, and believed that they were plotting to take over the country and place it under the rule of the Pope.  In Massachusetts they  included more than a few social reformers, who funded libraries and school textbooks and passed legislation regulating railroads and increasing the rights of women; but they also embarrassed themselves with a highly publicized investigation of alleged sexual immorality in Catholic convents.

The pattern is familiar: immigrants, and particularly Cathoic immigrants, had become a scapegoat for everything that was terrifying about industrialization and social change.  Both northern and southern Know-Nothings believed that they were working to protect an essential American identity.

The means they choose, however, were not ones we would recognize as typically American today.  Like the Knights of the Golden Circle, they organized themselves as a quasi-Masonic secret society, or Order, with secret signs, passwords, and handshakes, and three “degrees” of membership.  The first degree required an initiate to swear never to reveal the secrets of the Order; the party name, “Know-Nothing” allegedly referred to the words members were supposed to say when questioned about it.  The second degree, limited to those deemed capable of holding public office, required that the officeholder remove foreigners and Catholics from all positions under his control, and replace them with native Protestants.  The third degree required members to swear to oppose anything that would tend to weaken the Union.

When the Whig party collapsed in 1854, membership in the Know-Nothing Party grew from 50,000 to over a million in less than a year.  That was their high point.   Despite the efforts of the pro-Union forces to keep the party neutral on the question of slavery, the most radical elements of both sides prevailed.  The party split apart at the 1855 meeting of its National Council, as the Whigs and Democrats had done before them.  The anti-slavery northerners left to join forces with the infant Republican Party.  The pro-slavery southern Democrats rejected the Know-Nothings’ appeals for a compromise that would preserve the Union.   In the election of 1856, the party carried only one state.  Nativism lost its force as a rallying cry, drowned out by the din of an approaching war through which, after four years of blood and agony, the Union would finally be preserved.

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