Know Nothing - Encyclopedia

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KNOW NOTHING (or [[American) Party]], in United States history, a political party of great importance in the decade before 1860. Its principle was political proscription of naturalized citizens and of Roman Catholics. Distrust of alien immigrants, because of presumptive attachment to European institutions, has always been more or less widely diffused, and race antagonisms have been recurrently of political moment; while anti-Catholic sentiment went back to colonial sectarianism. These were the elements of the political "nativism" - i.e. hostility to foreign influence in politics - of 1830-1860. In these years Irish immigration became increasingly preponderant; and that of Catholics was even more so. The geographical segregation and the clannishness of foreign voters in the cities gave them a power that Whigs and Democrats alike (the latter more successfully) strove to control, to the great aggravation of naturalization and election frauds. "No one can deny that ignorant foreign suffrage had grown to be an evil of immense proportions" (J. F. Rhodes). In labour disputes, political feuds and social clannishness, the alien elements - especially the Irish and German - displayed their power, and at times gave offence by their hostile criticism of American institutions.' In immigration centres like Boston, Philadelphia and New York, the Catholic Church, very largely foreign in membership and proclaiming a foreign allegiance of disputed extent, was really "the symbol and strength of foreign influence" (Scisco); many regarded it as a transplanted foreign institution, un-American in organization and ideas. 2 Thus it became involved in politics. The decade1830-1840was marked by anti-Catholic (anti - Irish) riots in various cities and by party organization of nativists in many places in local elections. Thus arose the AmericanRepublican (later the Native-American) Party, whose national career begun practically in 1845, and which in Louisiana in 1841 first received a state organization. New York City in 1844 and Boston in 1845 were carried by the nativists, but their success was due to Whig support, which was not continued, 3 and the national organization was by 1847 - in which year it endorsed the Whig nominee for the presidency - practically dead. Though some Whig leaders had strong nativist leanings, and though the party secured a few representatives in Congress, it accomplished little at this time in national politics. In the early 'fifties nativism was revivified by an unparalleled inflow of aliens. Catholics, moreover, had combated the Native-Americans defiantly. In 1852 both Whigs and Democrats were forced to defend their presidential nominees against charges of anti-Catholic sentiment. In1853-1854there was a wide-spread "anti-popery" propaganda and riots against Catholics in various cities. Meanwhile the Know Nothing Party had sprung from nativist secret societies, whose relations remain obscure. 4 Its organization was secret; and hence its name - for a member, when interrogated, always 'E.g. for some extraordinary "reform" programmes among German immigrants see Schmeckebier (as below), pp. 48-50.

2 "The actual offence of the Catholic Church was its non-conformity to American methods of church administration and popular education" (Scisco). 3 The Whigs bargained aid in New York city for "American" support in the state, and charged that the latter was not given. Millard Fillmore attributed the Whig loss of the state (see Liberty Party) to the disaffection of Catholic Whigs angered by the alliance with the nativists.

4 The Order of United Americans and the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, established in New York respectively in 1845 and 1850, were the most important sources of its membership.

answered that he knew nothing about it. Selecting candidates secretly from among those nominated by the other parties, and giving them no public endorsement, the Know Nothings, as soon as they gained the balance of power, could shatter at will Whig and Democratic calculations. Their power was evident by 1852 - from which time, accordingly, "Know-Nothingism" is most properly dated. The charges they brought against naturalization abuses were only too well founded; and those against election frauds not less so - though, unfortunately, the Know Nothings themselves followed scandalous election methods in some cities. The proposed proscription of the foreign-born knew no exceptions: many wished never to concede to them all the rights of natives, nor to their children unless educated in the public schools. As for Catholics, the real animus of Know Nothingism was against political Romanism; therefore, secondarily, against papal allegiance and episcopal church administration (in place of administration by lay trustees, as was earlier common practice in the United States); and, primarily, against public aid to Catholic schools, and the alleged greed (i.e. the power and success) of the Irish in politics. The times were propitious for the success of an aggressive third party; for the Whigs were broken by the death of Clay and Webster and the crushing defeat of 1852, and both the Whig and Democratic parties were disintegrating on the slavery issue. But the Know Nothings lacked aggression. In entering national politics the party abandoned its mysteries, without making compensatory gains; when it was compelled to publish a platform of principles, factions arose in its ranks; moreover, to draw recruits the faster from Whigs and Democrats, it "straddled" the slavery question, and this, although a temporary success, ultimately meant ruin. In 1854, however, Know Nothing gains were remarkable.' Thereafter the organization spread like wildfire in the South, in which section there were almost no aliens, and the Whig dissolution was far advanced. The Virginia election of May 1855 proved conclusively, however, that Know Nothingism was no stronger against the Democrats than was the Whig party it had absorbed; it was the same organization under a new name. In the North it was even clearer that slavery must be faced. Know Nothing evasion probably helped the South, 2 but neither Republicans nor Democrats would endure the evasion; Douglas and Seward, and later (1855-1856) their parties, denounced it. In the North-West the Know Nothings were swept into the antislavery movement in 1854 without retaining their organization. In the state campaigns of 1855 professions were measured to the latitude. The national platform of 1856 (adopted by a secret grand council), besides including anti-alien and anti-Catholic planks, offered sops to the North, the South and the "doughfaces" on the slavery issue. Millard Fillmore was nominated for the presidency. The anti-slavery delegates of eight Northern states bolted the convention, and eight months later the Republican wave swept the Know Nothings out of the North. 3 The national field being thus lost, the state councils became supreme, and local opportunism fostered variation and weakness. By 1859 the party was confined almost entirely to the border states. The Constitutional Union - the "Do Nothing" - Party of 1860 was mainly composed of Know Nothing remnants. 4 The year 1860 practically marked, also, the disappearance of the party as a local power.' Except in city politics nativism had no vitality; in state and 1 This year "American Party" became the official name. Its strength in Congress was almost thirty-fold that of 1852. It elected governors, legislatures, or both, in four New England states, and in Maryland, Kentucky and California; minor officers elsewhere; and almost won six Southern states.

2 For it delayed anti-slavery organization in the North, and presumably discouraged immigration, which was a source of strength to the North rather than to the South.

3 They carried only Maryland. The popular vote in the North was under one-seventh, in the South above three-sevenths, of the total vote cast.

4 Note the presidential vote. Seward's loss of the Republican nomination was partly due to Know Nothing hostility.

' Its firmest hold was in Maryland. Its rule in Baltimore (1854-1860) was marked by disgraceful riots and abuses.

national politics it really had no excuse. Race antipathies gave it local cohesive power in the North; various causes, already mentioned, advanced it in the South; and as a device to win offices it was of wide-spread attraction. Its only real contribution to government was the proof that nativism is not Americanism. Public opinion has never accepted its estimate of the alien nor of Catholic citizens. Some of its anti-Church principles, however - as the non-support of denominational schools - have been generally accepted; others - as the refusal to exclude the (Protestant) Bible from public schools - have been generally rejected; others - as the taxation of all Church property - remain disputed.

See L. D. Scisco, Political Nativism in New York State (doctoral thesis, Columbia University, New York, 1901); L. F. Schmeckebier, Know Nothing Party in Maryland (Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 1899); G. H. Haynes, "A Know Nothing Legislature" (Mass., 1855), in American Historical Assoc. Report, pt. 1 (1896); J. B. McMaster, With the Fathers, including "The Riotous Career of the Know Nothings" (New York, 1896); H. F. Desmond, The Know Nothing Party (Washington, 1905).

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