Until the late 1840s, most Americans were descended from British ancestors and most were Protestants. (See Protestantism .) The ethnic balance began to change around 1848. Between 1840 and 1860, the numbers of Irish and German immigrants traveling to the United States soared, reflecting the poor economies of both nations. (See Irish Immigration and German Immigration .) Because of the rapid influx of immigrants, the nation's population doubled in size every twenty to twenty-five years for most of the nineteenth century. Cities on the East Coast were transformed as hundreds of thousands of immigrants arrived. Though the newcomers would quickly rise in the ranks of American society, many began life in the United States in terrible poverty.
Americans whose families had lived in the United States for a few generations often were hostile to the new immigrants. Uneasy about their own futures, native-born workers feared that the immigrants would work in poor conditions at extremely low wages, and this would endanger the jobs and wages of long-time (American-born) workers. Adding to the hostility were misunderstandings about the new immigrants’ religious faiths—many were Catholics or, later, Jews—and their unfamiliar cultural customs. (See Catholicism and Jewish immigration .)
Nativism , the policy of favoring native-born citizens over immigrants, increased as the immigrant population grew. Irish Catholics were often the target of nativism and discrimination. Nativists called for laws to prevent immigrants and minorities from competing for their jobs or gaining political power. As the competition in the workforce increased, there were loud calls for restricting immigration.
From secret group to national party
In 1843, an anti-Catholic group called the American Republican Party was formed in New York to attempt to halt immigration and protect jobs. Their campaigns resulted in riots, including one violent incident in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania , that resulted in twenty-four murders and the burning of two Catholic churches. In 1845, the group reformed as a national party called the Native American Party, which later renamed itself the American Party. They hoped to bar all naturalized citizens (immigrants who became citizens, rather than American-born citizens) from political office, and to lengthen the waiting time for citizenship to twenty-one years.
The American Party, also known as the Know-Nothings or the Know-Nothing Party, was formed in 1849. Its members initially called it the Order of the Star Spangled Banner. Part political party and part secret society, it maintained lodges open only to white, native-born citizens and inducted new members with secret initiation rituals. When questioned about these rituals, members answered “I know nothing,” leading many to call the party the Know-Nothings.
Rise and fall
The Know-Nothings claimed that immigrants—particularly the Irish and other Catholics—threatened to destroy American values and democracy. The party raised fears of a conspiracy to use the U.S. voting system to elect agents of the pope (the head of the Roman Catholic Church) so that the pope could exert political control over the United States. Know-Nothing campaigns, which worked up strong and sometimes violent anti-immigrant feelings, were highly successful in the 1840s and 1850s.
The party benefited greatly from the turmoil of American politics in the years leading up to the American Civil War (1861–65). For decades, politics had been dominated by two national political parties—the Whig Party and the Democratic Party . The Democrats had always welcomed immigrants, but Whig voters in the North had always feared religious and ethnic minorities. By 1852, sectional factions within the Whig Party caused it to weaken. Many former Whigs joined the Know-Nothings, whose members vowed to end the immigrant tide. The growth of the party was quick. Along with nativists and former Whigs, many conservatives turned to the Know-Nothings because they were uncomfortable with both proslavery Democrats and antislavery Republicans .
By 1855, the American Party held forty-three seats in the House of Representatives. It had elected governors in Kentucky , Maryland , Delaware , and four New England states. It had gained control of the Massachusetts legislature and elected a Know-Nothing mayor in Philadelphia.
In 1854, the Know-Nothings nominated ex-president Millard Fillmore (1800–1874; served 1850–53) as their presidential candidate. In the November election, he carried only one state—Maryland. The nation was absorbed in the issues of slavery that were dividing the North and South. The Know-Nothings lost support for never having established a clear stand on slavery. After 1856, the party disappeared.
The Know-Nothing movement was actually a group of secret anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish and anti-immigrant political organizations that called itself the American party. The movement, comprised principally of native-born, white, Anglo-Saxon males, came into being in the 1850s, grew rapidly, and waned almost as quickly.
In the early 1800s, as immigrants continued to flow into the United States, a number of American citizens grew increasingly alarmed. Waves of Germans, who mostly spoke in their native tongue, and Irish, whose thick brogues were difficult to understand, were two groups who inspired the great opposition. The clannish Irish, who were Catholics, were particularly feared and despised. Many Protestants felt that
all Catholics were controlled by and took orders from the pope in Rome.
Certain groups of already established Americans who called themselves "Nativists," formed secret societies dedicated to stopping the flow of immigrants. The depth of nativist animosity was demonstrated in 1834 when a group of anti-Catholic laborers and townspeople chased a group of students and Ursuline nuns from their school and convent near Boston and then burned the buildings.
In 1835 a group of New Yorkers organized a state political party, the Native American Democratic Association. Association candidates, running on a platform that opposed Catholics and immigrants, with support from the Whigs (members of a political party formed in 1834 to oppose andrew jackson and the Democrats) gained 40 percent of the vote in the fall elections. In the 1840s more groups appeared in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and other metropolitan regions of the country. Various local groups appeared and disappeared over time. Eventually the themes of hostility to Catholics and immigrants and the corresponding opposition to the costs of trying to support and educate indigent foreigners found favor with groups attempting to organize on a national basis.
In 1849 a secret fraternal organization bearing the name of the Order of the Star Spangled Banner was launched in New York and similar lodges began to form in other major American cities. When asked about their nativist origins, members would respond that they "knew nothing" and soon found themselves so-labeled. Secretive at first, the organization soon found support for proposals that included stringent restrictions on immigration, exclusion of foreign-born persons from voting or holding political office and a residency requirement of more than 20 years for U.S. citizenship. Because many Know-Nothing supporters felt that liquor had a pernicious effect on immigrants, they sought to limit alcohol sales. They also supported daily Bible readings in schools and tried to ensure that only Protestants could teach in the public schools.
As it shed its clandestine beginnings, the Know-Nothing movement spread rapidly. By 1852 supporters of the Know-Nothing movement had achieved significant results with many of their candidates winning seats in local and state elections. With the passage of the kansas-nebraska act of 1854, the movement gained more supporters. Although originally allied with the Whigs, the phenomenal success of the Know-Nothings as well as growing debate over slavery helped cause the decline and demise of the whig party. The Know-Nothings elected the governor and all but two members of the Massachusetts state legislature as well as 40 members of the New York state legislature. By 1855 Know-Nothing adherents had elected thousands of local government officials as well as eight governors. Forty-three Know-Nothing candidates were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and there were five Know-Nothing senators.
Yet even as the number of Know-Nothing adherents reached its peak, the movement was beginning to decline. Despite their numbers in elective office, the Know-Nothings were largely unsuccessful in passing significant legislation. They introduced a bill in Congress that called for the prohibition of immigration of foreign-born paupers and convicts. They also introduced legislation in several states that required registration and literacy tests for voters.
In 1856 the Know-Nothings held their first and only national convention in Philadelphia where, as the American party, they supported former President millard fillmore as their presidential candidate. The meeting illustrated the growing divide between antislavery and proslavery factions within the party when a group of antislavery delegates abruptly left the convention. Fillmore received 21 percent of the popular vote and eight electoral votes, finishing a poor third behind Democrat james buchanan (who had been nominated instead of unpopular incumbent franklin pierce and who won the election) and Republican John Fremont.
The dismal showing of Fillmore and the increasing controversy over slavery continued the rapid disintegration of the Know-Nothing movement. Many antislavery adherents joined remnants of the Whigs in the newly emerging republican party, while proslavery supporters joined the democratic party. By 1859 the Know-Nothing movement had lost support in all but a few Northern and border states and was no longer of any significance on the national stage.
Anbinder, Tyler. G. 1995. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know-Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Mulkern, John. 1997. The Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts. Boston: Univ. of Massachusetts.
AMERICAN PARTY has been the name of several political parties in U.S. history. The first and most successful party of that name, popularly called the Know-Nothing Party because its members were instructed to answer all questions about their activities with "I know nothing," was founded in New York City in 1849. It was a coalition of several secret fraternal organizations, including the Order of United Mechanics, the Order of the Sons of America, the United Daughters of America, the Order of United Americans, and the Order of the Star Spangled Banner. It was organized to oppose the great wave of immigrants who entered the United States after 1846. The Know-Nothings claimed that the immigrants, who were principally Irish and Roman Catholic, threatened to subvert the U.S. Constitution. Their state and national platforms demanded that immigration be limited, that officeholding be limited to native-born Americans, and that a twenty-one-year wait be imposed before an immigrant could become a citizen and vote.
The party won a number of offices at the state and congressional levels, and attracted many northern Whigs, along with a number of Democrats. Southern Whigs also joined because of growing sectional tensions caused by the reintroduction of the slavery issue into national politics in 1854. For a time, it seemed as if the Know-Nothings would be the main opposition party to the Democrats in the United States. With Millard Fillmore as its presidential candidate in 1856, the party won more than 21 percent of the popular vote and eight electoral votes. Differences over the slavery issue, however, led many members to join the Republican Party, and the American Party was spent as a national force before the election of 1860.
Among other parties so named was one organized in Philadelphia in 1887. The party platform advocated a fourteen-year residence for naturalization; the exclusion of socialists, anarchists, and other supposedly dangerous persons; free schools; a strong navy and coastal defense; continued separation of church and state; and enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine. At a convention held in Washington, D.C., on 14 August 1888, it nominated presidential candidate James L. Curtis of New York State, but he received only 1,591 votes at the November election.
Another American Party entered the 1924 election, and chose Gilbert O. Nations as its presidential candidate and C. H. Randall as its vice-presidential nominee. Despite its efforts to win support from the then-powerful Ku Klux Klan, the party received less than one percent of the vote.
In May 1969, at a gathering in Cincinnati, Ohio, yet another American Party was formed. Two years later it joined with the American Independent Party and in August 1972 the combined organization gathered in Louisville, Kentucky, to nominate U.S. representative John Schmitz for president and Thomas J. Anderson for vice president. The coalition party divided into its components in 1973, and since 1976 the American Party has run a presidential ticket in every election but has always received less than one percent of the vote.
Anbinder, Tyler G. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850's. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Overdyke, Darrell. Know Nothing Party in the South. Magnolia, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1968.
KNOW-NOTHING PARTY, or American Party, organized as the political expression of nativism, hostility directed against German and Irish Roman Catholics, who immigrated heavily in the 1840s and 1850s. Nativism first impacted politics in the form of election-day riots provoked by secret fraternal organizations such as the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, organized in New York in 1849. When questioned about this order, members replied, "I know nothing." By 1854 the "Know-Nothings" achieved national prominence and had an estimated membership of a million. From 1854 to 1856 Know-Nothing candidates won local, state, and congressional offices across the nation. The Know-Nothing platform reflected the party's political and moral conservatism. It included calls for extension of the immigrant naturalization period from five to twenty-one years; restriction of the right to vote to citizens; restriction of office-holding to native-born citizens; prohibition of the manufacture and sale of alcohol; and requirement of the reading of the King James Bible in schools.
Know-Nothings drew from both the Democratic and Whig Parties, but most heavily from the latter, whose traditional makeup of middle-class and skilled working-class Protestants was susceptible to nativist appeals. The Whigs, already damaged by division over the slavery issue, were dealt a mortal blow by Know-Nothing defections in 1854–1855. Know-Nothings occasionally found support among antislavery groups, although most abolitionists and Free Soilers denounced nativism as a form of bigotry and as a distraction from the main goal of restricting slavery. Moreover, the Know-Nothings themselves became divided over the slavery issue. Still, the effects of
the Know-Nothing Party were to pave a transition from Whiggery to Republicanism. In 1856 Know-Nothings in the Northeast supported the Republican candidate John C. Frémont. The Republican Party was primarily an antislavery party but it absorbed and reflected the nativism of the Know-Nothings well into the twentieth century.
Gienapp, William E. The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852–1856. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Argues the rise of the Republican Party was a response to nativism.
Osofsky, Gilbert. "Abolitionists, Irish Immigrants, and the Dilemmas of Romantic Nationalism." American Historical Review 80 (1975): 889–912. Evaluates immigrants' ambivalence over antislavery as a result of nativist hostility.