A form of nativism which flourished in the 1850s, expressing itself principally in the political activity of the American or Know-Nothing party.
Heavy German and Irish immigration, chiefly Catholic, in the years 1830 to 1860 evoked an outburst of nativism expressed in various cities by propaganda and riots against foreigners and "papists." It became political with the organization of nativists in local and state (e.g.,
Louisiana in 1841) elections. The cities of New York in 1844 and Boston in 1845 were carried by the American-Republican or Native American party who had the support of the Whigs. But the latter eventually withdrew their support and the party disappeared from the national scene in 1847.
The Know-Nothing party then developed from several nativist secret societies, a few of which merged under the leadership first of Charles B. Allen of New York and later of James W. Barker. Known originally as the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, the organization and proceedings were secret and every member was sworn to know nothing about them when questioned. The party first entered politics indirectly by supporting the nativistic nominees of existing parties, and by 1852 the success of this maneuver was becoming evident. Election frauds in the older parties strengthened Know-Nothing opposition to foreigners and Catholics, leading to the demand that 21 years' residence in the U.S. be required before an alien could become a citizen, and even then he could not hold public office. Other proposals sought to deny all rights to the foreign-born and to their children, unless educated in public schools.
In 1854 the Know-Nothing party officially became the American party and won some startling victories. Its candidates were elected to the governorships of Massachusetts and Delaware; carried the state legislatures in several New England states and in Maryland, Kentucky, and California; and obtained five seats in the Senate and 43 in the House of the 34th Congress. However, factions soon developed over tariff and land problems and especially over the slavery question, with the consequent decrease of the party's power. In 1856 a national platform that included anti-alien and anti-Catholic planks was presented, and Millard Fillmore, who was also the Whig candidate, was nominated for the presidency. The Know-Nothings dedicated themselves to "place in offices of honor, trust or profit … none but native-born Protestant citizens" and swore to oppose all "foreign influence, Popery, Jesuitism and Catholicism." Abraham Lincoln's comment on this bigotry was: "When the Know-Nothings get control, the [Declaration] will read: 'all men are created equal except Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics."' Although the American party polled about 25 per cent of the popular vote in 1856, it received the electoral vote of only one state, Maryland.
After 1857 the party lost ground, so that by 1859 only the border states supported it. Such vestiges as remained in 1860 were absorbed into the Constitutional Union and Republican parties. The same year marked Know-Nothingism's disappearance as a local political power. Thereafter, many of the Know-Nothing gains were reversed; for example, the New York legislature, which under Know-Nothing influence had passed the Putnam Bill of 1855 forbidding Catholic bishops to hold property in their own names, quietly repealed the measure in 1863.
Public opinion never fully supported the forces of Know-Nothingism, particularly in regard to the immigrant and Catholic citizen, although Know-Nothing views on nonsupport for sectarian schools continued to be upheld. As a short-lived phenomenon of the 1850s, this singular movement did not withstand the test of time and its force was dissipated before it became too dangerous. Although a similar spirit of racial and religious intolerance was revived sporadically in such organizations as the ku klux klan, few of these had much political vitality.
Bibliography: a. r. billington, The Protestant Crusade, 1800–1860 (New York 1938). f. x. curran, Major Trends in American Church History (New York 1946). m. t. geary, A History of Third Parties in Pennsylvania, 1840–1860 (Ph.D. Thesis, CUA, Washington 1938). j. highman, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925 (New Brunswick, N.J. 1955). l. d. scisco, Political Nativism in New York State (New York 1901). w. d. overdyke, The Know-Nothing in the South (Baton Rouge 1950).
[m. l. fell]