On the Know-Nothing Party

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On the Know-Nothing Party


By: Abraham Lincoln

Date: August 24, 1855

Source: Lincoln, Abraham. "On the Know-Nothing Party." Public Domain, August 24, 1855.

About the Author: Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) served as the sixteenth president of the United States. He helped organize the Republican Party in Illinois in 1856 to oppose the spread of slavery. As president, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves in the states in rebellion against the Union during the Civil War.


The Know Nothing or American Party formed in 1853 and soon became the second largest political party in the United States behind the Democratic Party. By 1857, the party was dead. It was a victim of the growing controversy over slavery.

A nativist group, the Know Nothings emerged in response to the influx of millions of Catholics from Ireland and Germany in the 1840s and 1850s. Nativism and anti-Catholicism had long been traditions in American politics, but the waves of immigrants reignited these sentiments. Prejudice against Catholics among middle-class and working-class Protestants was legitimized by the Protestant intelligentsia. Anti-Catholicism then became associated with the reform program of Protestant social activists campaigning for the abolition of slavery and the prohibition of liquor. Fear and hatred of Catholics created a need for secrecy among the nativists. When asked about their organization, they were instructed to say, "I know nothing."

Using the name American Party, the Know Nothings swept to political victory in Massachusetts, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maryland, and Kentucky. American party tickets also ran strong races in Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. By 1855, nativism seemed on the verge of carrying the entire country.

In that year, Joshua F. Speed (1814–1882) of Kentucky, a longtime close friend of Abraham Lincoln, asked the future president about his views on the Know Nothings. Speed, the brother of Lincoln's future attorney general James Speed, was a farmer and one-time state legislator who publicly supported slavery but who came from a family long opposed to it. During the Civil War, he would remain loyal to the Union and helped coordinate Union activities in Kentucky.


I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one 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 pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.


Slavery destroyed the Know Nothings. Despite its political success in 1854 and 1855, the national Know Nothing Party could not survive the anti-slavery controversy. As the party gathered in Philadelphia in June 1855, a pro-slavery resolution led to a wild debate and a massive defection led by Massachusetts nativists but including Know Nothings from many states. Further divisions in the party created more problems.

Nativism failed to inspire and unite the nation. It was clear what the Know Nothings opposed, but they had no positive message and a notorious habit for secrecy. They inspired ridicule and laughter. Newspapers gleefully published the secret rituals of the Know Nothings and jokesters set up Owe Nothing, Say Nothing, and Do Nothing societies.

In 1856, the Know Nothings persuaded former President Millard Fillmore to run as their American Party candidate. Fillmore, who happened to be visiting Pope Pius IX at the Vatican at the time of his nomination, disavowed anti-Catholicism. Although Fillmore received twenty percent of the national popular vote, he carried only one state, Maryland. Soon after, the Know Nothings ceased to exist. They became one of the minor parties in American political history.



Anbinder, Tyler. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Mulkern, John R. The Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts: The Rise and Fall of the People's Movement. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1990.

Voss-Hubbard, Mark. Beyond Party: Cultures of Antipartisan-ship in Northern Politics Before the Civil War. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

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