The nativist Know Nothing movement—officially known as the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, and as the American Party when it entered formally into electoral politics—flashed across American public life in the mid-1850s. It heralded the demise of the Whig Party, and the Second Party System more generally, and set the stage for the rise of the Republican Party. While scorned by major figures in the new party (including Abraham Lincoln) Know Nothingism has been a sometimes-more minor, sometimes-less minor, but nonetheless pivotal, and tawdry, part of the Republican coalition ever since.
In recent decades, the presidential candidacies of Pat Buchanan (in 1992 and 1996) and, today, Donald Trump, draw on themes similar to those of the Know Nothing movement: criticizing immigrants for crime and poverty, for being at odds with American culture and being a threat to American greatness. The Know Nothings also criticized the established political parties—the Whigs and the Democrats —as corrupt and out of touch. They criticized leaders in the parties for being overly-beholden to immigrants. There was also a religious dimension to Know Nothing nativism; Catholicism being inconsistent with American republicanism according to movement adherents.
While the Know Nothing movement also drew deeply from evangelicals of the day. One Indiana Democrat blamed his party’s 1854 state electoral defeat to “the Secret Conclave [i.e., the Know Nothings] and the Methodist church.”
Know Nothing signature proposals included delaying naturalization for immigrants from anywhere from five to 21 years, as well as delaying when naturalized immigrants could vote hold public office. They also advocated required use of the King James Bible in public schools (thereby proscribing use of Catholic Bibles), prohibiting public funds from supporting parochial schools, and supported church property laws that required lay trustees to hold title to church property, thereby preventing Catholic bishops from officially owning the same.
The Know Nothing movement also served as a transitional institution between Whigs and Republicans, and so promoted laws other than anti-immigrant ones. The Know Nothing movement in the north was associated with anti-slavery opinion, and passed anti-slavery policies in some states in which it achieved wide electoral success. Know Nothing legislators in Connecticut and Massachusetts enacted laws that sought to extend economic protection to working men. In Massachusetts legislators expanded bankruptcy protection and ended imprisonment for debt. It also often promoted pro-temperance policies—often part and parcel with its hostility to Catholicism and Irish immigration. (Know Nothings in some states muted both pro-temperance and anti-immigrant proclivities to attract German Lutheran voters.)
During its short zenith in 1854-1855, Know Nothings enjoyed considerable electoral success, electing “eight governors, more than one hundred congressmen, the mayors of Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, and thousands of other local officials” according to historian Tyler Anbinder. Its presidential nominee—Millard Fillmore—received over 20 percent of the popular vote, and won the electoral votes of Maryland. By that time, however, the new Republican Party eclipsed the Know Nothings, and the Know Nothings diminished as an organized political organization almost as quickly as it arose.
The Know Nothings largely migrated to the Republican Party after 1856, but it’s been an awkward fit. On one hand, Republicans needed votes from former Know Nothings to become a national party after 1856 and after. Know Nothings and their nativist progeny have been a sometimes smaller, sometimes larger part of the Republican coalition, but they’ve also often been pivotal for GOP electoral success. Nonetheless, except for a few scraps thrown to them here and there, from the start the Republican establishment largely aimed to keep their votes but distance themselves from their nativist views.
Abraham Lincoln, for example, opposed Know-Nothing nativism on Republican principles:
I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can anyone 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 began 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 [sic] of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.
He wrote the above, however, in a private letter. More publically, writing to a group about a proposal in Massachusetts delaying the extension of voting rights for naturalized citizens, Lincoln stated:
I am against it’s [sic] adoption in Illinois, or in any other place, where I have a right to oppose it. Understanding the spirit of our institutions to aim at the elevation of men, I am opposed to whatever tends to degrade them. I have some little notoriety for commiserating the oppressed condition of the negro; and I should be strangely inconsistent if I could favor any project for curtailing the existing rights of white men, even though born in different lands, and speaking different languages from myself.Know Nothingism has always existed in a dark corner of the Republican coalition. The movement itself provided a temporary home for Whigs and Free Democrats transitioning into the new Republican Party of the 1850s, and so attracted for a short while diffuse members at best only weakly attached to its motivating nativism and religious parochialism. With the ascendency of the Republicans, however, many of the nativists swept into the coalition as well adding marginal, albeit critical, support to the new party. Know Nothing nativism sat at odds with Republican philosophy in the 1850s and 1860s, however, and it does so today as well. However attenuated the relationship between today’s Republican Party and its Free Labor roots, as Lincoln’s letters make clear, Know Nothingism severs the connection entirely, and destroys the raison d'etre for the party’s commitment to individual liberty.
James R. Rogers is Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University.