The Native American Party, renamed in 1855 as the American Party, and commonly named Know Nothing movement, was an American political party that operated on a national basis during the mid-1850s. It promised to purify American politics by limiting or ending the influence of Irish Catholics and other immigrants, thus reflecting nativism and anti-Catholic sentiment. It was empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by German and Irish Catholic immigrants, whom they saw as hostile to republican values and controlled by the Pope in Rome. Mainly active from 1854 to 1856, it strove to curb immigration and naturalization, but met with little success. Membership was limited to Protestant men. There were few prominent leaders, and the largely middle-class membership fragmented over the issue of slavery.
The most prominent leaders were U.S. Representative Nathaniel P. Banks, and former U.S. Representative Lewis C. Levin. The American Party nominated former President Millard Fillmore in 1856. He was never a member, nor a nativist.
Anti-Catholicism had been a factor in colonial America, but played little role in American politics until the arrival of large numbers of Irish and German Catholics in the 1840s. It now reemerged in nativist attacks on Catholic immigration. It appeared in New York politics as early as 1843, under the banner of the American Republican Party. The movement quickly spread to nearby states, using that name or the Native American Party or variants thereon. They succeeded in a number of local and Congressional elections, notably in 1844 Philadelphia where the anti-Catholic orator Lewis Charles Levin was elected U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania's 1st District. In the early 1850s, numerous secret orders grew up, of which the "Order of United Americans" and the Order of the Star Spangled Banner came to be the most important. They merged in New York in the early 1850s as a secret order that quickly spread across the North, reaching non-Catholics, particularly those who were lower middle class or skilled workmen.
The origin of the "Know Nothing" term was in the semi-secret organization of the party. When a member was asked about its activities, he was supposed to reply, "I know nothing." Outsiders called them "Know-Nothings", and the name stuck. In 1855, the Know-Nothings first entered politics under the American Party label.
The immigration of large numbers of Irish and German Catholics to the United States in the period between 1830 and 1860 made religious differences between Catholics and Protestants a political issue. Violence occasionally erupted at the polls. Protestants alleged that Pope Pius IX had put down the failed liberal Revolutions of 1848 and that he was an opponent of liberty, democracy and Republicanism. One Boston minister described Catholicism as "the ally of tyranny, the opponent of material prosperity, the foe of thrift, the enemy of the railroad, the caucus, and the school." These fears encouraged conspiracy theories regarding papal intentions of subjugating the United States through a continuing influx of Catholics controlled by Irish bishops obedient to and personally selected by the Pope.
In 1849, an oath-bound secret society, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, was created by one Charles B. Allen in New York City. Fear of Catholic immigration led to a dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party, whose leadership in many cities included Catholics of Irish descent. Activists formed secret groups, coordinating their votes and throwing their weight behind candidates sympathetic to their cause. When asked about these secret organizations, members were to reply "I know nothing," which led to their popularly being called Know Nothings.
Immigration during the first five years of the 1850s reached a level five times greater than a decade earlier. Most of the new arrivals were poor Catholic peasants or laborers from Ireland and Germany who crowded into the tenements of large cities. Crime and welfare costs soared. Cincinnati's crime rate, for example, tripled between 1846 and 1853 and its murder rate increased sevenfold. Boston's expenditures for poor relief rose threefold during the same period.
— James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 131.
In spring 1854, the Know Nothings carried Boston, Salem, and other New England cities. They swept the state of Massachusetts in the fall 1854 elections, their biggest victory. The Whig candidate for mayor of Philadelphia, editor Robert T. Conrad, was soon revealed as a Know Nothing; he promised to crack down on crime, close saloons on Sundays, and to appoint only native-born Americans to office. He won by a landslide. In Washington, D.C., Know-Nothing candidate John T. Towers defeated incumbent Mayor John Walker Maury, causing opposition of such proportion that the Democrats, Whigs, and Freesoilers in the capital united as the "Anti-Know-Nothing Party". In New York, in a four-way race, the Know-Nothing candidate ran third with 26%. After the 1854 elections, they claimed to have exerted decisive influence in Maine, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and California, but historians are unsure due to the secrecy, as all parties were in turmoil and the anti-slavery and prohibition issues overlapped with nativism in complex and confusing ways. They helped elect Stephen Palfrey Webb as Mayor of San Francisco, and J. Neely Johnson as Governor of California. Nathaniel P. Banks, former Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, was elected to Congress as a Know Nothing candidate, though he later aligned with Republicans (and as such was elected Speaker of the United States House of Representatives).
The results of the 1854 elections were so favorable to the Know Nothings, up to then an informal movement with no centralized organization, that they formed officially as a political party called the American Party, which attracted many members of the now nearly-defunct Whig party as well as a significant number of Democrats and prohibitionists. Membership in the American Party increased dramatically, from 50,000 to an estimated one million plus in a matter of months during that year.
A historian of the Know Nothing party concluded:
The key to Know Nothing success in 1854 was the collapse of the second party system, brought about primarily by the demise of the Whig Party. The Whig Party, weakened for years by internal dissent and chronic factionalism, was nearly destroyed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Growing anti-party sentiment, fueled by anti-slavery as well as temperance and nativism, also contributed to the disintegration of the party system. The collapsing second party system gave the Know Nothings a much larger pool of potential converts than was available to previous nativist organizations, allowing the Order to succeed where older nativist groups had failed.
In San Francisco, California, a Know-Nothing chapter was founded in 1854 to oppose Chinese immigration; members included a judge of the state supreme court, who ruled that no Chinese person could testify as a witness against a white man in court.
Fillmore/Donelson campaign poster
In the spring of 1855, Levi Boone was elected Mayor of Chicago for the Know Nothings. He barred all immigrants from city jobs. Abraham Lincoln was strongly opposed to the principles of the Know Nothing movement, but he did not denounce it publicly because he needed the votes of its membership to form a successful anti-slavery coalition in Illinois. Ohio was the only state where the party gained strength in 1855. Their Ohio success seems to have come from winning over immigrants, especially German American Lutherans and Scots-Irish Presbyterians, both hostile to Roman Catholicism. In Alabama, Know Nothings were a mix of former Whigs, malcontented Democrats, and other political outsiders who favored state aid to build more railroads. Virginia attracted national attention in its tempestuous 1855 gubernatorial. Democrat Henry Alexander Wise won by convincing state voters that Know Nothings were in bed with Northern abolitionists. With the victory by Wise, the movement began to collapse in the South.
Know-Nothings scored startling victories in northern state elections in 1854, winning control of the legislature in Massachusetts and polling 40% of the vote in Pennsylvania. Although most of the new immigrants lived in the North, resentment and anger against them was national, and the American Party initially polled well in the South, attracting the votes of many former southern Whigs.
The party name gained wide but brief popularity. Nativism became a new American rage: Know-Nothing candy, Know-nothing tea, and Know-Nothing toothpicks appeared. Stagecoaches were dubbed "The Know-Nothing". In Trescott, Maine, a shipowner dubbed his new 700-ton freighter, Know-Nothing. The party was occasionally referred to contemporaneously in a slightly pejorative shortening, Knism.
Leadership and legislation
Historian John Mulkern has examined the party's success in sweeping to almost complete control of the Massachusetts legislature after its 1854 landslide victory. He finds the new party was populist and highly democratic, hostile to wealth, elites, and to expertise, and deeply suspicious of outsiders especially Catholics. The new party's voters were concentrated in the rapidly growing industrial towns, where Yankee workers faced direct competition with new Irish immigrants. Whereas the Whig Party was strongest in high income districts, the Know Nothing electorate was strongest in the poor districts. They expelled the traditional upper-class closed political leadership class, especially the lawyers and merchants. In their stead they elected working class men, farmers, and a large number of teachers and ministers. Replacing the moneyed elite were men who seldom owned $10,000 in property.
Nationally, the new party leadership showed incomes, occupation and social status that were about average. Few were wealthy, according to detailed historical studies of once-secret membership rosters. Fewer than 10% were unskilled workers who might come in direct competition with Irish laborers. They enlisted few farmers, but on the other hand, they included many merchants and factory owners. The party's voters were by no means all native-born Americans, for it won more than a fourth of the German and British Protestants in numerous state elections. It especially appealed to Protestants such as the Lutherans, Dutch Reformed, and Presbyterians.
The most aggressive and innovative legislation came out of Massachusetts, where the new party controlled all but three of the 400 seats; only 35 had any previous legislative experience. The Massachusetts legislature in 1855 passed a series of reforms that "burst the dam against change erected by party politics, and released a flood of reforms." Historian Stephen Taylor says that in addition to nativist legislation:
the party also distinguished itself by its opposition to slavery, support for an expansion of the rights of women, regulation of industry, and support of measures designed to improve the status of working people.
It passed legislation to regulate railroads, insurance companies, and public utilities. It funded free textbooks for the public schools, and raised the appropriations for local libraries and for the school for the blind. Purification of Massachusetts against divisive social evils was a high priority. The legislature set up the state's first reform school for juvenile delinquents, while trying to block the importation of supposedly subversive government documents and academic books from Europe. It upgraded the legal status of wives, giving them more property rights and more rights in divorce courts. It passed harsh penalties on speakeasies, gambling houses and bordellos, It passed prohibition legislation with penalties that were so stiff—such as six months in prison for serving one glass of beer—that juries refused to convict. Many of the reforms were quite expensive; State spending rose 45% on top of a 50% hike in annual taxes on cities and towns. Extravagance angered the taxpayers; few Know Nothings were reelected.
The highest priority included attacks on the civil rights of Irish Catholic immigrants. After this, State courts lost the power to process applications for citizenship and public schools had to require compulsory daily reading of the Protestant Bible (which the nativists were sure would transform the Catholic children). The governor disbanded the Irish militias, and replaced Irish holding state jobs with Protestants. It failed to reach the two-thirds vote needed to pass a state constitutional amendment to restrict voting and office holding to men who had resided in Massachusetts for at least 21 years. The legislature then called on Congress to raise the requirement for naturalization from five years to 21 years, but Congress never acted. The most dramatic move by the Know Nothing legislature was to appoint an investigating committee designed to prove widespread sexual immorality under way in Catholic convents. The press had a field day following the story, especially when it was discovered that the key reformer was using committee funds to pay for a prostitute. The legislature shut down its committee, ejected the reformer, and saw its investigation become a laughing stock.
Fearful that Catholics were flooding the polls with non-citizens, local activists threatened to stop them. Tensions came to a head on 6 August 1855, in Louisville, Kentucky, where in a hotly contested race for the office of governor, 22 were killed and many injured. The Louisville riot was only the most spectacular of violent riots between Know Nothing activists and Catholics in 1855. In Baltimore the mayoral elections of 1856, 1857 and 1858 were all marred by violence and well-founded accusations of ballot-rigging. In Maine, Know-Nothings were associated with the tarring and feathering of a Catholic priest, Father John Bapst, in the coastal town of Ellsworth in 1851 and the burning of a Catholic church in Bath in 1854.
In the South, the American Party was composed chiefly of ex-Whigs looking for a vehicle to fight the dominant Democratic Party and worried about both the pro-slavery extremism of the Democrats and the emergence of the anti-slavery Republican party in the North. In the South as a whole the American Party was strongest among former Unionist Whigs. States-rightist Whigs shunned it, enabling the Democrats to win most of the South. Whigs supported the American Party because of their desire to defeat the Democrats, their unionist sentiment, their anti-immigrant attitudes, and the Know-Nothing neutrality on the slavery issue. In 1855 the American Party challenged the Democrats' dominance. In Alabama, the Know-Nothings were a mix of former Whig, malcontented Democrats, and other political misfits; they favored state aid to build more railroads. In the fierce campaign, the Democrats argued that Know-Nothings could not protect slavery from Northern abolitionists. The Know-Nothing American Party disintegrated soon after losing in 1855.
In Louisiana and Maryland, the Know-Nothings enlisted native-born Catholics. In Maryland, the party's influence lasted at least through the Civil War: the American Party's Governor, and later Senator, Thomas Holliday Hicks, Representative Henry Winter Davis, and Senator Anthony Kennedy, with his brother, former Representative John Pendleton Kennedy, all supported the United States in a State which bordered the Confederate States. Historian Michael F. Holt argues that "Know Nothingism originally grew in the South for the same reasons it spread in the North—nativism, anti-Catholicism, and animosity toward unresponsive politicos—not because of conservative Unionism." Holt cites William B. Campbell, former governor of Tennessee, who wrote in January 1855, "I have been astonished at the widespread feeling in favor of their principles—to wit, Native Americanism and anti-Catholicism—it takes everywhere."
Results by county indicating the percentage for Fillmore in each county.
The party declined rapidly in the North after 1855. In the presidential election of 1856, it was bitterly divided over slavery. The main faction supported the ticket of presidential nominee Millard Fillmore and vice-presidential nominee Andrew Jackson Donelson. Fillmore, a former President, had been a Whig, and Donelson was the nephew of Democratic President Andrew Jackson, so the ticket was designed to appeal to loyalists from both major parties, winning 23% of the popular vote and carrying one state, Maryland, with eight electoral votes. Fillmore did not win enough votes to block Democrat James Buchanan from the White House. During this time, Nathaniel Banks decided he wasn't as strongly for the anti-immigrant platform as the party wanted him to be, so he left the Know Nothing Party for the more anti-slavery Republican Party. He contributed to the decline of the Know Nothing Party by taking 2/3 of its members with him.
Many were appalled by the Know-Nothings. Abraham Lincoln expressed his own disgust with the political party in a private letter to Joshua Speed written in August 24, 1855. Lincoln never publicly attacked the Know Nothings, whose votes he needed:
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 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 that I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.
Historian Allan Nevins says Fillmore was never a Know-Nothing or a nativist. He was out of the country when the nomination came and had not been consulted about running. Furthermore:
He was not a member of the party; he had never attended an American [Know-Nothing] gathering. By no spoken or written word had he indicated a subscription to American tenets.
After the Supreme Court's controversial Dred Scott v. Sandford ruling in 1857, most of the anti-slavery members of the American Party joined the Republican Party. The pro-slavery wing of the American Party remained strong on the local and state levels in a few southern states, but by the 1860 election, they were no longer a serious national political movement. Most of their remaining members supported the Constitutional Union Party in 1860.