Monday, March 6, 2017

The Return of the Know Nothings


The Know-Nothings was the name of an American political party that came to prominence in the mid-1850s. Their formal title was The Native American Party, which they renamed the American Party in 1855. 

 A strident Anti-Catholic cartoon depicting members of the Know-Nothing
Party opposing the Pope as he arrives in America. (Library of  Congress)
The movement began in response to an influx of migrants and promised to "purify" American politics by limiting or ending the influence of Irish Catholics and other immigrants. The Know Nothing Party grew from fears that German and Irish Catholic immigrants were overwhelming the country. They considered the Catholics to be under the political control of the Pope and hostile to Republican values. 

Origins 

Anti-immigrant cartoon showing two men labeled "Irish Whiskey"
and "Lager Bier," carrying a ballot box. 
(Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo)
The immigration of Irish and German Catholics in the 1840s instigated an increase in anti-Catholicism in American society and politics. Although anti-Catholic sentiments were present in colonial America, the wave of immigrants re-energized public sentiment. The Irish and German emigrants competed with native-born citizens for jobs and housing. This competition fostered the nativism movement. This political philosophy advocated favoring the native majority of a nation while targeting and threatening newcomers or immigrants. Political rhetoric fueled the fears of laborers, skilled workers, and small businessmen. 

The religious differences between Catholics and Protestants also became a political issue. Protestants accused the Pope of being opposed to liberty, democracy, and Republicanism. A Boston minister claimed that Catholicism was "the ally of tyranny, the opponent of material prosperity, the foe of thrift, the enemy of the railroad, the caucus, and the school." These charges led to the fear that the Pope wanted to subjugate the United States through a continuing influx of Catholics controlled by Irish bishops under the command of the Pope. 

The movement appeared in New York State as the American Republican Party in June 1843. It was a response to the increasing political power of immigrant voters and officeholders. In 1844, the party won municipal elections in New York City and Philadelphia. These victories helped the party grow and the leaders organized a national convention in July 1845. Attendees changed the name to the Native American Party and proposed tougher immigration laws including a legislative program requiring a twenty-one-year period before immigrants could become citizens. However, the party was unable to force the United States Congress to pass more stringent immigration standards. Congress focused on the annexation of Texas, a potential war with Mexico, and the expansion of slavery. The inability to pass legislation caused the party to lose popularity. 

Secret Organizations 

As the national party declined, a number of "secret organizations" formed in the early 1850s. The "Order of United Americans" and the "Order of the Star Spangled Banner" were the most important. The two groups merged and the party rapidly spread across the North. Their message found an audience among lower middle class, non-Catholics. 

The name Know-Nothing came from the organization's secret response to questions about the group. When someone asked a member about the group's activities, he replied, "I know nothing." Outsiders called them "Know-Nothings," and the response became the unofficial party name.
In 1849, Charles B. Allen established the Order of the Star Spangled Banner in New York City. The society drew members from non-Catholic Democrats dissatisfied because of the increase of Irish Catholic members and leaders in the party. The disenchanted Democrats formed secret groups, coordinated their votes, and supported candidates sympathetic to their cause. 

Other issues contributed to the growth of anti-immigrant attitudes. According to James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom:

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. 

The Rise to National Prominence 

Platform of the American Party (Seth Kaller, Inc.)
In the 1854 elections, the Know-Nothing candidates were victorious in Boston, Salem, and other New England cities. The Whig candidate for mayor of Philadelphia won by promising to reduce crime, close saloons on Sundays, and to appoint only native-born Americans to office. The Know Nothing candidate defeated the incumbent mayor in Washington, DC. In Massachusetts, the new party controlled all but three of the 400 seats, and only 35 had any previous legislative experience. The Know-Nothings founded a chapter in San Francisco in 1854 to oppose Chinese immigration. A judge on the state Supreme Court, who was a member, ruled that no Chinese person could testify as a witness against a white man in court. 

The results of the 1854 elections energized the individual Know-Nothing organization, and they formed an official political party called the American Party. The party attracted many members from the Whig and Democratic parties and prohibitionists. Membership in the American Party increased from 50,000 to over one million in a matter of months during 1854.

In the spring of 1855, the Know Nothing candidate was elected mayor of Chicago. He barred all immigrants from city jobs. In Alabama, Know Nothings were a mix of former Whigs, malcontented Democrats, and other political outsiders who favored state aid to build more railroads. The Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia won the election by convincing voters that Know Nothings were allied with Northern abolitionists. After Democratic victory, the movement began to collapse in the South. 

Membership 

The new party's voters were concentrated in the rapidly growing industrial towns, where workers faced direct competition with new Irish immigrants. Know Nothing membership was highest in the poor districts. They opposed the upper-class closed political leadership class, especially the lawyers and merchants. In their place, they elected working class men, farmers, and a large number of teachers and ministers. Men who seldom owned $10,000 in property replaced the wealthy politicians. 

Other Issues 

The American Party was more than just a nativist movement. In Massachusetts, the 1855 Know Nothing controlled legislature passed a series of reforms that "burst the dam against change erected by party politics, and released a flood of reforms." The party also opposed slavery, supported an expansion of the rights of women, favored industry regulation, and championed measures 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. The legislature established the state's first reform school for juvenile delinquents. It gave wives more property rights and more rights in divorce courts. It passed harsh penalties on speakeasies, gambling houses, and bordellos. It passed tough prohibition legislation. However, many of the reforms were quite expensive. State spending rose 45% and taxes on cities and towns increased 50%. This spending angered the taxpayers, and few Know Nothings were re-elected. 

National Impact 

The Know-Nothing movement reached its zenith in the mid-1850s when the American Party won fifty-two seats in the US House of Representatives in 1854 and captured five seats in the US Senate in 1856. The party ran Millard Fillmore and Andrew J. Donelson in the presidential election in 1856. 

After the Supreme Court's ruling in the Dred Scott case, 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.

Political movements, such as the American Protective Association in the 1890s and the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, revived the nativism philosophy. In the 1892 election in Illinois, a Democratic candidate denounced the Republicans:

The spirit which enacted the Alien and Sedition laws, the spirit which actuated the "Know-nothing" party, the spirit which is forever carping about the foreign-born citizen and trying to abridge his privileges, is too deeply seated in the party. The aristocratic and know-nothing principle has been circulating in its system so long that it will require more than one somersault to shake the poison out of its bones. 

Comparison with Current Republican Initiatives 

During the 2016 presidential election, the media compared the Republican candidate with the nativism of the Know Nothings. These criticisms posed the question of whether "the poison" was out of the Republican Party's "bones." 

Targets

Know-Nothings: Irish Catholics, German Catholics, and Chinese
Republicans: Hispanics and Muslims 

Reasons

Know-Nothings: Growing political power, rising crime and violence, increasing welfare costs, competition for jobs, threat to status of native Americans, fear of Pope's political influence 
Republicans: Growing political power, rising crime and violence, increasing welfare costs, competition for jobs, Threat to status of native Americans, fear of "Muslim terrorists" 

Responses

Know-Nothings: Tougher immigration laws, jury and testimony restrictions, prohibition from holding public office
Republicans: Tougher enforcement of immigration laws,deportation of illegal, especially criminal, immigrants,travel restrictions on selected countries, wall along Texas-Mexico border, taxes on Mexican imports 

Impact on Political Parties

Know-Nothings: Parties out of touch with public, demise of Whig Party, division of Democratic Party based on support for slavery, failure of Democrats to support workers
Republicans: Parties out of touch with public, public anger with Congressional ineffectiveness, loss of traditional labor support by Democrats, conservative battles within Republican Party

Social Impacts

Know-Nothings: Nativism, Violence against Catholics, Anti-immigrant 
Republicans: Nativism, rise of white supremacy movement, violence against Muslims, threats against religious groups, anti-immigrant attitudes, desecration of religious sites

Sources


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