The Know-Nothing Party started in 1844 as a small secret organization called the American Party or the American Republican Party. The party got its name from being a secret society. Whenever people asked a member where they were going, they would say that they “know nothing.” The Know-Nothings were opposed to Catholics and wanted to restrict the immigration and job opportunities of non-native Americans (native Americans were understood as European Protestants born in the United States – not those we define today as Native Americans). The Know-Nothings’ Anti-Catholic sentiment was always around in the United States but it was only furthered and arguably reached its height between the 1840 and 1860 as more and more Irish and German Catholics immigrated to the USA. The Irish arrived in large numbers during the potato famine and gave the Know-Nothing Party a lot of traction as now many lower middle class Americans had to compete with poor Irish immigrants. In 1854, the momentum led to the biggest electoral success of the Know-Nothing Party which won 52/234 House seats and 5/66 Senate seats. They were also fairly successful in many state and local elections, particularly in Massachusetts and the Northeast, where nativist sentiments were high. However, the party lost most of its seats in the 1856 election as the issue of slavery split the party with the northern Know-Nothings voting Republican and the southern ones voting Democrat.
Abraham Lincoln strongly opposed the Know-Nothing Party in private but never publicly opposed it, as he needed its votes. In a letter to Joshua Speed in 1855 he wrote: “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 equals, 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.”
- Abraham Lincoln helped found the Republican Party to oppose ideas of Democrats and Know Nothings. What does that say about the principles of the Republican Party of the time?
- What are the characteristics of people who today oppose immigration? Are the things they fear similar, or different from the things which the Know Nothings’ supporters feared?
- What is the legacy of the Know-Nothing Party? What impact did it have?
- Do you think immigration is always a contentious issue? If so, why? If not, what causes it to be contentious at some times, and not at others?
- Race, religion, and ethnic origin were central to the question of immigration in the 19th Century. In what ways is that still true? In what ways has that changed?
Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo. Anti-immigrant cartoon showing two men labeled “Irish Wiskey” and “Lager Bier,” carrying a ballot box. Digital Image. Smithsonian. February 14, 2019. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/immigrants-conspiracies-and-secret-society-launched-american-nativism-180961915/