Abraham Lincoln and the Know-Nothings

Abraham Lincoln

In the mid-1850s, a political group called the Know-Nothings was very influential in America. It was believed that Abraham Lincoln sympathized with this party.

Between 1815 and 1860, a surge of about five million European immigrants came to the U.S. The majority of these immigrants were Irish Roman Catholics, who were escaping a severe famine that killed approximately one million people in their homeland. Meanwhile, large numbers of German and Polish Catholics settled in the Midwest. As a reaction to this immigration surge, a strong movement of angry white protestants formed and called themselves the Native American Party, or the Know-Nothings. Illinois lawyer, congressman, and legislator Abraham Lincoln was rumored to have sympathized with this group’s discriminatory ideology.

The Ideology of the Native American Party, a.k.a. the Know-Nothings

Many white Midwestern Protestants disliked the immigrants that they believed had invaded their country. To white Protestants, these European interlopers were poor, uneducated, uncouth, and immoral. Thus, those who opposed immigration formed a movement that was aimed at forbidding immigrants from being granted full rights.

Many whites in the North were primarliy afraid that immigrants would take their jobs, since immigrants were a source of cheap labor, just as black slaves were in the South. The most prominent of these nationalistic groups was the Native American Party, also known as the Know-Nothings. This nickname came about because members would claim ignorance if publicly questioned about their beliefs and locations of meeting places. The Know-Nothings were the most influential in the 1850s.

The group was explicitly bigoted; for example, an official 1856 slogan was: “The sending back of all foreign paupers.” Know-Nothing groups flourished in heavily Protestant areas, including Illinois. As he became more well-known on the state’s, as well as the national, political scene, Abraham Lincoln was often suspected of sympathizing with the Know-Nothings.

Was Abraham Lincoln a Know-Nothing?

Most of the evidence regarding the matter of Abraham Lincoln’s association with the Know-Nothings seems to suggest that he was not one. For one thing, Lincoln was strongly against the oppression of blacks on the basis of race and believed that it would be hypocritical to support a group that discriminated against whites on the basis of religion or socioeconomic status.

Also, Lincoln often argued that the Know-Nothings’ ideology and actions were unconstitutional. Lincoln once said,”We now practically read it [the Preamble] ‘all men are created equal, except for Negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.'” Finally, Lincoln openly decried groups such as the Know-Nothings as having a degenerative effect on society. Given this evidence, Abraham Lincoln could not possibly have supported the views of the Native American Party.


  1. Various Authors. “Newcomers and Know-Nothings,” excerpted from Abraham Lincoln: An Illustrated History of His Life and Times, p. 63. New York: TIME Books, Time, Inc., 2009.