The American Know-Nothings: The Nation’s Most Popular Nativist Party


In the middle of the 19th century, a new party began to rise up through the ranks of American Politics. The Know-Nothings were anti Catholic and anti Immigration.

Perhaps one of the most interesting periods of the history of political parties in America took place during the decade preceding the Civil War; that is, the 1850’s.

Leading up to the election of 1952, American politics had been, for the most part, a two party system, much as it is today. The first several elections were competitions between the Federalist party and the Democratic Republican party. Eventually, the Democratic Republicans (by then having shortened the name to its current form; “Democratic”) prevailed, the Federalist party died away and, after a brief period with only a single dominant party (with many different factions) a new party arose in the 1830’s: The Whigs.

Political Parties in a Divided Nation

Two decades later, following the path set by the country as a whole, The Whig party itself began to split down the middle on the issue of southern slavery and states’ rights versus northern abolitionist concerns. The final death toll rang in the election of ’52, when a divided Whig party decided to run a second candidate against their own man, Millard Filmore (who would forevermore be known by his ominous nickname – “The Last of the Whigs”).

For the next four years, politics in America got especially confusing. But here are the basics:

The Whig party was not alone in suffering from the tense time in America. The Democrats, too, were feeling the strains of division pulling on them. Some of the more radical among them, mostly those in the pro-slavery factions, became heavily involved with conspiracy theories concerning an attempted takeover of American Politics by the Roman Catholic church, under Pope Pius IX, while others were led by plain, old fashioned hatred of Immigrants – mostly of the Irish variety.

The Rise of The Know-Nothings

So, the anti-Catholic and anti-Irish forces of the Democratic party (and some of those left party-less after the dissolving of the Whigs) teamed up to start a new party – The American Party.

As patriotic as it might sound, the American Party was really anything but. They were a very closed-minded and secretive party, so much so that they soon became known as the “Know-Nothing Party,” on account of the fact that if anyone ever asked them what their party was up to, they would always claim to “know nothing.” Odd and prejudice as they might have been, the Know-Nothings were more than just a novelty party. In fact, they even began to win elections here and there as the party spread throughout the United States.

Some estimates go as far as to say that the Know-Nothing party grew from 50,000 members to more than a million in a matter of months during the year of 1854 alone. Their winning candidates, such as the Mayor of Chicago, Levi Boone, would adopt such Know-Nothing policies as banning immigrants from holding any public job. They were a nativist party through and through, tolerating only those who had been born in the United States.

The Decline and Fall of the Know-Nothings

The Know-Nothing party lasted almost four years in the United States, though it was eventually destroyed by the very same forces that had created it. Even the Know-Nothings became bitterly divided over many of its issues, notably slavery, and it didn’t take long after the election of 1856, when some of the Know-Nothings supported Millard Fillmore for president, while another supported James Buchanan, to fall apart entirely.

Some of the Know-Nothings reverted back to their previous status as Democrats, while others joined the newly formed Republican party, which would run a little known man from Illinois for President just four years later: Mr. Abraham Lincoln.

Yes indeed; things change pretty fast in American politics. And while ever since that fateful election of 1860 and the arrival of the Republican party on the national scene it’s remained a two party system, it remains helpful to look back at the times prior to this, during the first century of America’s new government, as it grew despite great adversity into the powerful force it is today.

The Know-Nothings, like them or not, certainly played a role in shaping the America of today.