The Know Nothing Party in 1854 and 1856

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Nativism, strongest in the American Northeast, affected political realignments during the early and mid 1850s through the American or “Know Nothing” Party.

Begun as a secret society in New York in 1849, the “Know Nothings” or American Party – as they appeared on national ballots in 1856, could be traced to the virulent nativist movement of the 1830s and 1840s. Fiercely anti-immigration, Know Nothings aimed their wrath at Irish and German migrants, many of whom were Roman Catholic. The Know Nothings would achieve some political success during the mid-term elections of 1854. In the 1856 general election led by former President Millard Fillmore, the party split over the Kansas-Nebraska Act but sill gained 871,731 popular votes and 8 electoral votes.

Know Nothing Success in the Mid 1850s

Paul Boller, a Professor Emeritus of History at Texas Christian University, attributes the Know Nothing name to an initial attempt at secrecy. “When members of the party were asked about the organization, they were directed to answer, ‘I don’t know…’” As the party gained support, however, the secrecy gave way to public awareness. “America For Americans,” Know Nothings chanted, demanding a twenty-one year period of naturalization and the banning of any non-native born Americans from office-holding.

Irish immigrants, clustered in the larger urban centers, bore the brunt of nativist ire. Seen as charity cases dumped onto American shores by a British government willing to assist immigrants in order to lessen the pressure on poverty relief, the Irish were willing to work for lower wages in unskilled jobs, taking away work from native-born Americans. Fear of Catholicism also contributed.

German immigrants, flooding America after the failed 1848 revolutions, also attracted fear and suspicion. Like the Irish, they were Catholic and did not “keep the Sabbath” the way Protestants did. And Germans brought beer, a particular evil among New Englanders that still clung to Puritan values. Finally, Germans were perceived as socialists, identified with the various liberal movements in Europe.

These fears enabled the Know Nothings to achieve some success in the 1854 mid-term election. In both the North and the South, the party attracted former Whigs searching for new political homes. In his valuable study on 1850s American politics and the expansion of slavery, Harvard University Historian Frederick Merk (died 1977) isolates Whig strength in 1854 to New York, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Vermont with small pockets in mid-Virginia, Illinois, Ohio, and Tennessee.

The Presidential Election of 1856

By 1856 the Know Nothing Party was beginning to disintegrate in the wake of the ill-advised Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Anti-Nebraska Know Nothings and Whigs “bolted” to support the Republican Party’s candidate, John C. Fremont. By now the “American Party,” the Know Nothings nominated former president Millard Fillmore.

Professor Merk’s analysis of the 1856 election demonstrates a remarkable change for the party over the two-year interval. The party had lost ground in Missouri and the Northeast. Small pockets of Know Nothing strength existed in every southern state except South Carolina. Fillmore’s 8 electoral votes came from Maryland, although his popular vote was 871,731. (407)

None of the national political leaders respected the Know Nothings. Stephen Douglas, in an October 6, 1855 letter to Howell Cobb, wrote that “Abolitionism, Know Nothingism, and all the other isms are akin to each other and are in alliance…against national Democracy.” In several other letters Douglas equates Know Nothingism with Abolitionism.

Abraham Lincoln, quoted by University of Massachusetts Professor Stephen Oates, preferred to live in Russia if the Know Nothings ever succeeded. According to Lincoln, “When the Know Nothings get control, it will read ‘all me are created equal, except Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’” (165)

Southern “bolters” from the Know Nothing Party would emerge in 1860 as the Constitutional Unionists, led by former pro-Union Whig John Bell. After 1856, the Know Nothings ceased as a viable political party, northern supporters joining the rapidly rising Republican Party. Yet another decade of xenophobic Americanism had come to an end, although it would not be the last time nativism dominated political extremes.

Sources:

  1. Paul F. Boller, Jr. Presidential Campaigns From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press, 2004).
  2. Stephen A Douglas, The Letters of Stephen A Douglas, edited by Robert W. Johannsen (University of Illinois Press, 1961).
  3. Frederick Merk, History of the Westward Movement (Alfred A. Knopf, 1978).
  4. Stephen B. Oates, The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm, 1820-1861 (Harper-Collins, 1997).
  5. Page Smith, The Nation Comes of Age: A People’s History of the Ante-Bellum Years Volume Four,(McGraw-Hill, 1981).