The Tea Party and Know-Nothings in American Politics

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Over 150 years ago the American Party or Know-Nothings wanted to restore America to its Constitutional roots much like the 2010 Tea Party movement today.

“We are determined to give old party lines and old party hacks a glorious drubbing this fall.” The statement could well be attributed to a member of the Tea Party in the November 2, 2010 midterm election. It was, however, an observation made by a member of the Know-Nothing or American Party in 1855. Like the Tea Party, Know-Nothings sought to return political power to the people and frequently called themselves the “people’s party.” The Know-Nothings of the mid 1850s took aim at Democrats and Whigs while competing with the emerging Republicans.

Tea Party and Know-Nothings Look Back to America’s Founding

By late 1854 and into 1855, the United States was in a deep recession and unemployment figures were high. Members of the Know-Northing Party blamed immigration and demonstrated a particular vehemence against Catholics. The American Catholic hierarchy was lobbying state and federal legislatures to end Bible reading in public schools and to use public revenues to fund parochial schools.

Know-Nothings viewed such actions as a major threat. Additionally, they blamed the laxity of government which was viewed as tyrannical, corrupt, and perverted. Coming out of the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, a secret and hyper-patriotic society in 1849, the Know-Nothings wanted to restore America.

Their 1855 Rhode Island Platform called for, “emulation of the virtue, wisdom, and patriotism that framed our Constitution, and first successfully applied its provisions.” (New York Times, June 22, 1855) These same sentiments can be found in the contemporary Tea Party movement which seeks to “restore America” to, according to Sarah Palin, “its founding principles and constitutional roots.”

What Know-Nothings Opposed and What the Tea Party Rejects

Both movements have this in common: a return to the perceived ideals of America’s founding. For Know-Nothings, this was a battle against foreigners, notably Catholics. Only Protestant, native-born Americans could hold public office under the Know-Nothing program. The fifteenth point of their 1856 national platform states, “Our Country, our whole Country, and nothing but our Country.”

The Tea Party is against big government and seeks to trim the federal budget. Their targets, however, are “liberals” and “Socialists.” An MSNBC profile of Tea Party members (October 18, 2010) quotes Kari Huus of Monticello, Indiana stating, “We’re heading into a socialistic system here. What we are experiencing now us the fall of democracy.”

This is a common view among Tea Party members and candidates they support. Kentucky Candidate Rand Paul has often referred to “Obamacare” and Medicare as “socialism,” (Louisville Courier Journal, October 18, 2010) despite benefiting from Medicare in his medical practice.

Know-Nothing Electoral Success in the Mid 1850s

The Know-Nothings or American Party were most successful in pursuing their agenda in the Northeast. Although their goals included electing Nativist candidates in all levels of state and local government, they managed a respectable showing in the national House and ran former president Millard Fillmore in the 1856 presidential election.

Much like this 1850s “people’s party” of young men not associated with status quo politics, in the Tea Party, as Rep Michelle Bachmann, founder of the Congressional Tea Party Caucus told the Washington Post July 21, 2010, “the people are head…” At present, however, Tea Party candidates are running as “commonsense” Republicans, challenging the so-called “insider, beltway politicians” like Nevada’s Harry Reid, and they are running candidates at all levels of government.

Early Republicans Eclipse the Know-Nothing Party after 1856

Because the Know-Nothings competed with the fledgling Republicans in 1856 and attracted members of the defunct Whig Party, Democrat James Buchanan of Pennsylvania won the election in 1856. Over the next four years, however, Republicans, capitalizing on northern anger with the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854, turned Know-Nothing anger from nativist concerns to the anti-slavery issues of the decade.

If the Tea Party achieves significant success in the 2010 election, the temptation to either take over the Republican Party leadership or the formation of an entirely new party will dramatically affect the 2012 election. Additionally, national issues change. The Tea Party can learn much from the Know-Nothings. History is cyclical and often repeats itself. This is most evident in American politics.