Know-Nothing Movement, a nativist political movement in the United States in the 1850's. It was organized to oppose the great wave of immigrants who entered the United States after 1846. Know-Nothings claimed that the immigrantswho were principally Irish and Roman Catholic threatened to destroy the American experiment. The Roman Catholic church, they charged, was subservient to a foreign prince (the pope), it was growing in power, and it potentially could exert political control over a large group of people. Such nativist sentiments had long existed among many Americans, but they had never before been expressed in such powerful form.
In several Northern states as early as the 1840's there were local nativist parties that drew support from the DEMOCRATIC and WHIG parties. By the early 1850's there was a trend to organize nationally against the presumed immigrant threat. The old parties, the nativists said, had not confronted the danger. The Democrats, it was charged, were supported by the aliens; the party needed their votes and catered to their whims. The Whigs appeared helpless before them.
Originally, nativist party members had worked through a number of secret societies, clandestinely throwing their support on election day with powerful effect to sympathetic candidates. Saying that they knew nothing about such activities, the nativists wreaked havoc with their votes in 1854 in the existing party system. They won sweeping victories at the state and congressional levels. They attracted many Northern Whigs to their point of view along with an important number of Democrats. Southern Whigs also joined because of growing sectional tensions caused by the reintroduction of the slavery issue into national politics in 1854. For a time it seemed as if the Know-Nothings (officially the AMERICAN PARTY) would be the main opposition party in the United States. Publicly backing Millard FILLMORE as a presidential candidate in 1856, they won more than 21% of the popular vote and eight ELECTORAL votes.
The Know-Nothings wanted to use government power to preserve their vision of a particular kind of Anglo-Saxon Protestant society. Their state and national platforms demanded that immigration be limited, that politics be purified by limiting officeholding to native-born Americans, and that a 21-year wait be imposed before an immigrant could become a citizen and vote. They also sought to limit the sale of liquor, to restrict public-school teaching to Protestants, and to have the Protestant version of the Bible read daily in classrooms. Despite their strength and appeal, the Know-Nothings were already in decline as a national party by 1856. Beset by differences over the slavery issue, many members joined the REPUBLICAN PARTY, which seemed sympathetic to much of their nativism and offered additional appeals on other important issues. Know-Nothing parties remained strong in a number of Northern states in the late 1850's, but the party was spent as a national force before the election of 1860.
The Know-Nothing movement illustrated two things: a persistent ethnoreligious hostility in American life that often intruded into politics and the potentiality for political disruption when existing parties fail to deal adequately with volatile social and political tensions. Although the movement quickly lost out to the Republicans, its ideas did not, and they formed one aspect of the Republican appeal for more than a generation to come.
Joel H. Silbey Cornell University
You people were dead wrong in 1850 and you're still wrong 150 years later.