Immigration and the Rise & Fall of the Know-Nothing Party

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On this date in 1856, an anti-immigration political party held a nominating convention in Philadelphia. The American Party, the group called itself, although everyone knew it as the “Know-Nothing Party.”

It is instructive to look back at such events, especially in light of this nation’s ongoing divisions about immigration reform.

In the 1840s and 1850s, American domestic politics was in the process of dividing, North from South, over the issue of slavery. Then a new source of angst presented itself: huge surges in immigration to the U.S. from cultures and countries considered by some more exotic than previous waves that had arrived from England, Germany, and Scandinavia.

On the West Coast, influxes of Chinese and Japanese workers found a new home. Millions more arrived in the East from Ireland and Italy; most of these new pilgrims were Roman Catholics.

Several secretive political organizations were formed in reaction to this development. Some of the concerned activists had been Whigs, some had previously been Jeffersonian Democrats. All professed their worry that the character of the country was changing. They expressed many fears, among them that the new settlers were more loyal to the pope in Rome than the president in Washington.

There was a partisan component to the Nativist movement: In the big Northern cities, the Democratic Party had seamlessly folded the immigrants into existing political operations.

Attempting to maximize their leverage, Nativist advocates kept low profiles, often denying their machinations. Asked what they were up to by reporters, these activists often replied, “I know nothing.”

It may have seemed a clever dodge, but newspapermen at the time couldn’t resist this target any more than today’s media could. By 1854, when the activists allied with a rump faction of the Whig Party to run a slate of candidates on an anti-immigration platform, they were labeled the “Know-Nothing Party.”

The following year, the Know-Nothings officially dubbed themselves the American Party. In 1856 they met in Philadelphia to pick a future president. That process didn’t go well. Millard Fillmore was chosen as the party standard-bearer (he would carry just one state in November: Maryland), but the seeds for the Know-Nothing’s demise were planted at their own convention.

A wing of Southerners moved to pass a platform plank calling for the preservation of slavery. This alarmed many Northern and Midwestern Know-Nothings, who bolted to another newly formed political entity: The Republican Party.

Echoes of conflicting cross-currents still exist in our politics today, and not only within the GOP. One comforting thought is that Abraham Lincoln, as usual, saw things clearly -- and before almost anyone else.

“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be?” he wrote in an August 24, 1855  letter to Joshua F. Speed. “How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people?

“Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid,” Lincoln continued. (I have retained his spelling and capitalization.) “As a nation, we begin by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty -- to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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