Déjà Vu All Over Again: The Know Nothing Party


A major political party divided against itself. Fear of profound social changes. A populist movement that feared America was in decline and looked for a leader that would make the country great again. Virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric and fear that members of a “foreign” religious group are a threat to–well– pretty much everything.* Sound familiar? Welcome to 1854 and the rise of the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, more commonly known as the Know Nothing party.***

The Know Nothings tend to be overlooked in American history classes, largely because they are overshadowed by the events leading to the Civil War and partly because they represent an ugly side to the antebellum north that muddies the narrative. Located in the urbanized North with a membership base that was primarily working and middle class, the party had a “nativist” ideology: they were for white men born in the United States (preferably several generations previously) and against pretty much everyone else–particularly the Irish Catholics who flooded into the country following the potato famine of 1848. Long before Max Weber coined the phrase “Protestant work ethic”, the Know Nothings believed that Protestantism was responsible for America’s freedom and prosperity and that Catholics in particular and immigrants in general had corrupted the political system.***

Because they played little role in the sectarian divisions of the war, it is easy to brush them off as a minor movement, but their contemporaries saw their rise as a major political problem They were originally a fraternal order, complete with secret rites and vows of secrecy–think Masons with a bad attitude. By 1854, they had some 50,000 members in sixteen states. By the end of 1855, they had elected eight governors, more than 100 congressmen, mayors in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, and thousands of local officials. Their influence did not survive the presidential election of 1856. Their candidate, Millard Fillmore (previously a member of the Whig party), took only one state and split the Whig/Republican votership, ensuring the election of the Democratic candidate, James Buchanan. By 1860, the Know Nothings had disappeared, taking the Whig party down with it.

* If you’ve spent any time here in the Margins, you may have noticed that one of the themes I return to from time to time is the fact that we** historically screw up on the question of immigration. In theory we say, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” In reality, large numbers of us say, “I’m on board the freedom ship, pull up the ladder so no one else can get on. Don’t want it to get too crowded in here.” We pass quotas. We put up signs saying “No Irish need apply.” Now we rant about building walls. It really irks me that we keep going back to this poisoned well whenever people feel threatened by social, political and/or economic change. Rant over.

**And by we, I mean the United States. I know some of the Marginalia are from other parts of the world.

***Because they swore an oath when they joined that they would answer any questions about the order by saying “I know nothing.”

****In all fairness, it was the height of Tammany Hall corruption, which in fact drew on New York City’s immigrant base for its political clout. But Tammany Hall was able to do so because existing political blocs rejected immigrants. Chicken or egg?






  1. Iris Seefeldt on September 9, 2016 at 2:39 pm

    A very enlightening column today. Something to look at and contemplate. The media do fan the flames I must say. The enlightened reader wades through that. I hope we will be able to instill some educated comments out of this. Thanks

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