Know Nothings

Know Nothing flag, mid-1850's.

Know Nothing flag, mid-1850’s.

Native-American didn’t always mean American Indian. That definition took hold in the 1970’s*. Back in the 19th century, at least until the Civil War, it meant native-born American, and American meant White, English, Protestant and especially not Irish. In fact, many people in the 1850’s hated the Irish flooding into American ports after the Potato Famine of the 1840’s, hated them so much they formed a political party, the Native American Party. It was a secret, at first–secret societies were all the rage back then–and if asked a member was supposed to say I know nothing. Hence the common name. (Seriously, that explains the name, as stupid as that sounds.) Later it called itself the American Party, but it wasn’t around long enough for that name to stick. To this day we know them as Know Nothings. Only the Anti-Masonic Party of a generation earlier (they really hated Freemasons) had an odder appellation for a major American political party.

If the Know Nothing movement’s Native American Party had been a secret it was a badly kept one, because for a couple years their party made a meteoric impact. It went from nothing to the most dynamic new force in American politics, and then disappeared in a flash. The Know Nothings’ congressional delegation grew from zero seats in 1852 to 56 seats (out of 233) in the House in 1854**. They also landed 5 senators (out of 62) in 1856. The party was especially strong in areas with large Irish populations, particularly Massachusetts. Boston’s political battles were often pitched fights between Know-Nothings and Irish immigrants. There was worse violence elsewhere. On an election day in Louisville in 1855 a Know Nothing mob descended on polling stations in the Irish and German wards. Twenty-two died. In New Orleans vigilante groups occupied polling stations to repress (they called it monitoring) the Democratic immigrant vote and ensure a Know Nothing victory. Things grew even worse on election day in Baltimore where Know Nothings and Democrats fought with fists, guns, and then artillery. (How the sides got hold of cannon I have no idea.) The Know Nothing slate won in a landslide after massive voter fraud. Catholics were targeted as well. In Bath, Maine the Catholic church was burned to the ground by a Know Nothing mob, and in a nearby town Know Nothings tarred and feathered the parish priest. In a time when armed mobs were increasingly part of the national political culture, local Know Nothing leadership had no qualms about unleashing them on the Irish and Germans (but especially the Irish). It was a popular tactic. Party membership skyrocketed from 50K to one million members in a few months over the summer of 1854. As with the explosion in Ku Klux Klan membership in the 1920’s, the sudden nation-wide popularity of George Wallace in 1968 (and until he was shot, in 1972), and Donald Trump now, every once in a while millions of Americans decide that millions of other Americans aren’t American enough to be real Americans.

Of course, the Know Nothings certainly benefited in the mid-1850’s from the simultaneous implosion of the Whig Party. Forgotten now, the Whigs were the dominant American political party for a stretch there. Founded in 1833, four Whig presidents occupied the White House from 1841-1953 (two of their presidents died in office). Then, torn apart by the slavery issue, they suddenly dissolved in 1854, leaving a lot of politicians with no place to go. Many jumped to the Know Nothing party, now that it had adopted the more palatable name of American Party (though everyone still called them Know Nothings). Even one of the more nothing Whig presidents, Millard Fillmore, ran again as a Know Nothing. Oddly enough he was neither a nativist nor a Know Nothing, didn’t support any of the tenets of the Know Nothing platform, wasn’t even at the Know Nothing convention, and no one bothered to tell him he was being nominated. He ran anyway, though, coming in third with nearly 25% of the total votes, the highest percentage any third party candidate has ever received in an American presidential election. Thereafter the party faded as quickly as it arrived. It had only had the one issue, really: immigration. The Know Nothings didn’t like the Irish and they didn’t like Catholics. They didn’t like German Catholics either. In states chock full of Catholics, however, like Louisiana and Maryland, they recruited native born Catholics but didn’t like immigrant Catholics. (In fact, Maryland was the only state Millard Fillmore carried in 1856, presumably with a lot of native born Catholic votes.) In San Francisco they didn’t like Chinese. In Maine, where Know Nothings were very popular, they probably didn’t like the French Canadians. In Texas the local Know Nothings no doubt couldn’t stand Mexicans. If there were any immigrants from anywhere attending a Catholic church, the Know Nothings no doubt hated them. But by the end of the 1850’s more people hated slavery (or, in the South, they hated Abolitionists) than hated Irish or Catholics, and most of the party’s northern members defected to the new Republican Party which wasn’t nativist at all. Southern Know Nothings joined the fleeting Constitutional Union Party (which sought to preserve slavery without secession). The Know Nothings were back down to zero seats in the House by 1860, and none of its five senators remained in the Senate. It was a miserable end.

What had happened, of course, was that the Republican Party had filled that vacuum left by the sudden disintegration of the Whig Party. The impending crisis over slavery (especially free state outrage over the appalling Dred Scott decision in 1857) and the inevitability of the American Civil War had pushed nativism to the background again. The Know Nothing’s obsession over Catholics and immigrants seemed ridiculous in comparison. Slavery was overwhelmingly the pre-eminent issue of the day, indeed it split the Know Nothings themselves (as it has the Whigs) and once war broke out everyone was called to the colors, native born or not. 150,000 Irishmen served in the Union Army (along with several Irish born generals), and indeed the Irish Brigade in the Army of the Potomac was one of the war’s most renowned units, always in the thick of combat, taking tremendous losses. (It included the Fighting 69th regiment***, who, come World War One, were for Irish Americans what the 369th–Harlem’s Hellfighters–were for African Americans.) You can’t tell an Irishman who’d lost and arm or a leg defending the Union that he should go back to Ireland. You couldn’t tell a German Catholic veteran to go back home either. Civil rights are often earned in combat, and the Civil War squelched nativism in the North for years. Later in the 19th century and into the 1920’s Republicans attracted the nativists (though the Democrats held onto them in the South where Republicans reached out to black voters). Irishmen again became targets****. Once southern Democrats turned Republican after 1980 the modern nativists are pretty much Republican (and Republican-voting independents) again, though we’ll see what Trump does this year. He’s the wild card. He could go independent and revive what had begun as the Know-Nothing party over a century and a half ago. He’s certainly riding that wave high. You could slip lines from a Know Nothing speech from 1854 into Trump’s teleprompter and you probably would never tell the difference, as long as you changed “Irishmen” to “Mexicans”. He probably couldn’t tell the difference, either.

It seems this Nativist (as they used to call it) streak explodes on the scene periodically and then disappears just as quickly. You could go back through American history and list the various movements and trends and politicians who took advantage of the opportunity presented by angry people, from the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 (which targeted French and Irish) to Donald Trump targeting Hispanics today. That anger really roils the waters for a while, though. We’re seeing them boil now. If history is any guide, it’ll pass.

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