The 1840s and 1850s were a time of great upheaval in America. Immigrants were pouring in from Ireland and Germany, and many people were not happy about it. These immigrants were Catholic and many people were afraid they would fundamentally change the fabric of America. In response, groups were formed by native born Protestant Americans such as the secret Order of the Star-Spangled Banner. This group formed in New York City in 1849, and soon after lodges formed in nearly every other major American city. When asked about their group, the nativists were supposed to say “I know nothing”, and hence the groups were nicknamed the “Know Nothings”.
In the 1850s, the groups went public forming the American Party as an attempt to “purify” American politics by eliminating all immigrant and Catholic influences. Ironic, as none of their members were Native American tribesman so technically all of them were sons of immigrants. However, no one seemed to put that irony together. The party was restricted to only white Protestant native born men, and the majority came from working class or middle class backgrounds. They were afraid the immigrants would take over the United States and place the country under the control of the Pope. They alleged that Pope Pius IX was an opponent of liberty, democracy and Republicanism because of his role in scotching the Revolutions of 1848, which were upheavals throughout Europe against various monarchies.
Their goals were to make sure no Catholic person was elected to office in America. Some even took it farther and said no Catholic immigrant should be employed by the private sector as business should only “true” Americans. They feared the immigrants had been hand picked by bishops in Europe and supported by the Pope to subvert the United States and they were the only bastions of liberty left. They also opposed slavery and the expansion of rights for women.
The party picked up steam in the East where there was a higher concentration of immigrants. The party even took control of the Massachusetts legislature in 1854. The Know Nothings also polled 40% support in Pennsylvania. They also had influence in Ohio as many of the white Protestants in the larger cities disliked the Catholic Church for opposing taxation to finance public schools. Catholic parents preferred enrolling their sons and daughters in Catholic schools and did not feel that they should financially support schools that their children did not attend. They also picked up seats in Congress, and in December of 1855 when Congress assembled 43 representatives were members of the Know Nothing party.
The rise of the party was fueled by the demise of the Whig party, which collapsed under fractures exposed during the debates of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. As Know-Nothing Party historian Tyler Anbinder said, “The collapsing second party system gave the Know Nothings a much larger pool of potential converts than was available to previous nativist organizations, allowing the Order to succeed where older nativist groups had failed.” They drew the ire of Illinois lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, when the Know Nothing mayor of Chicago barred all immigrants from city jobs. He described them in a private letter his friend Joshua Speed,
“I am not a Know-Nothing — that is certain. How could I be? 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. As a nation, we began 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 that I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”
Riots broke out in Louisville, Kentucky and both sides tried to bar access to polling places. The same happened in Baltimore, Maryland along with charges of ballot rigging. In Maine, a Catholic priest was tarred and feathered and a Catholic church was burned.
However, that was the peak of the Know Nothing party’s power as in 1856 the party split over the issue of slavery. Their Congressional seats dropped from 43 to 12. They ran Millard Fillmore in the presidential election, and he only gained one state finishing last. Although the fear of immigrants was still present, most voters were more concerned with matters of slavery and expansion. The Know Nothing Party refused to run a presidential candidate in the 1860 election. There was a flare up of the party in California against Chinese immigrants, but sputtered out by 1860 as most members had split into the Republican party or the Constitutional Union party.
Sources available on request