The Return of the Know-Nothings

by: Paul Rosenberg

Mon Aug 30, 2010 at 16:30


In the 1850s, the Whigs and the Democrats both started fragmenting, and there was no telling if either of them would survive.  The Whigs were most at risk, since they had never been based on anything in common beyond opposition to Andrew Jackson and the Democrats.  The Northern Whigs opposed him because he was a populist Westerner who attacked the Federalist legacy of a strong national industrial policy, particularly as embodied in the National Bank.  But the Southern Whigs opposed him for pretty much the opposite reason: because he was too much of a "federalist" himself, who wouldn't let them assert state-level vetoes of federal laws.

While the Democrats also became divided by region, they never split as badly as the Whiges, who ultimately disappeared.  But there was a fierce battle over who would succeed them.  There were two prime contestants: The Republican Party, which grew out of the earlier Free Soil Party, and the American Party, also known as the "Know Nothings".  As Wikipedia explains:

The Know-Nothing movement was a nativist American political movement of the 1840s and 1850s. It was empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by German and Irish Catholic immigrants, who were often regarded as hostile to Anglo-Saxon values and controlled by the Pope in Rome. Mainly active from 1854 to 1856, it strove to curb immigration and naturalization, though its efforts met with little success. Membership was limited to Protestant males of British lineage over the age of twenty-one. There were few prominent leaders, and the largely middle-class and entirely Protestant membership fragmented over the issue of slavery. Most ended up joining the Republican Party by the time of the 1860 presidential election.[1][2]

The movement originated in New York in 1843 as the American Republican Party. It spread to other states as the Native American Party and became a national party in 1845. In 1855 it renamed itself the American Party.[3] The origin of the "Know Nothing" term was in the semi-secret organization of the party. When a member was asked about its activities, he was supposed to reply, "I know nothing."[4]

Although they started in the 1840s, they didn't enjoy any notable electoral success until 1854:

In spring 1854, the Know Nothings carried Boston, Salem, and other New England cities. They swept the state of Massachusetts in the fall 1854 elections, their biggest victory. The Whig candidate for mayor of Philadelphia was editor Robert T. Conrad, soon revealed as a Know Nothing; he promised to crack down on crime, close saloons on Sundays, and to appoint only native-born Americans to office. He won by a landslide. In Washington, D.C., Know-Nothing candidate John T. Towers defeated incumbent Mayor John Walker Maury, causing opposition of such proportion that the Democrats, Whigs, and Freesoilers  in the capital united as the "Anti-Know-Nothing Party." In New York, in a four-way race, the Know-Nothing candidate ran third with 26%. After the fall 1854 elections, they claimed to have exerted decisive influence in Maine, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and California, but historians are unsure due to the secrecy, as all parties were in turmoil and the anti-slavery and prohibition issues overlapped with nativism in complex and confusing ways. They did elect the Mayor of San Francisco, Stephen Palfrey Webb, and J. Neely Johnson as Governor of California. They were still an unofficial movement with no centralized organization.

The results of the 1854 elections were so favorable to the Know Nothings that they formed officially as a political party called the American Party, and attracted many members of the now nearly-defunct Whig party,[citation needed]  as well as a significant number of Democrats and prohibitionists. Membership in the American Party increased dramatically, from 50,000 to an estimated one million plus in a matter of months during that year. The same member might also split tickets to vote for Democrats or Republicans, for party loyalty was in confusion. Simultaneously, the new Republican party emerged as a dominant power in many northern states. Very few prominent politicians joined the American Party, and very few party leaders had a subsequent career in politics. The major exceptions were Schuyler Colfax in Indiana and Henry Wilson in Massachusetts, both of whom became Republicans and were elected Vice President. A historian of the party concludes:

In the 1852 House elections, the Whigs held 71 seats, compared to the Democrats who held 157. The Republicans and the Know-nothings, zilch--though the Republican precursor, the Free Soil Party, did hold 4--the same as it had in 1850. In 1854, the Democrats lost heavily--73 seats went to other parties.  But the Whigs lost seats as well--only 11, but enough that they were no longer the second-largest party in the House.  The Know-Nothings won 62 seats, and the Republicans 46.  The Know-Nothings were in the lead.

But in 1856, the Whigs were gone entirely, the Republicans continued their rapid ascent, adding another 44 seats for a total of 90, while the Know-nothings lost 48 seats to end up with just 14.  They never recovered.... Until now.

Historically, the Know-Nothings represent a road not taken in American politics (fortunately).  As Catholic influence grew in the Democratic Party, the nativist sentiment purveyed by the Know-Nothigs was attractive enough that for a while they battled with the Republicans to see who would replace the Whigs.  But they really had nothing in the way of a positive platform.  This weekend, reflecting on the increasingly obvious incoherence of the Beckopalooza, I was struck by the thought that what we are seeing now is the return of the Know-Nothings.  Over the past 30-40 years the Republicans have shed virtually everything that they originally stood for, and have turned most of the rest ihto a caricature.  What's more, the policies they have stood by have utterly failed--though of course, Versailles will never admit as much.

And so it makes perfect sense that they are now a party totally lacking in any coherent body of ideas. Slogans, fine. Arguments, not so much.  Sarah (no interviews) Palin is their perfect embodiment.  Glenn (endless hallucinatory monologues) Beck is even better.  The emergence of an alter-ego, the Tea Party, is a logical outgrowth of this underlying incoherence as well.  And thus it's no accident that the GOP now appears to have much more in common with the Know-Nothings who lost out in the 1850s than it has in common with the Republicans who emerged triumphant.

Is it any wonder that incoherence runs so deep in the GOP today?  They are indeed reinventing themselves--as their yahoo loser rivals from the 1850s.

Paul Rosenberg :: The Return of the Know-Nothings

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It was a one-issue movement based on anti-Catholicism (0.00 / 0)
One-issue movements are not a good base for building a political party.  The Know-Nothings shattered because they couldn't or refused to come to position on slavery.

Actually, I should probably qualify that claim.  One-issue movements are not a good base in the US system.  The nativists would probably be more powerful if we could switch to a legislature with proportional representation.  They might wax and wane as various issues take the nation's attention, but they would have a continuing presence that could take advantage of the down times.  It would be interesting if you could get the Tea Party movement to understand that proportional representation would be in their best interest and get them to push for it.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both


I really don't get why leftists want a (0.00 / 0)
five or six party system that will then turn the margin of victory over to backroom party dealings.  It would literally be Harry Reid deciding wether to form a coalition with Sherrod Brown's party or Joe Lieberman's party.  

Or even better, Joe Lieberman deciding between Harry Reid's party or Mitch McConnell's party.  Just like in England with Nick Clegg!


[ Parent ]
Nathaniel Banks (4.00 / 1)
Banks was elected Speaker of the House as a Know Nothing with Republican support.  In fact, he straddles both parties switching in 1856.  Banks was eventually elected Governor of Massachusetts as a Republican.  He's primarily known today as a bad Civil War general who was one of the pawns maneuvered by Stonewall Jackson in his Valley Campaign.

The Whigs were never more than a weak party.  They elected two Presidents, neither lasted out his full term.  William Henry Harrison benefited from the Panic of 1837, the fourth worst economy in US history.  Zachary Taylor was an inept but lucky general with good PR skills. Tyler and Filmore were pretty forgettable "accidental Presidents."

Republicans are now the party against.  They aren't for much of anything but against immigration, spending, hippies, the minimum wage, public school education, gays, the unemployed, the disabled.  Politically, it won them control of Congress in 1994 and nothing else has worked as well since the 1920s.


Today's Know-Nothings - Same Racism (0.00 / 0)
The problem with racist movements are that they ultimately lose power. America has never for long stopped immigration and that's not going to happen now.

They have no solution to the economic mess. They can't "ship them all back to Mexico!" and nothing they do will bring back any jobs to begin with. Thus, they're doomed, just like every other nativist movement has been doomed in the past.

So, a party that isolates itself as "anti-immigrant" ultimately will destroy itself because an ever larger share of the electorate is alienated while eventually people get used to the new immigrants. Anti-Irish, Polish and German racism today seems totally quaint.

The Know-Nothings failed because they had no answer to the overriding issue of the 1850s: slavery. In fact NO national party could survive the sectional dispute over slavery.

In the North opposition to slavery made the Republicans a majority. In the South support for it made Southern Democrats dominant. The polarizing of the electorate left no room for the Know-Nothings. It also split the Democrats between Northern and Southern wings and eliminated the former Whigs as a viable party in the South.

If Douglas could have kept the party united he not Abraham Lincoln would have won the 1860 election but there was never a chance for a party to successfully fudge the issue of slavery which he tried to do.

I'm not sure any one issue dominates today the way slavery did in the 1850s so the analogy is limited.  


Slavery Was A Unique Issue, To Be Sure (0.00 / 0)
But the degree to which the current GOP resembles the Know-Nothings, rather than their own ancestors is striking, nonetheless.

I tend to distrust single historical analogies anyway. X is Hitler.  It's a formula for mind-rot.  But multiple analogies is another matter altogether.  Find four or five different analogies that all shed some light on a situation, and you start to have some real insight.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Education (0.00 / 0)
I think it is easier for these movements to gain traction when they appeal to those who have been victimized by a backwards educational system .... Texas could be a good example of carrying that to new heights. Starve funding to quality education (or better privatize because there are billions to be made) and you can increase the membership of certain movements.

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