This story appears in the July/August 2017 issue of National Geographic History magazine.
The United States has long conceived of itself as a haven for immigrants, a place welcoming of any person, no matter their origin, to begin a new life as an American. Flying in the face of this ideal, an ugly strain of nativism has run throughout American history as evidenced by virulent anti-immigrant movements that reared up in the 1790s, 1870s, and 1920s.
Perhaps the most well-known nativist movement arose in the decades before the Civil War. The American Party, better known as the Know-Nothings, was a reflection of the troubled times confronting the young United States. The nation faced growing conflict over slavery and westward expansion, which led to dissent within the two major political parties, the Democrats and the Whigs.
In the 1830s and ’40s increasing numbers of immigrants, mostly Irish in the East and Germans in the Midwest, were settling in the United States. The Irish Potato Famine and economic instability in Germany led to an influx of nearly three million people, a great number of whom were Catholic. Native-born Protestants, mostly in urban areas, felt threatened by the new arrivals in several areas. To many Protestants, the Catholic Church represented tyranny and potential subjugation to a foreign power. On a practical level, competition for jobs increased as new laborers arrived. As anti-immigrant and anti–Roman Catholic feelings arose, nativist groups began to form in cities across the United States.
Many of these organizations played on fears that foreigners were gaining undue political influence because of the efforts of unscrupulous politicians to woo them and “steal” elections. Nativists often played on stereotypes depicting Irish and Germans as immoral drunkards and often blamed them for social ills, such as rising crime and poverty rates. Tensions sometimes ignited violence, with nativist riots breaking out during the 1840s and ’50s in New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cincinnati, and Louisville.
Rapid Rise, Fast Fall
In 1849 a secret society named the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner was organized in New York City. Members employed a cloak-and-dagger approach to their political activities; when asked about their organizations, members gave the canned answer: “I know nothing.” Outsiders used this response as a nickname, which stuck. As the Know-Nothings’ membership grew, they would shed their clandestine nature and eventually become the American Party in the 1850s.
Party members tended to come from the working classes and had a strong anti-elitist bent. Their platform sought to limit immigration and the influence of Catholicism, and they used ugly ethnic stereotypes to stir up hatred against the recent German and Irish arrivals. Under their plan, residency requirements would increase from five to 21 years before one could become a citizen. People born on foreign soil would not be able to vote or hold public office.
On a local level, the Know-Nothings had a large amount of success in a short time, electing mayors and state representatives in the late 1840s and early 1850s. After elections in 1854, they held 43 seats in the U.S. Congress. Much of this early success was due to the demise of the Whig Party, weakened by internal dissent over national issues like slavery. Some former Whigs defected to the Know-Nothings while others joined a new party, the antislavery Republicans.
Before 1855, the Know-Nothings had no centralized organization. Encouraged by their successes, they formally organized in 1855 as the American Party, after which they went into a rapid decline. The elections of 1856 were a disaster for their candidates. Their nominee for the presidency, former Whig and president Millard Fillmore, came in a distant third behind the Republicans and the victorious Democrats. The Know-Nothings lost more than 30 seats in Congress. Whatever power they had gained in the early 1850s was gone for good.
Winning elections on a national level proved more difficult for the Know-Nothings because of the complexity of the country’s problems. Until 1856, the Know-Nothings had largely been a local movement focused on a single issue. The move to the national stage revealed the fragility of their political alliances, and they tore themselves apart. After 1856, the Republicans would be the party to emerge from the political chaos of the mid-19th century. They would survive the challenges of a nation divided over the question of slavery.
Amy Briggs is the Executive Editor of National Geographic History magazine .