The Know-Nothings: the United States' first anti-immigration party

Conceived in fear and prejudice in the 1800s, the short-lived Know-Nothing Party's intolerance toward German and Irish immigrants led to violence across the young nation.

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. (Explore the past 200 years of U.S. immigration.)

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