‘I Know Nothing.’ The Politics of Xenophobia in the 19th Century

Before there was such a thing as the MAGA crowd. Before we had a president who called Mexicans rapists and Muslims terrorists. More than a century and a half before that, there was a national political party based on the same level of thinking. Appropriately enough, they were known as the Know-Nothings.

The Know-Nothings had their origins in secret societies, which is how the name came about. Members were supposed to respond to questions about the organization and what it does by saying ‘I know nothing.’ The Know-Nothing name was originally intended to be derisive, but apparently it stuck. On official documents, like election ballots, they were called the American Party.

Citizen Know Nothing
Citizen Know Nothing

What were the Know-Nothings about? Mostly anti-Catholicism. They were a thing in the 1840’s and 1850’s, a time when vast numbers of Irish and German immigrants, most of whom were Catholic, were arriving on these shores. The Know-Nothing agenda included removing all Catholics from public office, deporting foreign beggars and criminals, mandatory reading of the Protestant bible in schools and a 21-year naturalization period (an avenue to voter suppression).

Like the MAGA folk, they went all in for conspiracy theories. The head villain in most of these fantasies was the pope. One line of Know-Nothing thought was that Pope Pius IX had opposed the democratic revolutions in Europe in 1848, that he was an enemy of freedom and democracy and that he was now setting his sights on America. The ‘Romanist’ plan, according to the conspiracy-believers, was to flood the U.S. with Catholics who would vote for government reps whose first loyalty would be to the Vatican.

The 1850’s were a time of upheaval for the traditional two-party system in America. The Whig Party was on the way out and the Republican Party was in its formative stages. In addition to its xenophobic agenda, the Know-Nothings attracted some who saw them as an alternative to the Democrats. They enjoyed some significant success in the non-presidential election years of 1854 and 1855. They won control of the legislature in Massachusetts, a state where there was an influx of Irish and German immigrants. The Know-Nothing majority put the Protestant Bible requirement in place, disbanded Irish militias and removed Irishmen from state jobs. They tried to pass a constitutional amendment requiring residents to live in the state for 21 years before being allowed to vote or hold public office, but didn’t get the required two-thirds vote. They even appointed a short-lived committee to investigate ‘sexual immorality’ in Catholic convents, a committee that was disbanded when one of its members was found to have used committee funding to pay a prostitute.

Torchlight meeting of Know-Nothings in New York
Torchlight meeting of Know-Nothings in New York

Similar stories played out around the country. Robert T Conrad was elected mayor of Philadelphia after a campaign that promised to hire only native-born Americans to city jobs and to close saloons on Sundays. (The latter was aimed at immigrants for whom saloons served as a gathering spot. Saloons would later become a target of the temperance movement that eventually led to Prohibition.) Chicago elected a Know-Nothing mayor in 1855 who banned immigrants from city jobs. In San Francisco, where the Know-Nothing bigotry was expanded to include the Chinese, a state supreme court justice ruled that a Chinese person could not testify against a white person in court. 

Millard Fillmore, portrait by George Peter Alexander Healy
Millard Fillmore, portrait by George Peter Alexander Healy

This all led to a Know-Nothing run at the presidency. Former President Millard Fillmore was the Know-Nothing candidate.  In 1848 Fillmore had been elected vice president, running on the Whig ticket with Zachary Taylor. He ascended to the presidency when Taylor died from gastroenteritis. Fillmore declined to run for a full term in the 1852 election. As the Know-Nothing candidate in 1856, he finished third, garnering 21% of the vote.

While they were known primarily for their nativism, the Know Nothings had relatively progressive positions on issues like workers’ and women’s rights and regulation of industry. But, with members in both the North and South, they shied away from dealing with the issue of slavery and in the late 1850’s that was the issue that was tearing the country apart. In doing so, it tore the Know-Nothings apart.

The Ripley (Miss.) Advertiser in November of 1855 had this to say under the headline: “What the Know-Nothings Organization Has Done for Abolitionism. Southern Men Read!!”

“…Abolitionism has triumphed at the North, through the instrumentality of the Know Nothing Organization. This infamous party which in its incipiency, and before its real purposes were developed, was recommended to Southern men by the desperate demagogues who expected to profit by it, as a sound National organization, has shown itself to be the most potent instrument ever yet derived by the enemies of the South, for the accomplishment of their unhallowed designs.”

Samuel Morse
Samuel Morse

Some pretty prominent people counted themselves amongst the Know-Nothings They included Samuel Morse, inventor of the Morse code; Sam Houston, who was a former president of the Republic of Texas and later a senator from that state; and Henry Wilson, who would later go on to serve as vice president under Ulysses Grant. There were also some in the infamous category, including John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, and Bill the Butcher. Bill, whose real name was William Poole, was the leader of a nativist New York street gang, the Bowery Boys. One of their goals was to disenfranchise Irish Catholics by intimidating them from showing up at the polls. Bill, himself, was also known as a vicious bare-knuckles fighter, one who had little interest in playing by the rules. He was shot and killed at age 33 by a member of a rival Irish Catholic gang.

One prominent person who was not a Know-Nothing was Abraham LIncoln. Here’s what he had to say:

“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.’”

Roughly a century later, in 1950, the Miami Herald was still echoing Lincoln’s message: “Ku-Kluxism, race riots, anti-Semitism are the modern offspring of the same un-American impulses that were behind the Know-Nothing Party of the early 19th century. Bigotry is a many-lifed monster.”

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10 Responses to ‘I Know Nothing.’ The Politics of Xenophobia in the 19th Century

  1. I did wonder why Biden being Catholic was such a big deal. I guess there are still some know-nothings about.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Kelly MacKay says:

    This was very interesting. Cheers to Lincoln, I’m not American but much of your early history intertwined with Canada’s and Lincoln always seems to show up as a man of honour a head of his time.
    Nice writing

    Liked by 3 people

  3. sportsdiva64 says:

    I did learn about them in school, and while that was 50 or so years ago, it seems as though NOTHING has changed in US politics- it possibly has gotten worse.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. ckennedy says:

    Intriguing post! Well-done!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Donna Janke says:

    Interesting post. History keeps repeating itself. Wise words by Lincoln.


  6. jmankowsky says:

    Wonderful post. And so frightening! Sigh…..

    Liked by 1 person

  7. professor1029 says:

    Interesting coincidence because I just posted an essay on my blog a couple of days ago i.e. The Return of the Know Nothings. This is a first for me because I just clicked on the “reader” button & couldn’t help but notice your piece. Take it easy & keep on blogging.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Operation Sojourner: Spies in the Pews | off the leash

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