Know Nothing

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Native American Party (1845–1855)
American Party (1855–1860)
Founded 1845 (1845)
Dissolved 1860 (1860)
Split from Whig Party
Ideology Nativism,

The Know Nothing movement was an American political movement that operated on a national basis during the mid-1850s. It promised to purify American politics by limiting or ending the influence of Irish Catholics and other immigrants, thus reflecting nativism and anti-Catholic sentiment. It was empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by German and Irish Catholic immigrants, whom they saw as hostile to republican values and controlled by the Pope in Rome. Mainly active from 1854 to 1856, it strove to curb immigration and naturalization, but met with little success. Membership was limited to Protestant men. There were few prominent leaders, and the largely middle-class membership fragmented over the issue of slavery.

The most prominent leaders were former President Millard Fillmore (the party's presidential nominee in 1856), U.S. Representative Nathaniel P. Banks,[1] and former U.S. Representative Lewis C. Levin.


Anti-Catholicism had been a factor in colonial America, but played little role in American politics until the arrival of large numbers of Irish and German Catholics in the 1840s.[2] It now reemerged in nativist attacks on Catholic immigration. It appeared in New York politics as early as 1843, under the banner of the American Republican Party.[3] The movement quickly spread to nearby states, using that name or the Native American Party or variants thereon. They succeeded in a number of local and Congressional elections, notably in 1844 Philadelphia where the anti-Catholic orator Lewis Charles Levin was elected U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania's 1st District. In the early 1850s, numerous secret orders grew up, of which the "Order of United Americans"[4] and the Order of the Star Spangled Banner came to be the most important. They merged in New York in the early 1850s as a secret order that quickly spread across the North, reaching non-Catholics, particularly those who were lower middle class or skilled workmen.[5]


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." Outsiders called them "Know-Nothings", and the name stuck. In 1855, the Know-Nothings first entered politics under the American Party label.[6][7]

Underlying issues[edit]

The immigration of large numbers of Irish and German Catholics to the United States in the period between 1830 and 1860 made religious differences between Catholics and Protestants a political issue. Violence occasionally erupted at the polls. Protestants alleged that Pope Pius IX had put down the failed liberal Revolutions of 1848 and that he was an opponent of liberty, democracy and Republicanism. One Boston minister described Catholicism as "the ally of tyranny, the opponent of material prosperity, the foe of thrift, the enemy of the railroad, the caucus, and the school."[8][9] These fears encouraged conspiracy theories regarding papal intentions of subjugating the United States through a continuing influx of Catholics controlled by Irish bishops obedient to and personally selected by the Pope.

In 1849, an oath-bound secret society, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, was created by one Charles B. Allen in New York City. Fear of Catholic immigration led to a dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party, whose leadership in many cities included Catholics of Irish descent. Activists formed secret groups, coordinating their votes and throwing their weight behind candidates sympathetic to their cause. When asked about these secret organizations, members were to reply "I know nothing," which led to their popularly being called Know Nothings.

Immigration during the first five years of the 1850s reached a level five times greater than a decade earlier. Most of the new arrivals were poor Catholic peasants or laborers from Ireland and Germany who crowded into the tenements of large cities. Crime and welfare costs soared. Cincinnati's crime rate, for example, tripled between 1846 and 1853 and its murder rate increased sevenfold. Boston's expenditures for poor relief rose threefold during the same period.


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 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 helped elect Stephen Palfrey Webb as Mayor of San Francisco, and J. Neely Johnson as Governor of California. They were still an unofficial movement with no centralized organization. In 1853 former Massachusetts House of Representative, Nathaniel Banks, joined the party and was elected into congress as a Know Nothing Candidate. 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, 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.[10]

A historian of the Know Nothing party concluded:

The key to Know Nothing success in 1854 was the collapse of the second party system, brought about primarily by the demise of the Whig party. The Whig party, weakened for years by internal dissent and chronic factionalism, was nearly destroyed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Growing anti-party sentiment, fueled by anti-slavery as well as temperance and nativism, also contributed to the disintegration of the party system. 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.[11]

In California in 1854, a man named Sam Roberts founded a Know-Nothing chapter in San Francisco, California. The group was formed in opposition to Chinese immigrants, and a judge of the state supreme court who was a member ruled that no Chinese person could testify as a witness against a white man in court.[12]

Fillmore/Donelson campaign poster

In the spring of 1855, Levi Boone was elected Mayor of Chicago for the Know Nothings. He barred all immigrants from city jobs. Statewide, however, Republican Abraham Lincoln blocked the party from any successes. [clarification needed] Ohio was the only state where the party gained strength in 1855. Their Ohio success seems to have come from winning over immigrants, especially German American Lutherans and Scots-Irish Presbyterians, both reputed to be hostile to Roman Catholicism. In Alabama, Know Nothings were a mix of former Whigs, malcontented Democrats, and other political outsiders who favored state aid to build more railroads. In the tempestuous 1855 campaign, the Democrats won by convincing state voters that Alabama Know Nothings would not protect slavery from Northern abolitionists.[citation needed]

Know-Nothings scored startling victories in northern state elections in 1854, winning control of the legislature in Massachusetts and polling 40% of the vote in Pennsylvania. Although most of the new immigrants lived in the North, resentment and anger against them was national, and the American Party initially polled well in the South, attracting the votes of many former southern Whigs. Their incomes, occupation and social status were about average, but few Know-Nothings were wealthy, according to detailed historical studies of once-secret membership rosters. Fewer than 10% were unskilled workers who might come in direct competition with Irish laborers. They enlisted few farmers, but on the other hand, they included many merchants and factory owners.[13] The party's voters were by no means all native born Americans, for it won more than a fourth of the German and British Protestants in numerous state elections. It especially appealed to Protestants such as the Lutherans, Dutch Reformed, and Presbyterians.[14]

The party name gained wide but brief popularity. Nativism became a new American rage: Know-Nothing candy, Know-nothing tea, and Know-Nothing toothpicks appeared. Stagecoaches were dubbed "The Know-Nothing". In Trescott, Maine, a shipowner dubbed his new 700-ton freighter, Know-Nothing.[15] The party was occasionally referred to contemporaneously in the slightly pejorative shortening, "Knism".[16]


Fearful that Catholics were flooding the polls with non-citizens, local activists threatened to stop them. Tensions came to a head on 6 August 1855, in Louisville, Kentucky, where in a hotly contested race for the office of governor, 22 were killed and many injured. The Louisville riot was only the most spectacular of violent riots between Know Nothing activists and Catholics in 1855.[17] In Baltimore the mayoral elections of 1856, 1857 and 1858 were all marred by violence and well-founded accusations of ballot-rigging. In Maine, Know-Nothings were associated with the tarring and feathering of a Catholic priest, Father John Bapst, in the coastal town of Ellsworth in 1851 and the burning of a Catholic church in Bath in 1854.[citation needed]


In the South, the American Party was composed chiefly of ex-Whigs looking for a vehicle to fight the dominant Democratic Party and worried about both the pro-slavery extremism of the Democrats and the emergence of the anti-slavery Republican party in the North.[18] In the South as a whole the American Party was strongest among former Unionist Whigs. States-rightist Whigs shunned it, enabling the Democrats to win most of the South. Whigs supported the American Party because of their desire to defeat the Democrats, their unionist sentiment, their anti-immigrant attitudes, and the Know-Nothing neutrality on the slavery issue.[19] In 1855 the American Party challenged the Democrats' dominance. In Alabama, the Know-Nothings were a mix of former Whigs, malcontented Democrats, and other political misfits; they favored state aid to build more railroads. In the fierce campaign, the Democrats argued that Know-Nothings could not protect slavery from Northern abolitionists. The Know-Nothing American Party disintegrated soon after losing in 1855.[20]

In Louisiana and Maryland, the Know-Nothings enlisted native-born Catholics.[21] In Maryland, the party's influence lasted at least through the Civil War: the American Party's Governor, and later Senator, Thomas Holliday Hicks, Representative Henry Winter Davis, and Senator Anthony Kennedy, with his brother, former Representative John Pendleton Kennedy, all supported the United States in a State which bordered the Confederate States. Historian Michael F. Holt argues that "Know Nothingism originally grew in the South for the same reasons it spread in the North—nativism, anti-Catholicism, and animosity toward unresponsive politicos—not because of conservative Unionism." Holt cites William B. Campbell, former governor of Tennessee, who wrote in January 1855, "I have been astonished at the widespread feeling in favor of their principles—to wit, Native Americanism and anti-Catholicism—it takes everywhere."[22]


Results by county explicitly indicating the percentage for Fillmore in each county.

The party declined rapidly in the North after 1855. In the presidential election of 1856, it was bitterly divided over slavery. The main faction supported the ticket of presidential nominee Millard Fillmore and vice-presidential nominee Andrew Jackson Donelson. Fillmore, a former President, had been a Whig, and Donelson was the nephew of Democratic President Andrew Jackson, so the ticket was designed to appeal to loyalists from both major parties, winning 23% of the popular vote and carrying one state, Maryland, with eight electoral votes. Fillmore did not win enough votes to block Democrat James Buchanan from the White House. During this time Nathaniel Banks decided he wasn't as for the anti-immigrant platform as the party wanted him to be so he left the Know Nothing party and joined the Republican Party, who was more for anti-slavery. He contributed to the decline of the Know Nothing Party by taking 2/3 of its members with him.

After the Supreme Court's controversial Dred Scott v. Sandford ruling in 1857, most of the anti-slavery members of the American Party joined the Republican Party. The pro-slavery wing of the American Party remained strong on the local and state levels in a few southern states, but by the 1860 election, they were no longer a serious national political movement. Most of their remaining members supported the Constitutional Union Party in 1860.[23]

Electoral history[edit]

Presidential candidates[edit]

Election year Result Nominees
President Vice President
1852 lost Daniel Webster,
then, on Webster's death,
Jacob Broom[24][25]
George C. Washington
then Reynell Coates[24][25]
1856 lost Millard Fillmore Andrew J. Donelson


Fictional portrayals[edit]

The American Party was represented in the 2002 film Gangs of New York, led by William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), the fictionalized version of real-life Know Nothing leader William Poole. The Know Nothings also play a prominent role in the historical novel Shaman by novelist Noah Gordon.

Use of the term[edit]

The Nativist spirit of the Know Nothing movement was revived in later political movements, such as the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Protective Association of the 1890s.[26] In the late 19th century, Democrats would call the Republicans "Know Nothings" in order to secure the votes of Germans, as in the Bennett Law campaign in Wisconsin in 1890.[27][28] A similar culture war took place in Illinois in 1892, where Democrat John Peter Altgeld denounced the Republicans:

The spirit which enacted the Alien and Sedition laws, the spirit which actuated the "Know-nothing" party, the spirit which is forever carping about the foreign-born citizen and trying to abridge his privileges, is too deeply seated in the party. The aristocratic and know-nothing principle has been circulating in its system so long that it will require more than one somersault to shake the poison out of its bones.[29]

The term has become a provocative slur, suggesting that the opponent is both nativist and ignorant. George Wallace's 1968 presidential campaign was said by Time to be under the "neo-Know Nothing banner". Fareed Zakaria wrote that politicians who "encourage[d] Americans to fear foreigners" were becoming "modern incarnations of the Know-Nothings."[26] In 2006, an editorial in The Weekly Standard by neoconservative William Kristol accused populist Republicans of "turning the GOP into an anti-immigration, Know-Nothing party."[30] The lead editorial of the May 20, 2007, edition of The New York Times on a proposed immigration bill, referred to "this generation's Know-Nothings."[31] An editorial written by Timothy Egan in The New York Times on August 27, 2010, entitled "Building a Nation of Know-Nothings" discussed the Birther movement, which falsely claimed that Barack Obama was not a natural-born United States citizen, which is a requirement for the office of President of the United States.[32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Brief bio of Banks here.
  2. ^ Francis D. Cogliano, No King, No Popery: Anti-Catholicism in Revolutionary New England (Greenwood 1995).
  3. ^ Ira M. Leonard, "The Rise and Fall of the American Republican Party in New York City, 1843-1845." New-York Historical Society Quarterly 50 (1966): 151-92.
  4. ^ Louis D. Scisco, Political Nativism in New York State (1901) p. 267
  5. ^ Bruce Levine, "Conservatism, Nativism, and Slavery: Thomas R. Whitney and the Origins of the Know-Nothing Party." Journal of American History (2001): 455-488. in JSTOR
  6. ^ Sean Wilentz. pp. 681–2, 693
  7. ^ Ray A. Billington. pp. 337, 380–406
  8. ^ Ray A. Billington. The Protestant Crusade, 1800–1860 (1938) p. 242.
  9. ^ John T. McGreevey. Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (2003) pp. 22–25, quote p. 34.
  10. ^ Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery, pp. 75–102.
  11. ^ Tyler Anbinder. Nativism and Slavery, p. 95.
  12. ^ Michael C. LeMay (2012). Transforming America: Perspectives on U.S. Immigration. ABC-CLIO. p. 150. ISBN 9780313396441. 
  13. ^ Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery, pp. 34–43.
  14. ^ William E. Gienapp. Origins of the Republican Party 1852–1856 (1987) pp. 538–42.
  15. ^ David Harry Bennett, The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History (1988), p. 15.
  16. ^ William E. Gienapp. "Salmon P. Chase, Nativism, and the Formation of the Republican Party in Ohio", pp. 22, 24; Ohio History, p. 93
  17. ^ Charles E. Deusner. "The Know Nothing Riots in Louisville", Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 61 (1963), pp. 122–47
  18. ^ Anthony Gene Carey. "Too Southern to Be Americans: Proslavery Politics and the Failure of the Know-Nothing Party in Georgia, 1854–1856", Civil War History (1995) 41: 22–40
  19. ^ James H. Broussard. "Some Determinants of Know-Nothing Electoral Strength in the South, 1856", Louisiana History, January 1966, 7 #1, pp. 5–20
  20. ^ Jeff Frederick. "Unintended Consequences: The Rise and Fall of the Know-Nothing Party in Alabama" Alabama Review, January 2002, 55 #1, pp. 3–33
  21. ^ Tyler Anbinder (1992). Nativism and slavery: the northern Know Nothings and the politics of the 1850's. Oxford University Press. p. 103. ISBN 978-0-19-507233-4. 
  22. ^ Holt, Michael F. The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party, p. 856.
  23. ^ Tyler Anbinder. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the politics of the 1850s (1992)
  24. ^ a b US President, Native American Party at
  25. ^ a b Charles O. Paullin, "The National Ticket of Broom and Coates, 1852", The American Historical Review, Vol. 25, No. 4, July, 1920.
  26. ^ a b William Safire. Safire's Political Dictionary (2008) pp. 375–76
  27. ^ Richard J. Jensen. The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict, 1888–96 (1971) pp. 108, 147, 160.
  28. ^ Louise Phelps Kellogg. "The Bennett Law in Wisconsin", Wisconsin Magazine of History, Volume 2, #1 (September 1918), p. 13.
  29. ^ Jensen. The Winning of the Midwest, p. 220.
  30. ^ Craig Shirley. "How the GOP Lost Its Way", The Washington Post, April 22, 2006, p. A21.
  31. ^ "The Immigration Deal", The New York Times, May 20, 2007.
  32. ^ Egan, Timothy. "Building a Nation of Know-Nothings", The New York Times, August 27, 2010.

35^Gillespie, J. David. Challengers To Duopoly : Why Third Parties Matter In American Two-Party Politics. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2012. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 4 Dec. 2014.


  • Anbinder, Tyler. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the politics of the 1850s (1992). Online version; also online at ACLS History e-Book, the standard scholarly study
  • Anbinder, Tyler. "Nativism and prejudice against immigrants," in A companion to American immigration, ed. by Reed Ueda (2006) pp. 177–201 online excerpt
  • Baker, Jean H. (1977), Ambivalent Americans: The Know-Nothing Party in Maryland, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.
  • Baum, Dale. "Know-Nothingism and the Republican Majority in Massachusetts: The Political Realignment of the 1850s." Journal of American History 64 (1977–78): 959–86. in JSTOR
  • Baum, Dale. The Civil War Party System: The Case of Massachusetts, 1848–1876 (1984) online
  • Bennett, David Harry. The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History (1988)
  • Billington, Ray A. The Protestant Crusade, 1800–1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism (1938), standard scholarly survey
  • Bladek, John David. "'Virginia Is Middle Ground': the Know Nothing Party and the Virginia Gubernatorial Election of 1855." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 1998 106(1): 35–70. ISSN 0042-6636
  • Cheathem, Mark R. "'I Shall Persevere in the Cause of Truth': Andrew Jackson Donelson and the Election of 1856". Tennessee Historical Quarterly 2003 62(3): 218–237. ISSN 0040-3261 Donelson was Andrew Jackson's nephew and K-N nominee for Vice President
  • Dash, Mark. "New Light on the Dark Lantern: the Initiation Rites and Ceremonies of a Know-Nothing Lodge in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania" Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 2003 127(1): 89–100. ISSN 0031-4587
  • Gienapp, William E. "Nativism and the Creation of a Republican Majority in the North before the Civil War," Journal of American History, Vol. 72, No. 3 (Dec., 1985), pp. 529–559 in JSTOR
  • Gienapp, William E. The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852–1856 (1978), detailed statistical study, state-by-state
  • Holt, Michael F. The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party (1999) online
  • Holt, Michael F. Political Parties and American Political Development: From the Age of Jackson to the Age of Lincoln (1992)
  • Holt, Michael F. "The Antimasonic and Know Nothing Parties", in Arthur Schlesinger Jr., ed., History of United States Political Parties (1973), I, 575–620.
  • Hurt, Payton. "The Rise and Fall of the 'Know Nothings' in California," California Historical Society Quarterly 9 (March and June 1930).
  • Levine, Bruce. "Conservatism, Nativism, and Slavery: Thomas R. Whitney and the Origins of the Know-nothing Party" Journal of American History 2001 88(2): 455–488. in JSTOR
  • McGreevey, John T. Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (W. W. Norton, 2003)
  • Maizlish, Stephen E. "The Meaning of Nativism and the Crisis of the Union: The Know-Nothing Movement in the Antebellum North." in William Gienapp, ed. Essays on American Antebellum Politics, 1840–1860 (1982) pp. 166–98 online edition
  • Melton, Tracy Matthew. Hanging Henry Gambrill: The Violent Career of Baltimore's Plug Uglies, 1854–1860. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society (2005).
  • Mulkern, John R. The Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts: The Rise and Fall of a People's Movement. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1990. Print.
  • "Nathaniel P. Banks." National Archives and Records Administration. Ed. National Archives. National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2014.
  • Nevins, Allan. Ordeal of the Union: A House Dividing, 1852–1857 (1947), overall political survey of era
  • Overdyke, W. Darrell. The Know-Nothing Party in the South (1950) online
  • Voss-Hubbard, Mark. Beyond Party: Cultures of Antipartisanship in Northern Politics before the Civil War (2002)
  • Parmet, Robert D. "Connecticut's Know-Nothings: A Profile," Connecticut Historical Society Bulletin (1966), 31 #3, pp. 84–90
  • Scisco, Louis Dow. Political Nativism in New York State (1901) full text online, pp. 84–202
  • Wilentz, Sean. The Rise of American Democracy. (2005); ISBN 0-393-05820-4
  • ""The First General Order Issued by the Father of His Country after the Declaration of Independence Indicates the Spirit in Which Our Institutions Were Founded and Should Ever Be Defended."" Nathaniel Prentiss (Prentice) Banks. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2014.

Primary sources[edit]

External links[edit]