The Know Nothing Party

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Podcast Transcript

In the mid-19th century, the United States began to change.

The country had initially been settled by people from England, Scotland, and the Netherlands, the vast majority of whom were Protestant. 

However, in the 1840s, there began a dramatic change in the composition of immigrants to the United States. A large number of them began coming from Ireland and Germany, the vast majority of whom were Catholic. 

The reaction to these new immigrants had an enormous impact on American politics.

Learn more about the Native American Party, aka the Know Nothing Party, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Violent clashes between Protestants and Catholics were a regular occurrence in Europe ever since the Protestant Reformation. 

The extremely bloody Thirty Years’ War, which I covered in a previous episode, was responsible for the deaths of almost a quarter of the population in several countries. 

The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France in 1572 resulted in the deaths of thousands of French Protestants. 

There were attacks, reprisals, and counter-reprisals between the religious groups for centuries. 

However, for the most part, the American colonies and the newly formed United States were free of this. Freedom of Religion was entrenched in the constitution of the new republic. The state of Maryland was initially intended to be a sanctuary for Catholics who were not tolerated in colonies run by Puritans.

While freedom of religion was the law of the land, culturally, the tolerance was mostly due to the fact that protestants, particularly those of English ancestry, were the overwhelming majority in the country. To illustrate the point, of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 55 were protestant, and only one was Catholic, Charles Carroll of Maryland.

After independence, new generations of Americans were born who never knew anything else. They primarily identified themselves as Americans, not as Virginians or Pennsylvanians. 

Moreover, an American cultural identity began to develop that was completely divorced from their past as English subjects. 

It was in this atmosphere, especially in large cities in the Eastern United States, that the events that led to the rise of the Know Nothings took place. 

It began with the rise in immigration to the United States in the 1840s from Ireland and Germany. Immigration to the United States was rather small prior to this period. Between 10,000 to 100,000 people migrated to the US from Europe each year between 1820 and 1845. 

Most of these immigrants were Irish, but their numbers were small enough not to provoke a backlash.

However, political instability in 1848 Germany and the Irish Potato Famine resulted in a massive influx of immigrants between 1845 and 1854. Almost 3 million people migrated to the United States, the majority of whom were Catholics from Germany and Ireland. 

These immigrants had very little to call their own and were coming from places that had been devastated by war and famine. In addition to being poor, they often brought diseases with them. 

They became a large part of the population in many Eastern cities. 

The native population who lived in these cities suddenly found themselves to be minorities in many neighborhoods. They were surrounded by Catholics, many of whom were poor and spoke a different language.

The reaction to these new immigrants was often violent. In 1844, two nativist riots shook the city of Philadelphia. From May 6 to May 8, rioters destroyed multiple Catholic homes and churches, and the riots left 14 dead. 

In July, 15 more people were killed, with more homes and churches destroyed. 

The riots became an issue in the 1844 election between the two major parties, the Democrats and the Whigs. However, a new third party, known as the Native American Party, managed to win six congressional seats. 

The political success of the Native American Party was short-lived. In 1846, they lost five of their six seats, they remained at one member of Congress in 1848. In 1850 and 1852, they didn’t manage to get anyone elected. 

Oddly enough, the one man who represented the Native American Party during the entire time they had a single representative was Lewis Charles Levin. Levin wasn’t a protestant. In fact, he was the first Jewish member of the United States Congress. He was a leading player in the 1844 riots in Philadelphia, and later in life was declared insane and died in an asylum.

While they weren’t as successful in politics during this period, it wasn’t because they weren’t active. 

Nativist, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, anti-German sentiment continued to spread throughout the country. 

Conspiracy theories began to spread that the Catholic immigrants were there as part of a Papist conspiracy to subvert the liberty of the United States. 

They believed that the new Catholic voters were beholden to priests and bishops who were under orders from the Pope in Rome, and they would vote however they were told to vote. 

Anti-Catholic books circulated, like those by Maria Monk, a Canadian woman who claimed to have infiltrated a convent where she claimed there were secret tunnels, rapes, and hidden burial pits of babies. It was later found that the entire book was a hoax. Nonetheless, the book sold 300,000 copies.

This led to the creation of various underground anti-Catholic groups, many of which operated in secret.

The most notable of which was the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, which was created in New York City in 1849. Founded by the nativist Charles B. Allen, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner was a secret society that required all of its members to take an oath. 

The order started small but soon attracted fanatical followers such as William Poole, also known as Bill the Butcher. He was a gang leader, prizefighter, and butcher who lived in New York City. His gang was known as the Bowery Boys. 

I should note that it wasn’t just anti-immigrant sentiment that created the Order of the Star Spangled Banner. It was the fact that these new immigrants were embraced by the parts of the Democratic Party in the north, particularly the Tammany Hall political machine in New York City. 

Tammany Hall accepted Irish immigrants as members because they were an enormous block of votes. Tammany Hall also had street gangs that it controlled and offered protection to the Irish from the Bowery Boys. 

One of the defining characteristics of the Order of the Star Spangled Banner was that if any member was questioned about the group, they were ordered to say, “I know nothing.

The Order of the Star Spangled Banner spread to other large American cities, particularly in the east. 

Due to the secret nature of the society, it was highly decentralized, and local leaders ran each chapter.

The organization also had a natural affinity with the Native American Party. It was this association of secret organizations like the Order of the Star Spangled Banner with the Native American Party where the term “Know Nothing Party” came from. 

Other than being pro-nativist, the decentralized nature of the party meant that it didn’t have a coherent position on many other policies. In the South, the party wasn’t as anti-Catholic simply because few Catholics migrated to the South, and it wasn’t much of an issue. 

Strangely enough, there was strong Know Nothing support in predominantly Catholic Louisiana. The members there rejected the anti-Catholic parts but were also anti-immigrant and pro-slavery.

There were Know Nothings who adopted progressive views that wouldn’t come to the forefront of national politics until the early 20th century. These included workers’ rights, women’s suffrage, regulation of industry, and the prohibition of alcohol. 

The thing that thrust the Native American Party into the spotlight was the congressional election of 1854. The Kansas-Nebraska Act resulted in the collapse of the Whig Party.

If you remember back to my episode on the six political eras In American history, this was the end of the second era. 

This left an opening for another party to challenge the dominant Democratic Party, and the Native American Party took advantage of the situation. 

Most anti-slavery northerners ran under the banner of the Opposition Party and actually won 100 seats, the plurality of seats in the House of Representatives in 1854. Technically, they were in different parties, but they had a single goal of removing the Democrats from power.

The Democrats held on to 83 seats, and the Native American “Know Nothing” Party came out of nowhere to win 51 seats.

It was the single best performance by a third party in American history. 

1854 also saw other successes for the Know Nothings. They won elections in Boston and almost swept the entire Massachusetts State Legislature. They won all 40 state senate seats and 376 out of 379 State Assembly seats. They also won the Governorship of Massachusetts.

In the spring of 1855, Levi Boone was elected as the mayor of Chicago as a Know Nothing candidate. 

It was estimated that the membership of the party had exploded from 50,000 to one million in the span of just a few months. 

However, that turned out to be the peak of the Know Nothing movement. In March 1855, William Poole, aka Bill the Butcher, was shot and killed in New York. 

The decentralized nature of the party ultimately worked against it. They were no match for the organized power of the Democrat Party, which was the largest in the country at the time. 

The anti-slavery faction in the North wasn’t particularly fond of their views. Many former Whigs and abolitionist Democrats coalesced around the newly formed Republican party.  In the South, the party was mostly supported by unionist former Whigs who had no other outlet to oppose the Democrats. 

The single biggest issue facing the country at this point was slavery, and the Know Nothings really officially didn’t take a stand on it one way or the other. In fact, in 1855, they explicitly rejected an anti-slavery platform, which was a belief held by most of their members in the north. 

They did have other success. They did well in elections in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and some other cities, but 1855 was their high water mark.

In the elections of 1856, the Know-Nothings ran former President Millard Fillmore as their candidate, who managed to receive 23% of the popular vote and carried the state of Maryland.

In the congressional elections, they lost the majority of their seats, dropping from 51 to 14. 

The lack of a coherent position on slavery, the dominant issue facing the country, splintered the party and drove members to the Republicans or the Democrats. 

In 1858, they dropped to just six members of the house, and by 1860, they didn’t win a single seat. 

The Know Nothing Party ended up being a political flash in the pan and a footnote in American history. 

While their electoral success dropped, they still remained an active social force in some communities. 

On August 6, 1855, an event known as the “Bloody Monday” riots broke out in Louisville, Kentucky, which killed 22 people. The riot was mostly between Know Nothings and Catholics.  In Maine, they were responsible for the tarring and feathering of a Catholic priest and the burning of a catholic church. 

Know Nothing sentiment survived even though the organizations surrounding it did not. 

The American Protective Association was an anti-Catholic organization founded in 1887, which found support in the Midwest. Like the Know Nothings, they grew quickly and then collapsed after the election of 1896. 

The term Know Nothing has become a pejorative in American politics. In the late 19th century, the Democrats used it against Republicans to garner German votes in the Midwest. 

Throughout the 20th century, the term was applied to those against immigration. 

The temperance and prohibition movement is widely considered to have gotten its start with the Know Nothing Party. 

Perhaps the best depiction of the Know Nothings was in the 2002 Martin Scorsese film Gangs of New York. The main character, William Cuttings, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, was roughly based on the real-life William Poole. 

In the end, the Know Nothings were a short-term blip on the radar of American politics. As Irish and German Catholics became ingrained in American society, the focus eventually moved to immigrants from China, Italy, and Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

While their electoral impact was minimal, the cultural impact of the Know Nothing Party remained for decades.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

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