The explosive growth of nearly 3 million mostly unskilled and Catholic immigrants in the late 1840s and early 1850s, who failed to easily or readily assimilate into the dominant Protestant American culture, led to tensions between the natives and the newcomers. Some native-born Americans viewed Catholicism as antithetical to the American values of democracy, egalitarianism, and freedom. Like-minded Americans sought to curtail immigrant political influence with residency restrictions on voting, strict naturalization requirements, and promotion of native-born candidates and patronage recipients. Nativists also organized fraternal societies to plan strategies, exert influence, and create fellowship with other anti-Catholics. In 1850, Charles B. Allen founded one such organization, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner (OSSB), in New York City. There was little distinguishable about this organization from any other such group that existed throughout the nation. In 1852, however, another nativist group, the Order of United Americans, seized control of the OSSB and actively worked to establish lodges and councils throughout the country. Members of the OSSB became known as the Know Nothings sometime in 1853. By October 1854, the OSSB, an organization that two years previously had 43 members, now had a membership of 1 million.
The Know Nothings’ phenomenal growth can be attributed to several factors. First, American nativism historically flourished when there were controversies. In 1852, the First Plenary Council of American Bishops met in Baltimore and pushed for more parochial education, which in turn increased requests from Catholics to state legislatures for funds for private schools. Recurrent friction over Catholic or Protestant bible reading in public schools, which had caused riots in 1844 Philadelphia, ignited again in 1853 in Maine with a few protesting Catholics burning Protestant bibles and the resident Catholic priest being tarred, feathered, and carried out of town on a rail. Disputes over Catholic Church property laws, a Vatican representative's American tour, and President Franklin Pierce's appointment of James Campbell, a Catholic, as postmaster general also contributed to nativists’ ire.
Once in office Know Nothing politicians succeeded in enacting some nativist-inspired legislation regarding church property and naturalization, as well as temperance legislation that appealed to some of their membership. Ultimately their political successes were mixed because the Know Nothings were not centralized and were often divided internally along partisan lines and subissues, which prevented them from effectively unifying both statewide and nationally.
No issue was more divisive to the party than slavery. The Know Nothings attempted to create a strong central organization at a Philadelphia convention in June 1855; instead the party was irrevocably fractured with the passage of a platform plank known as Section 12 that promised to “abide by and maintain the existing laws upon the subject of Slavery.” Section 12 passed the convention while most northern, antislavery Know Nothings, led by Massachusetts's Henry Wilson, boycotted the debate. Wilson's strategy at the convention sought to unify all antislavery forces into a single party.
While Wilson failed to accomplish his mission at the convention, Salmon P. Chase and his gubernatorial boosters in Ohio found success in fusing the state's Know Nothing electorate with the emerging Republican Party. Chase's campaign platform avoided nativist issues and stressed antislavery, thereby deprecating Know Nothings’ primary political precept. Chase went on to win the election. Elsewhere in the North, Know Nothing popularity either declined, as in Pennsylvania, or became more identified as an antislavery party, as in Massachusetts. They still maintained influence in the Upper South, especially in Maryland, where half of the congressmen were party members, and in Kentucky, where Charles S. Morehead became governor.
Recognizing that the party had a sectional identity crisis, moderates tried to reunify the party in Cincinnati in November 1855. That convention pledged to restore the Missouri Compromise, thereby alleviating the slavery issue. This attempt at reconciliation was quickly undone when voting for speaker began in the U.S. House of Representatives. Americans (the political party name appropriated by Know Nothings) and opposition party legislators dominated the membership of the Thirty-fourth Congress. Despite this, the prolonged and divisive votes for speaker revealed once again the deep sectional loyalties dividing the Know Nothings.
Fillmore's defeat effectively spelled the end of the Know Nothings as a political organization, although some holdouts helped form the Constitutional Union Party and ran Know Nothing Senator John Bell of Tennessee for president in 1860. Most Know Nothings transferred their membership to the Republican Party, which presented a delicate balancing act for leading party politicians, such as Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had always been privately critical of Know Nothings, once commenting, “When the Know-Nothings get control,” it [the Declaration of Independence] will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics” (Anbinder 266 ). Publicly, Lincoln knew he could not alienate this important faction in the party. He regularly corresponded with former Know Nothings during the campaign of 1860 and appointed Edward Bates, a former Know Nothing, as attorney general. Nativism did not die with the Know Nothings, but a history of the organization shows that religious and ethnic controversies were necessary to keep the public's attention, and in the 1850s slavery controversies, including the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott case, and John Brown's raid, overshadowed nativist issues.
Chandler S. Lighty
See also: Shays's Rebellion (1786–1787)
Anbinder, Tyler. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Levine, Bruce. “Conservatism, Nativism, and Slavery: Thomas R. Whitney and the Origins of the Know Nothing Party.” Journal of American History 88 (2): 455–488.
Voss-Hubbard, Mark. Beyond Party: Cultures of Antipartisanship in Northern Politics before the Civil War. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.