The Know-Nothing movement was a nativist American political movement of the 1850s. It grew up as a popular reaction to the large numbers of immigrants—mostly Irish Roman Catholics—entering the United States starting in the late 1840s, and was characterized by calls for a number of measures to maintain the United States as a nation of Anglo-Saxon Protestants.
Causes of the Movement
Distrust of the Pope
The fact that many of the new immigrants were Roman Catholic sat poorly with much of the United States's largely Protestant population. In particular, many Protestants viewed with distrust the strong allegiance of Roman Catholics to the Pope; many Protestants saw this allegiance to the Pope as an allegiance to a foreign prince (especially since the Pope was also head of state of the Papal States), and thus dangerous to American independence and possibly even treasonous.
These concerns spawned widely-held conspiracy theories regarding the Pope's purported plans to subjugate the United States through a continuing influx of his followers. The fact that Popes in the past had in fact wielded significant power and entangled themselves in wars and political disputes was frequently pointed to as evidence that the Pope was simply waiting for the right time to regain his lost temporal power, and served to further cement this notion in the minds of many Americans.
While significant in their own right, the concerns about the Pope largely exacerbated already-present anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic feelings held by many Americans. The newcomers differed culturally from most Americans, so their influx was seen as a threat to maintaining American culture. The immigrants brought with them their strong accents, Irish traditions and culture, and Roman Catholicism, and didn't seem likely to become "Americanized" anytime soon. A vocal minority of American moralists also protested against the immigrants' alcohol consumption. While alcohol consumption was already quite popular among the general public in the United States (even George Washington had run a distillery), the moralistic elements managed to promote a caricature of the Irish as drunkards, and thus gained some support for their anti-alcohol crusade by painting drinking as foreign and un-American.
The Political Movement
The growing anti-immigrant sentiment led to a dissatisfaction with the major parties—the Democrats were seen as too dependent on the votes of immigrants, and the Whigs were seen as ineffectual, and were largely in decline in any case. Thus anti-immigrant activists began splitting off from the major parties and forming secret groups, coordinating their votes and throwing their weight en masse behind candidates sympathetic to their cause (regardless of political party). When asked about these secret organizations, members would reply "I know nothing," which led to them popularly being called Know-Nothings. The Know-Nothings in effect gained control of a large number of local offices, especially in the North, through the early 1850s ("in effect" because the officeholders were still technically either Democrats or Republicans, as the Know-Nothings were not yet an actual party).
In 1854 they won significant victories in Congress and at the State level, again as an unofficial party driven by coordinated votes for sympathetic candidates; the secret societies themselves supplemented by supporting votes from the population at large, once it was made known who was sympathetic to the Know-Nothings' cause. The results of this election were so favorable to the Know-Nothings that they formed officially as a political party, called the American Party, and swallowed many members of the now nearly-defunct Whig party, as well as a significant number of Democrats, especially Northern Democrats.
In 1854 members of the American Party stole and destroyed the block of granite contributed by Pope Pius IX for the Washington Monument. They also also took over the monument's building society and controlled it for four years. For the full story, see Washington Monument: History.
The height of their success came in the Election of 1856, in which they threw their weight behind Millard Fillmore (a Whig who had been president from 1850 to 1853). Fillmore lost, but won 22% of the popular vote and Maryland's 8 electoral votes. However, by this time the newly-formed party was beginning to be rent by differences over slavery, and greatly declined in strength. Know-Nothings remained strong on the local and state levels in many northern states, but by the Election of 1860, they were no longer a serious national political movement. Most of the anti-slavery Know-Nothings went on to join the new Republican Party.
In New York City, the Know-Nothings degenerated into a nativist local political party and street gang that was the principal opponent of the immigrant-based Tammany Hall. The events of that conflict, including the New York Draft Riots of 1863, are accurately portrayed in the book by Herbert Asbury titled Gangs of New York, and more loosely portrayed in the movie of the same name.
The platform of the American Party called for, among other things:
- Severe limits on immigration, especially from Catholic countries (Ireland, Italy, France)
- Restricting political office to native-born Americans (the U.S. Constitution only restricts the office of President in this way).
- Mandating a wait of 21 years before an immigrant could gain citizenship.
- Restricting public school teaching to Protestants.
- Mandating daily Bible readings in public schools (from the Protestant version of the Bible).
- Restricting the sale of liquor.