Know Nothing

Know Nothing
American Party
Founded 1845 (1845)
Dissolved 1860 (1860)
Ideology Nativist anti-Catholicism, temperance, republicanism
Political position Protestant
International affiliation None
Politics of the United States
Political parties

The Know Nothing was a movement by the nativist American political faction of the 1840s and 1850s. It was empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by German and Irish Catholic immigrants, who were often regarded as hostile to Anglo-Saxon Protestant values and controlled by the Pope in Rome. Mainly active from 1854 to 1856, it strove to curb immigration and naturalization, though its efforts met with little success. Membership was limited to Protestant males of British lineage over the age of 21. There were few prominent leaders, and the largely middle-class and entirely Protestant membership fragmented over the issue of slavery.

The movement originated in New York in 1843 as the American Republican Party. It spread to other states as the Native American Party and became a national party in 1845. In 1855 it renamed itself the American Party.[1] 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."[2]



Underlying issues

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, tensions which echoed European conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. Violence occasionally erupted over elections.

Although Catholics asserted that they were politically independent of priests, 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."[3][4] These fears encouraged conspiracy theories regarding the Pope's purported plans to subjugate 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 Charles B. Allen in New York City. It became the nucleus of some units of the American Party.

Fear of Catholic immigration led to a dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party, whose leadership in many cities included Irish American Catholics. 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. This movement won elections in major cities from Chicago to Boston in 1855, and carried the Massachusetts legislature and governorship.

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.

James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 131


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 fall 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 did elect the Mayor of San Francisco, Stephen Palfrey Webb, and J. Neely Johnson as Governor of California. They were still an unofficial movement with no centralized organization. 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.[5]

The same person might also split tickets to vote for Americans, Democrats and Republicans, for party loyalty was in confusion. Simultaneously, the new Republican party emerged as a dominant power in many northern states. Very few prominent politicians joined the American Party, and very few party leaders had subsequent careers in politics. The major exceptions were Schuyler Colfax in Indiana and Henry Wilson in Massachusetts, who became Republicans and both were elected Vice President.

A historian of the party concludes:

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.

Tyler G. Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery, p. 95

In 1854, members of the American Party allegedly stole and destroyed the block of granite contributed by Pius IX for the Washington Monument. They also took over the monument's building society and controlled it for four years. What little progress occurred in their tenure had to be undone and remade. For the full story, see Washington Monument: History.

In California in 1854, Sam Roberts founded a Know-Nothing chapter in San Francisco. The group was formed in opposition to Chinese and Irish immigrants.

Fillmore/Donelson campaign poster

In spring 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. 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 Lutherans and Scotch Irish Presbyterians who opposed Catholicism. In Alabama, the 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.

Know-Nothings scored startling victories in northern state elections in 1854, winning control of the legislature in Massachusetts and polling 40 percent 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.

Few Know-Nothings were wealthy, but their incomes, occupation and social status were about average, 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.[6] 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 Lutherans, Dutch Reformed and Presbyterians.[7]

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."[8]

The party was occasionally referred to contemporaneously in the slightly pejorative shortening, "Knism".[9]


Certain Know Nothings were not content to attempt to bring about their agenda through peaceful means. Intimidation meant to keep Catholics away from the ballot box came to a head on 6 August 1855, in Louisville, Kentucky. In a hotly contested race for the office of governor of that state, Know Nothings killed 22, injured many more, and destroyed property. The Louisville riot was only the most spectacular of violent acts perpetrated by Know Nothing sympathizers in 1855.[10]

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, John Bapst, in the coastal town of Ellsworth in 1851 and the burning of a Catholic church in Bath in 1854.


In spring 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. 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 Lutherans and Scotch Irish Presbyterians who opposed Catholicism. In Alabama, the 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.

The party declined rapidly in the North in the following years. In the 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. It won 23% of the popular vote and carried one state, Maryland, with eight electoral votes. Fillmore did not win enough votes to block Democrat James Buchanan from the White House. 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.[11]

Some historians argue that in the South the Know Nothings were fundamentally different from their northern counterparts, and were motivated less by nativism or anti-Catholicism than by conservative Unionism; southern Know Nothings were mostly ex-Whigs who were worried about both the pro-slavery extremism of the Democrats and the emergence of the anti-slavery Republican party in the North. In Louisiana and Maryland, the Know-Nothings enlisted Catholics.[12] Historian Michael F. Holt, however, argues, "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." He quotes 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."[13]


The platform of the American Party called for, among other things:[citation needed]

  • Severe limits on immigration, especially from Catholic countries.
  • Restricting political office to native-born Americans of English and/or Scottish lineage and Protestant persuasion.
  • Mandating a wait of 21 years before an immigrant could gain citizenship.
  • Restricting public school teacher positions to Protestants.
  • Mandating daily Bible readings in public schools.
  • Restricting the sale of liquor.
  • Restricting the use of languages other than English.

Presidential candidates

Election year Result Nominees
President Vice President
1856 lost Millard Fillmore Andrew Jackson Donelson


The nativist spirit of the Know Nothing movement was revived in later political movements, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the American Protective Association, according to William Safire.[14] George Wallace's 1968 presidential campaign was said by Time to be under the "neo-Know Nothing banner".[14] Editor Fareed Zakaria has said that politicians who "encouraged Americans to fear foreigners" were becoming "modern incarnations of the Know-Nothings".[14] President Millard Fillmore became a member of the American Party or "Know Nothing" shortly after his term.

Fictional portrayals

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 Noah Gordon.

Usage of the term

The term "Know Nothing" is better remembered than the party itself. 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.[15][16] 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.[17]

The term has become a provocative slur, suggesting that the opponent is both nativist and ignorant. For example, in 2006, an editorial in The Weekly Standard by conservative William Kristol accused populist Republicans of "turning the GOP into an anti-immigration, Know-Nothing party."[18] The lead editorial of The New York Times for 20 May 2007, on a proposed immigration bill, referred to "this generation's Know-Nothings".[19] An editorial written by Timothy Egan in The New York Times on 27 August 2010, entitled "Building a Nation of Know-Nothings", discussed the Birther movement, which believes that President Barack Obama is not a legal citizen of the United States and is Muslim.[20]

See also


  1. ^ Wilentz p. 693
  2. ^ Billington, pp. 337, 380–406
  3. ^ Ray A. Billington, The Protestant Crusade, 1800–1860 (1938() p. 242.
  4. ^ John T. McGreevey, Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (2003) pp. 22–25, quote p. 34.
  5. ^ Tyler G. Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery, pp. 75–102.
  6. ^ Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery pp. 34–43.
  7. ^ William E. Gienapp, Origins of the Republican Party 1852–1856 (1987) pp. 538–42.
  8. ^ David Harry Bennett, The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History (1988) p. 15.
  9. ^ Willian E. Gienapp, "Salmon P. Chase, Nativism, and the Formation of the Republican Party in Ohio" 22, 24, Ohio History, 93
  10. ^ New York, New York, New York Daily Times (1851–1857), August 1855; N.S. Shaler, American Commonwealths-Kentucky, (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1885, 219; New York, New York, New York Daily Times (1851–1857) 10 October 1855.
  11. ^ Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery.
  12. ^ Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery pp. 103, 170.
  13. ^ Holt The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party, p. 856.
  14. ^ a b c William Safire, Safire's Political Dictionary (2008) pp. 375–76
  15. ^ Richard J. Jensen, The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict, 1888–96 (1971) pp. 108, 147, 160.
  16. ^ Louise Phelps Kellogg, "The Bennett Law in Wisconsin," Wisconsin magazine of history, Volume 2#1 (Sept 1918) p. 13.
  17. ^ Jensen, The Winning of the Midwest, p. 220.
  18. ^ Quoted by Craig Shirley, "How the GOP Lost Its Way" Washington Post, 22 April 2006, p. A21.
  19. ^ The Immigration Deal The New York Times, 20 May 2007
  20. ^ Egan, Timothy. Building a Nation of Know-Nothings The New York Times, 27 August 2010


  • 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
  • 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. 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 (2005)
  • Nevins, Allan. Ordeal of the Union: A House Dividing, 1852–1857 (1947), overal 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).
  • Wilentz, Sean, The Rise of American Democracy. (2005). ISBN 0-393-05820-4.

Primary sources

  • Frederick Rinehart Anspach. The Sons of the Sires: A History of the Rise, Progress, and Destiny of the American Party (1855) by K-N activist online edition
  • Samuel Clagett Busey. Immigration: Its Evils and Consequences (1856) online edition
  • Anna Ella Carroll. The Great American Battle: Or, The Contest Between Christianity and Political Romanism (1856) online edition
  • Fillmore, Millard. Millard Fillmore Papers Ed. by Frank H. Severance (1907) online edition
  • The Wide-awake Gift: A Know-nothing Token for 1855 (1855) online edition

External links

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  • Know-Nothing — Citoyen Know Nothing, le plus jeune fils de l Oncle Sam, lithographie de Sarony (1854). Cette estampe nationaliste, publiée à New York lors de l apogée du mouvement, récupère les symboles de l Union (et notamment le Star Spangled Banner à l… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • know-nothing — ignoramus, 1827, from KNOW (Cf. know) + NOTHING (Cf. nothing). As a U.S. nativist political party, active 1853 56, the name refers to the secret society at the core of the party, about which members were instructed to answer, if asked about it,… …   Etymology dictionary

  • know-nothing — know nothingism, n. /noh nuth ing/, n. 1. an ignorant or totally uninformed person; ignoramus. 2. an agnostic. 3. (caps.) U.S. Hist. a member of a political party (American party or Know Nothing party) prominent from 1853 to 1856, whose aim was… …   Universalium

  • Know Nothing — Партийный идеал гражданина …   Википедия

  • know-nothing — [nō′nuth΄iŋ] n. 1. an ignorant person; ignoramus 2. Rare an agnostic 3. [Know Nothing] a member of a secret political party in the U.S. in the 1850s with a program of keeping out of public office anyone not a native born American: so called… …   English World dictionary

  • Know-nothing — Know noth ing, n. A member of a secret political organization in the United States, the chief objects of which were the proscription of foreigners by the repeal of the naturalization laws, and the exclusive choice of native Americans for office.… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • know-nothing — ► NOUN ▪ an ignorant person …   English terms dictionary

  • Know Nothing — Citoyen Know Nothing, le plus jeune fils de l Oncle Sam, lithographie de Sarony (1854). Cette estampe nationaliste, publiée à New York lors de l apogée du mouvement, récupère les symboles de l Union (et notamment le Star Spangled Banner à l… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Know Nothing — Ciudadano Know Nothing, imagen del ideal del partido. El movimiento Know Nothing (lit. Saber nada ) fue un movimiento político estadounidense predominantemente nativista de las décadas de 1840 y 1850. Surgió inspirado por el temor hacia los… …   Wikipedia Español

  • know-nothing — I. ˈnōˌnəthiŋ, thēŋ adjective 1. : extremely ignorant a know nothing blunderer 2. often capitalized K&N : of, relating to, or characterized by know nothingism the Know Nothing party … proposed the political proscription of Roman Catholics… …   Useful english dictionary

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