The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

4
1839

Articles in The Immigrants’ Civil War are listed at the bottom of this page.

August 6, 1855, was supposed to be election day in Louisville, Kentucky, the annual celebration of democracy. But the city’s immigrants worried that only the native born would be able to vote since the mayor was a Know Nothing.

The day before the election, the local German newspaper warned that there were “widespread rumors of the preparations of Know-Nothings” to stop immigrants from voting. The newspaper said that the threats against the immigrant voter “cannot be allowed to hold him back…Even if it were dangerous, the duty to vote remains the same. Because what can a free man lose greater than his right to vote and with it his freedom? Who dares not once attempt to vote, does not deserve the name of a free man.”1

The editor wrote that “when at the same time thousands of natives look down on [the immigrant] with contempt and announce to him he is incompetent and unworthy of the pleasure of freedom —Then it is the man’s duty to prove that he is a man, a free man.”2

Know Nothings accepted the use of violence as a way to prevent immigrants from voting, and thereby preserving what they considered to be American institutions. Thomas Whitney, one of the movement’s leaders, said, “If democracy implies universal suffrage…without regard to the intelligence, the morals, or the principles of the man…[then] I am no democrat.” Know Nothings believed that only native-born Protestants possessed the character and intelligence to vote.3

To combat immigrants who might want to exercise a right given to them by the Founding Fathers, the Know Nothings deployed nativist gangs like the Bowery Bhoys in New York and the Plug Uglies in Baltimore. The Know Nothings also had their own paramilitary organization called the Wide Awakes to intimidate immigrants on election day.4

In Louisville, armed Know Nothings were stationed at the polls on August 6, only letting men with a yellow Know Nothing ticket vote. Irish voters, not willing to be denied, attacked the anti-immigrant disenfranchisers, but in most of the city only nativists voted. Later that day, nativist mobs roamed through the Irish and German quarters of the city. A Catholic priest, trying to comfort a dying parishioner, was stoned to death by the mob. The nativists burned down a row of Irish-owned buildings. When the terrified residents escaped through the flames, they were shot down by Know Nothings. In all, 22 to 100 people were killed in the pogrom.5

20111216-kn1Irish-owned residences are burned during the Bloody Monday riots.

Smaller scale attacks took place in cities around the United States. Nativist mobs sometimes numbering in the hundreds or thousands attacked immigrants in what were called “Paddy hunts.”6.

The Know Nothings did not seek to disenfranchise immigrants only through violence, they also used the law. Then, as now, an immigrant had to live in the United States for five years before naturalizing and becoming a citizen.

The legislature in Massachusetts, dominated by Know Nothings, passed a law barring immigrants from voting for the first two years after they became citizens. A national Know Nothing proposal would have required an immigrant to live for 21 years in the United States before becoming a citizen. The rationale for this long wait was that a baby born in the United States had to wait until it was 21 years old before voting and that immigrants should not be able to jump the line and vote sooner than a native-born child. Of course, what the nativists were really after was destroying the ability of immigrant communities to protect themselves through the ballot box.7

The Know Nothings also waged a culture war against immigrants. They replaced Latin mottoes on court houses with English translations. In Philadelphia, all naturalized citizens on the police force were fired, including several very angry English Protestants who had supported the anti-Catholic mayor. In Boston, a special board was set up to investigate the sex lives of nuns. The investigations found nothing untoward about the sisters, but journalists found out that the board’s chairman was using investigatory funds to put his mistress up at a fancy hotel.8

“How people do hate Catholics,” future President Rutherford B. Hayes observed at the height of the Know Nothing’s sway. The nativists had a potent recipe for power, but it was one at odds with the values the country had been founded on.9

The Know Nothings were a powerful force in American politics during the years immediately before the Civil War. Members pledged to only vote for candidates chosen by their secretive hierarchy. They conducted their clandestine activities without accountability to anyone outside the order. They used violence and intimidation to achieve their ends. In other words, they actually did what they accused German and Irish immigrants of doing: They subverted America’s democratic institutions in the name of preserving them.10

Pulitzer Prize-winning Princeton historian Sean Wilentz has written about the phenomenon:

“Beneath nativism’s original nostalgic rhetoric lay undemocratic aspirations of a kind that had been in abeyance in northern politics since the…1830s. Distrust of foreigners, and especially Catholics, had, of course, been a feature of American conservative thought dating back at least to the Federalists and the alien and sedition laws. But while it turned traditional conservative distain into an explicit attack on Catholic immigrants, nativist ideology also retrieved the broader old-line Federalist…contempt for partisan democratic politics—and…for democracy itself.”11

20111216-samThe Know Nothings often used the image of Young Sam, Uncle Sam’s nephew, as their symbol. They were asserting that they had a familial relationship to the founding generation, just as Young Sam was related by birth to Uncle Sam.

This suited Southern slave owners. Many planters believed that the attack on immigrants would distract northerners from the growing anti-slavery crusade. Northerners, they hoped, might seek an alliance with the planters if it was deemed necessary to avert a papal takeover.12

By the end of 1855, the Know Nothings had won so many elections that in just two years of open political action they were able to select the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Massachusetts Know Nothing Nathaniel Banks was elected speaker, but only after a bitter two months of balloting that lasted from December 3, 1855, to February 2, 1856, when he was chosen on the 133rd ballot. The nativists seemed to have a good chance of winning the presidency, as well.13

The Know Nothings, newly named the “American Party,” nominated former-President Millard Fillmore for the presidency. It didn’t help the xenophobes that at the time of his nomination Fillmore was on a months-long vacation in Europe, nor that he had sought an audience with the Pope while in Italy. But Fillmore’s travel was not the American Party’s biggest problem.14

A new party had formed that year, challenging the notion that immigration was the great threat to American democracy. The new Republican Party was founded on the idea that slavery was incompatible with the American political system, that it hurt American free labor almost as much as it hurt slaves, and that it could not be allowed to spread beyond the old South.15

The party brought together abolitionists, dissident Democrats, and liberal members of the disintegrating Whig Party like Abraham Lincoln and William Seward. Many of its founders opposed nativist ideas on principle; others thought them a diversion from the real fight against the slave owners. Shrewd strategists within the party also saw the possibility of winning the solidly Democratic immigrant vote to their platform of Free Labor, Free Soil, Free Men, if they avoided the taint of nativism.

The Republicans nominated explorer John C. Fremont for president and they tried to persuade the Know Nothings to stop their own campaign. Instead, the American Party circulated false rumors that Fremont was a closet Catholic. Know Nothing agents claimed that they saw him cross himself and said he secretly engaged in Catholic rituals.16

Know Nothing dirty tricks denied Fremont the presidency, but they also helped destroy the movement’s credibility in the North.

In 1856, the Know Nothing candidate Millard Fillmore won Maryland, got more than 40 percent of the vote in the future Confederacy, but only received 11 percent of ballots in the North.17

Northern Know Nothings fled to the Republican Party and tried to fashion a party plank out of hatred for immigrants. With a view to the 1860 presidential election, they also prioritized keeping the Republican nomination from New York Senator William Seward, who had radically denounced slavery and championed immigrants’ rights. Those political beliefs would doom Seward to serve no higher than Secretary of State.18

Some Know Nothings courted Abraham Lincoln as a possible ally, but he rejected their overtures. In 1859, he wrote to German Americans that he opposed the Know Nothings. Lincoln and Seward supporters united to pass a plank in the party platform that opposed state anti-immigrant laws and was authored by German Republicans. “The Republican party is opposed to any change in our naturalization laws,” it stated, “or any state legislation by which the rights of citizens hitherto accorded to immigrants from foreign lands shall be abridged or impaired; and in favor of giving a full and efficient protection to the rights of all classes of citizens.” The savvy political maneuvering of German leaders like Wisconsin’s Carl Schurz was crucial to the passage of this so-called “Dutch Plank.”19

While the Know Nothings failed to take over the Republican Party, nativists would remain an important constituency for Republicans, one that would reassert itself again and again in the future.

Resources:

Modern-day Know Nothings have not honored their heritage and created a repository for the once widely distributed literature and ephemera of the 19th century manifestation of their movement. One assumes that much primary source material was lost when descendants of the nativists found troves of the materials and discretely cast them into the trash heap.

Click here for a website devoted to the Bloody Monday riots in Louisville. The site includes contemporary accounts of the week’s events translated from the German by Joseph Reinhart. Reinhart has done much to keep the memory of those times alive by making the world of Kentucky’s German immigrants accessible to the modern reader.

The riots are still commemorated in Louisville. Joe Reinhart wrote to tell me that they are commemorated “so this will never happen again.”

1. Louisville Anzeiger, August 5, 1855 (Translated by Joseph R. Reinhart)

2. Louisville Anzeiger, August 5, 1855 (Translated by Joseph R. Reinhart)

3. The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln by Sean Wilentz, Norton (2005) p. 683.

4. When the Know Nothing movement disintegrated and many of its activists joined the Republican Party, the new party’s paramilitary was also called the “Wide Awakes.”

5. The Encyclopedia of Louisville by John E. Kleber p. 97.

6. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s by Tyler Anbinder, Oxford University Press (1992) p. 192.

7. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s by Tyler Anbinder, Oxford University Press (1992) p. 120. While the federal government set a uniform naturalization rule, the rights of naturalized citizens were not uniformly defined until ratification of the 14th Amendment.

8. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s by Tyler Anbinder, Oxford University Press (1992) pp. 137-143.

9. The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War by Michael F. Holt, Oxford University Press (1999) p. 846.

10.The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War by Michael F. Holt, Oxford University Press (1999) p. 849.

11.The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln by Sean Wilentz, Norton (2005) p. 682.

12. The Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861by William W. Freehling, Oxford University Press (2007) p. 94.

13. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s by Tyler Anbinder, Oxford University Press (1992) p. 200.

14. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s by Tyler Anbinder, Oxford University Press (1992) pp. 202-247. Fillmore was a less than perfect nativist candidate. His daughter had been educated in a Catholic school and he had donated money in support of Catholic education.

15. See generally Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War  by Eric Foner, Oxford University Press (1995)

16. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s by Tyler Anbinder, Oxford University Press (1992) p. 224. Fremont would not have been eligible to join the Know nothings because his father was a Catholic, as was his wife.

17. The Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861by William W. Freehling, Oxford University Press (2007) p. 95

18. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s by Tyler Anbinder, Oxford University Press (1992) p. 266

19. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s by Tyler Anbinder, Oxford University Press (1992) p. 267

The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:

1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.

2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.

3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union?

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

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