Beginnings - the Know Nothings

We're frequently asked if all the furor around immigration over the last few years caught us by surprise. The answer, unfortunately, is no. Opposition to immigrants and legal immigration cycle through American history on an almost regular basis. 

The United States has always been that country that welcomed immigrants on one hand while pushing them off with the other. 

The first organized opposition to immigration arose in the 1850s as a direct response to the events in Europe in the late 1840s.

Crop failures, student unrest, a rising middle class that felt it was being treated unfairly, unhappiness with government crescendoed in 1848 with a series of uprisings throughout Europe.

France, Ireland, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, parts of the German States all experienced popular uprisings spearheaded by the middle and working classes demanding more participation in government, freedom of the press, less taxes, and more.

These revolts – with the possible exception of Denmark - failed. They were snuffed out viciously. Tens of thousands were killed.

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables  depicts the end of the French uprisings at the Barricades of Paris. Javert may have met his end but hundreds of thousands had to flee their countries. Perhaps millions. Some, especially in Ireland and Italy, went to Australia (the Irish not by choice, it was a British penal colony). Most, of course, came to the United States.

The United States was already experiencing a boom of immigration, the potato famine had hit Ireland and Germany earlier in the decade forcing many thousands to emigrate. People poured in from other nations as well, for a variety of reasons, the majority were Catholic.

There was an anti-Catholic backlash that began, perhaps predictably, in New York City and spread rapidly. The movement became organized as a political party - The Native American Party. It grew quickly, it's goal is eeriely familiar today: America for Americans. Only. (Except, of course, Native Americans).

The Native American Party’s rise was fast, particularly in the Northeast. It was solidly Abolitionist, which is a good indication that it was, above all, economically motivated – middle and working-class Americans feared losing jobs to immigrants, the South had no such fears for obvious reasons.

It was a quasi ‘secret society.’ Members were told that, if asked about the movement, they were to reply, “I know nothing.” Then, as now, there’s no fun in belonging to a secret society unless people know you do, so that response was most likely given with a wink and a nod. It was certainly given often enough for the Party to acquire its nickname: The Know Nothings.

For a time, The Know Nothings were content to be the unseen force behind state and local politics, backing candidates who were either sympathetic to their causes or came to be sympathetic because they saw early which way the political winds were blowing.

The Know Nothings believed that Catholicism was “the ally of tyranny, the opponent of material prosperity, the foe of thrift, the enemy of the railroad, the caucus, and the school.” They wanted immigration curtailed or stopped entirely – but only for immigrants who weren’t like the Know Nothings. In San Francisco in the early 1850’s this was expanded to include the Chinese.

They created, encouraged, expanded and distributed vast conspiracy theories, most revolving around the Pope and a plot to infiltrate and subjugate the United States by flooding it with his 'Catholic subjects.'

There was violence, at voting polls, Catholic and immigrant centers, some random, some planned and carried out with chilling ruthlessness such as the burning of a convent and orphanage in Charleston, Massachusetts. Crowds were whipped into anti-immigrant frenzies and unleashed on communities without repercussion. Unlike Martin Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York where an attack by New York Nativists at Five Corners in Manhattan was met by an Irish gang, favorite targets were those who could not fight back.

The highwater mark of the Know Nothings was 1854, when it took 52 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 4 in the Senate (out of 66, imagine what would happen today if a third party controlled 4 seats)..

It fell apart quickly after that. Few people lost jobs to immigrants (or, at least, jobs they wanted); the Know Nothings were never more than a vocal look-at us minority and their lack of appeal to most led to denouncements by influential leaders and, worse of all, ridicule. Pope Pius IX never arrived to a coronation procession down Pennsylvania Avenue.

More important issues took precedence – the anti-slavery members of the Know Nothings left en masse to join the Republican Party.

Perhaps the eulogy of the Know Nothings wa written by Illinois lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, in the late 1850s: 

I am not a Know-Nothing – that is certain. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equals, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to that I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

The Know-Nothings ended as quickly as they started, but they never went completely away.