In the 1840s, immigration from Ireland and Germany was ramping up and many who were born in America were disturbed by this increasing presence of people who were Catholic, increased job competition, and were blamed for rising social problems. Anti-Catholicism itself had been rather common in the United States: Protestant leader Lyman Beecher had written in Plea for the West (1835) that Catholics should be excluded from settling westward and in 1843, Lewis Charles Levin (1808-1860) became editor of the penny newspaper Daily Sun and founded the American Republican Association, both which he made anti-Catholic and against Catholic immigration. Nativist fears grew when Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick voiced opposition to reading from the King James Bible and having students sing hymns in public schools. They exploded after a Catholic school director, Hugh Clark, proposed suspending Bible reading in Philadelphia schools until the school board could accommodate Protestants and Catholics alike the following year and led to what became known as the Philadelphia Nativist Riots based on false rumors that he had called for ending Bible reading altogether. The riots resulted in over 20 Irish American deaths, numerous homes of theirs being destroyed, and the burning down of three Catholic churches. Although Levin did not commit a single act of violence during these riots and voiced his opposition to rioting, he and his penny newspaper had played a major role in inciting it with the anti-Catholic rhetoric and rumors spread.
That year, Levin founded the “Native American Party” (as in, “born in America”) and in the party’s first try for Congress they won six seats, with Levin winning a seat from Philadelphia. The others were elected only from New York (four) and Pennsylvania. Levin was himself a first as he was the first Jewish representative and served for six years. He was noted for his masterful oratory which would whip up crowds but in 1850 he was defeated for reelection by a Democrat. The Native American Party was an anti-Catholic party that called for immigration restrictions and believed in a conspiracy that Catholics were trying to make America subservient to the Pope. The platform of the party was to prolong naturalization to 21 years so immigrants could not vote until then, only permit people born in America to be elected to public office, and to prevent foreign involvement in all American institutions. This party was not very successful initially as the Democrats and Whigs remained the two dominant forces and their seats dwindled until they had no seats in the 31st Congress. They were ideologically more with the Whigs than with the Democrats, but they occupied a position near the middle. However, the growing tensions between free and slave states would come to increasingly define American politics and presented an opportunity for this seemingly defunct party. In 1849, however, an organization was formed called the ”Order of the Star Spangled Banner” was it would come to support the American Party and, like the Masons, was secretive and had many lodges. This is one respect this populist movement differed from its predecessor, in its stance on secret societies. Its members, when asked about their membership or activities in the order, gave the scripted response of “I know nothing”, thus leading to the party being known popularly as the “Know-Nothing Party”.
In 1854, President Franklin Pierce signed the notorious Kansas-Nebraska Act, which produced the catastrophe known as “Bleeding Kansas”. This issue resulted in a disastrous election year for both major parties, with the Democrats suffering major losses as well as the Whig Party, with the latter dissolving in the next year. The major party that benefited was the now renamed American Party, which won 51 seats from their previously held zero. American Party Congressman Nathaniel Banks of Massachusetts was elected Speaker of the House in an anti-administration coalition, as many who were elected that year also had not settled on a new party yet. However, the newfound success of the American Party had not extended to its founder, Lewis Charles Levin, who lost in his Senate bid to former Democrat Simon Cameron. The Know Nothing Party had both Northern and Southern members and did not focus on slavery, rather anti-Catholicism. Irish immigration had only increased since 1844 due to the Irish Potato Famine, as did German immigration due to economic instability. This massive influx came with growing social problems, as described by historian James McPherson,
“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” (p. 131).
Such problems led to the election of Know Nothing mayors in major cities in 1854 and 1855 including Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. One state they absolutely swept was Massachusetts, with a Know Nothing governor, legislature, and House delegation. The legislature unsuccessfully pushed for requiring 21 years before legal immigrants could vote and two more before they could run for office and an amendment prohibiting anyone who owed allegiance to a “foreign prince, power, or potentate” from running for office (Taylor, 169). Connecticut and Massachusetts passed laws requiring literacy tests in English to vote, and other New England states followed suit with Know Nothing politics. Other policies pushed by the New England Know Nothings included Prohibition, corporate regulation, women’s rights, aiding railroads in constructing them, and they were firmly anti-slavery. Even the use of written Latin was attacked. In California, the Know Nothings backed Chief Justice Hugh Murray for another term, a virulent xenophobe who had written the decision of People v. Hall (1854), which ruled against permitting testimony from Chinese people against whites in court and thus made it much easier for whites to get away with murdering Chinese.
Abraham Lincoln himself was privately not a fan of the Know Nothing Party but he did not publicly denounce them as he needed their support for his anti-slavery politics. As he wrote to his friend Joshua Speed, “I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one 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 begin 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 equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty-to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy” (NPS). Despite Lincoln’s apparent pessimism in this letter, he and his politics would outlive the Know Nothings.
The Southern Know Nothings did not embrace the anti-slavery politics of the North but were generally anti-secession. Many of them would vote for the Constitutional Union ticket in 1860. Some politicians who joined up with the Know Nothings would later rise to prominence during the Lincoln Administration, including Senator Simon Cameron, future Vice President Henry Wilson, and Thaddeus Stevens (again!). The legendary Sam Houston of Texas also joined up with the Know Nothings given his strong unionist stance making him unpopular in the Democratic Party. Former President Millard Fillmore accepted their nomination for president in 1856 despite his private disapproval of their anti-Catholic views and having never been consulted about it, and won only the state of Maryland as another party had taken the place of the Whigs as the primary opposition to the Democrats: the Republicans. Many of these new political Know Nothing figures had lacked political experience and this, combined with the increasing focus on the issue of slavery and their tendency to jack up taxes did them in. The Northern Know Nothings mostly joined up with the Republican Party, including the opposition Speaker Nathaniel Banks, who had left the Know Nothings during his time as speaker along with many others. In 1857, membership in the Republican Party grew further after the Dred Scott decision with the Know Nothings only remaining a force for a few more years in Southern state parties.
As for Lewis Charles Levin, his health was declining and he appeared to be developing mental illness by 1856 as he increasingly became disconnected with the party he started and by 1859 he had become violently insane. He died the following year in an asylum and the Know Nothing Party went with him. Although the party was gone, nativism was not: Northern members joined up with the Republican Party and nativist sentiments and policies would gain more political currency after the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The American Protective Society would form in 1887, a bipartisan secret anti-Catholic group, and between 1875 and 1924 increasingly severe immigration restrictions would be passed.
Boissoneault, L. (2017, January 26). How the 19th Century Know-Nothing Party Shaped American Politics. Smithsonian Magazine.
Curran, C.E. (2011). The social mission of the U.S. Catholic church: A theological perspective. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.
Lincoln on the Know Nothing Party. (2015, April 10). National Park Service.
McPherson, J.M. (1988). Battle cry of freedom. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Schrag, Z.M. (2018, October 22). Lewis Levin Wasn’t Nice. Tablet Magazine.
Schrag, Z.M. Nativist Riots of 1844. The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.
Taylor, S. (2000). “Progressive Nativism: The Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts”. Historical Journal of Massachusetts, 28(2).