Know-Nothing movement

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Know-Nothing movement

Know-Nothing movement, in U.S. history. The increasing rate of immigration in the 1840s encouraged nativism. In Eastern cities where Roman Catholic immigrants especially had concentrated and were welcomed by the Democrats, local nativistic societies were formed to combat "foreign" influences and to uphold the "American" view. The American Republican party, formed (1843) in New York, spread into neighboring states as the Native American party, which became a national party at its Philadelphia convention in 1845. The movement was temporarily eclipsed by the Mexican War and the debates over slavery. When the slavery issue was temporarily quieted by the Compromise of 1850 nativism again came to the fore. Many secret orders grew up, of which the Order of United Americans and the Order of the Star-spangled Banner came to be the most important. These organizations baffled political managers of the older parties, since efforts to learn something of the leaders or designs of the movement were futile; all their inquiries of supposed members were met with a statement to the effect that they knew nothing. Hence members were called Know-Nothings, although there was never a political organization bearing the name. Efforts were concentrated on electing only native-born Americans to office and on agitating for a 25-year residence qualification for citizenship. Growing rapidly, the Know-Nothings allied themselves with the group of Whigs who followed Millard Fillmore and almost captured New York state in the 1854 election, while they did sweep the polls in Massachusetts and Delaware and had local successes in other states. The disintegration of the Whig party aided them in their strides toward national influence. In 1854 they looked toward extension into the South, and in the following year they openly assumed the name American party and cast aside much of their characteristic secrecy. In June, 1855, a crisis developed; at a meeting of the national council in Philadelphia, Southerners seized control and adopted a resolution calling for the maintenance of slavery. The slavery issue, after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, again came to the front, and this time the slavery issue split apart the Know-Nothing movement as it had the Whigs. The antislavery men went into the newly organized Republican party. Millard Fillmore, the American party candidate for President in 1856, polled a small vote and won only the state of Maryland. The national strength of the Know-Nothing movement thus was broken.

See R. A. Billington, The Protestant Crusade, 1800–1860 (1938, repr. 1964); W. D. Overdyke, The Know-Nothing Party in the South (1950, repr. 1968); C. Beals, Brass-Knuckle Crusade (1960).

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