Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850's

By Tyler Anbinder | Go to book overview

3
The Know Nothings Enter Politics

The growth of the Know Nothings captivated the nation during the summer of 1854. Newspapers vied to publish the first and most exhaustive exposés on the size and intentions of the organization. Sidewalk hucksters peddled pamphlets revealing codes, signs, and grips so that the uninitiated could eavesdrop on Know Nothing communications. Other entrepreneurs cashed in on the rage by offering consumers such items as "Know Nothing Candy", "Know Nothing Tea", "Know Nothing Toothpicks", "Know Nothing Cigars", and "Know Nothing Soap". When an Ohioan who had neglected his diary for a year attempted to summarize the important occurrences of 1854, he mentioned only two events: the death of his father and the rise of the Know Nothings.1

The Know Nothings had clearly captured the popular imagination, but the Order's members hoped that its success would earn them tangible rewards as well. Thus while hundreds of thousands of Americans flocked into Know Nothing lodges during the summer of 1854, leaders of the Order began parlaying those gains into political clout. The Know Nothings had always sought to influence American politics. The Order had been created, after all, to reduce the power of immigrants in the nation's political life. But the organization's modest size in its early years had limited its ability to exercise any noticeable influence. While Know Nothings had nominated tickets for local elections, their candidates were almost invariably non-Know Nothings chosen from amongst the nominees of the major parties. Aside from electing one of its leaders to the New York state senate in 1853 (by winning him the Whig nomination), the Order could claim few political triumphs. All that changed, however, with the Know Nothings' great expansion in mid-1854.

At this point, most Know Nothing lodges still drew up tickets composed of candidates selected by the established parties. If none of the candidates offered for a particular office met with Know Nothing approval, the Order

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1
Ray A. Billington, The Protestant Crusade, 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism ( Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1938), 388; Thomas Horrocks, "The Know Nothings", American History Illustrated 17 ( Jan. 1983): 22-29; Sidney Maxwell Diary, Jan. 1855, Cincinnati Historical Society ( Maxwell does not appear to have been a Know Nothing himself).

-52-

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