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

By Tyler Anbinder | Go to book overview

5
"Americans Must Rule America": The Ideology of the Know Nothing Party

While the aura of secrecy surrounding their organization helped the Know Nothings attract members, leaders of the Order recognized that their furtiveness also impeded the spread of their message. Since few newspapers had been willing to support the Know Nothings or their candidates overtly in 1854, nativists had been unable to circulate propaganda beyond the confines of the councils. Enemies had taken advantage of the Order's secrecy during these first campaigns, spreading false rumors about the organization that the Know Nothings could not publicly refute. Realizing that they could not allow their opponents' charges and criticisms to go unanswered, and hoping as well to make their organization appear more like a conventional political party, Know Nothings decided after the election of 1854 to break their code of secrecy and disseminate their ideology to the nation.

Any attempt to identify the ideology of the Know Nothings must take into account the fact that different Know Nothings interpreted the tenets of Know Nothingism differently.1 Know Nothings in the North and South disagreed about even the most fundamental aspects of their movement. Northern Know Nothings, as we shall see, directed most of their animus at Catholic immigrants, while many southern councils allowed native-born Catholics to join Know Nothing lodges. Northern and southern Know Nothings also held divergent views on the issue of slavery. Even ignoring sectional distinctions, the decentralized structure of the Know Nothing organization led to the creation of councils that differed greatly from both state to state, and sometimes even

____________________
1
I utilize the term "ideology" here as defined by Lance Banning, who calls it "the more or less coherent body of assumptions, values, and ideas that bound [party members] together . . . [and] shaped their common understanding of society and politics. . . ." The Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of a Party Ideology (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1978), 15.

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