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

By Tyler Anbinder | Go to book overview

Introduction

Although the United States has always portrayed itself as a sanctuary for the world's victims of poverty and oppression, anti-immigrant movements have enjoyed remarkable success throughout American history. None attained greater prominence than the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, a fraternal order referred to most commonly as the Know Nothing party. Vowing to reduce the political influence of immigrants and Catholics, the Know Nothings burst onto the American political scene in 1854, and by the end of the following year they had elected eight governors, more than one' hundred congressmen, the mayors of Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, and thousands of other local officials. Prominent politicians of every persuasion joined the new party. Radicals such as Thaddeus Stevens, conservatives like former President Millard Fillmore, and notorious politicos including Simon Cameron all took the Know Nothing oath. After their initial successes, the Know Nothings attempted to increase their appeal by converting their network of lodges into a conventional political organization, which they christened the "American party."

Contemporaries were amazed that an organization with a ridiculous name and a proscriptive platform could attain such popularity, and they debated the causes of the Know Nothings' rise with great fervor. Yet until relatively recently, historians devoted little energy to the study of the Know Nothing party. Such neglect was somewhat understandable, because scholars who examined "the middle period" tended to focus on the causes and consequences of the Civil War. The Know Nothings seemed to have little impact on the sectional crisis, so students of antebellum America tended to mention the Know Nothings only in passing, if at all. Consequently, the Know Nothings became largely the province of county historical societies, whose members often presented papers that chronicled the local history of the mysterious order1.

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1
Among the earliest of these local studies are George Schneider, "Lincoln and the AntiKnow Nothing Resolutions", McLean County Historical Society Transactions 3 (1900): 87-91; Hiram H. Shenk, "The Know Nothing Party in Lebanon County [Pennsylvania]", Lebanon County Historical Society Papers 4 ( 1906-9): 54-74; W. V. Hensel, "A Withered Twig: Dark Lantern Glimpses into the Operation of Know Nothingism in Lancaster Sixty Years Ago", Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society 19 ( 1915): 174-81. For an example of the brief treatment the Know Nothings received from major historians, see Charles and Mary Beard, The Rise of American Civilization, 2 vols., rev. ed. ( New York: Macmillan, 1934), II, p. 21.

-ix-

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