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

By Tyler Anbinder | Go to book overview

1
Immigration, Nativism, and Party Crisis

In 1854 the Know Nothing party burst upon the political scene with a swiftness unprecedented in American history. Yet the conditions that stimulated its growth had been developing for nearly half a century. European emigration to the United States increased dramatically after the War of 1812 and continued to grow in the decades that followed. In response to changes this influx of immigrants brought to American life, nativist political and fraternal organizations appeared in many major cities. However, even though these groups initially gained many adherents, they quickly declined in popularity, even while immigration continued to increase. Only when crises rocked the major political parties in the early 1850s did an overtly nativist political organization, the Know Nothing party, gain a national following.

Initially, it seemed unlikely that nativism would take root in the United States, because few Europeans emigrated to the country in the thirty years following the American Revolution. Military conflict on the Continent, as well as concern about the viability of the new republic, disrupted the previously steady flow of immigration. Once peace returned, however, immigration reverted to the pre-Revolutionary level of about 10,000 per year. Yet instead of stabilizing at that figure, immigration continued to increase steadily. Decade after decade, the pace of immigration quickened, peaking in 1854 when more than 400,000 Europeans settled in America. From 1845 to 1854, some 2,900,000 immigrants landed in the United States, more than had come in the seven previous decades combined. As a percentage of the nation's total population, the influx of immigrants from 1845 to 1854, amounting to 14.5 percent of the 1845 population, has never been surpassed.1

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1
William J. Bromwell, History of Immigration to the United States ( 1856; rpt., New York: Arno Press, 1969), 14-15; Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970, 2 vols. ( Washington: U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1975), I, p. 106; David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848- 1861 ( New York: Harper and Row, 1976), 241; Marcus Lee Hansen, The Atlantic Migration, 1607- 1860 ( Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1951), 3-225.

-3-

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