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

By Tyler Anbinder | Go to book overview

2
The Rise of the Know Nothings

In about 1850, Charles B. Allen of New York City founded a new secret society similar to the other nativist fraternal organizations already in existence. Yet this new group, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner (OSSB),1 differed from previous nativist groups in a number of ways. Organizations such as the Order of United Americans (OUA) and United Sons of America had been only "semi-secret." Meetings were closed to the public, but adherents could admit to membership, which became public anyway because they participated in parades and organized public lectures. Members of the OSSB, on the other hand, could not reveal anything about their organization, not even the fact that it existed. While the older nativist groups charged significant dues and required members to purchase expensive uniforms, it cost nothing to join the new group. The goals of the OSSB, however, were nearly identical to those of the existing nativist organizations. OSSB members pledged to use their votes and personal influence to reduce the political power of both immigrants and the politicians who purportedly pandered to them.2

By 1852 the OSSB could claim only forty-three members and seemed destined for obscurity. At about this time, however, the OUA discovered the OSSB's existence and OUA leaders instructed their members to join the new group. A year later they so outnumbered the OSSB's original members that they were able to oust Allen from control. Historians commonly ascribe the OUA's action to its desire to use the OSSB as its "political arm," but this does not seem likely.3 As OUA founder Thomas R. Whitney noted, the OSSB's

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1
Actually, no extant Know Nothing document calls the group the Order of the Star Spangled Banner. Instead, Know Nothings always referred to their organization simply as the "Order," the "Council," or (in their early days) the "Wigwam." It is possible that the group practiced such secrecy that even internal documents never used the real name. The only "document" I know of that uses this name is the apparently genuine exposá by the Philadelphia Pennsylvanian, reprinted in the New York Herald, Sept. 25, 1854.
2
Thomas R. Whitney, A Defence of the American Policy ( New York, 1856), 280-81; Charles B. Allen to the Editor of the Newport News, in New York Herald, July 29, 1855.
3
Thomas J. Curran, "The Know Nothings of New York" ( Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1963), 88-89; David H. Bennett, The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1988), 111.

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