The Rise of a Know Nothing



Dear Editor:

In 1849, the American electorate witnessed the rise of a short-lived third party called the “American Party.” Similar to today, America was experiencing a wave of nativism that reflected the fears (some legitimate, some imagined) of the day with regard to immigration and refugees. The party proceeded to play on the fear that the immigrants entering America at the time (largely Irish and Italian) would take over American jobs and subvert traditional Protestant values with those of Catholicism. The party members railed of the oncoming infiltration of foreign ideas and values into the fabric of American society. Fear was then, as it is now, a powerful and persuasive tool to use during times of war, depression, and social and political change.

The similarities between the formation of the American Party in 1849 and the Trump movement today are striking; so striking that it makes one wonder if history is indeed repeating itself. Like today, the political environment during the 1840s and ’50s had become hyper-partisan and the divides between the political parties and their ideologies were wide and deep. Compromise and civility had given way to extreme heightened and irrational rhetoric that was based on fear and hatred rather than collaboration and compromise.

The Whig Party, to which Lincoln belonged, had become fractured and divided. Lincoln himself was influenced by the egalitarian values the Jeffersonian Democrats embraced as opposed to the more aristocratic values of wealth and class held by the Whigs. And he had grown to be not only disgruntled but adamantly opposed to the Whig Party’s tendency to support slavery and anti-immigration policy.

The American Party was comprised of numerous secret societies and entities. When members were questioned about their subversive organizations, they often replied, “I know nothing,” hence the name Know Nothing Party took hold. Similar to the Tea Party today, the Know Nothings swept through Congress and held the public’s attention for a short time, only later to fade, as ruin at the hands of immigrants did not come to fruition. Instead, political attention was turned toward facing the real issue of the day, which was slavery and maintaining the Union. Lincoln said of the Know Nothings, “If the Know Nothings ever took power, the Declaration of Independence would have to be amended to say that all men are created equal except negroes, foreigners and Catholics.” He went on to say “he would rather emigrate to Russia, where despotism is out in the open than live in such an America.”

The Know Nothings ran Millard Fillmore for president in 1856. He ran on purifying America and ridding the nation of the dangerous immigrants who were invading our shores. The party attempted to put forth legislation to support their cause such as bills that would insist that schools have Protestant Bibles in them and laws to prevent Catholics from running for public office. There was even something called the Nunnery Commission, which was designed to ferret out the dangers posed by nuns to American society at large. Similar to mosques today, Catholic churches were investigated and Catholic objects displayed in public places were often removed. As with Muslim Americans today, the Irish and Italian immigrants were blamed for the woes of the nations and the violence that followed their attempted assimilation into the American culture.

At the same time the Republican Party was fracturing, the Democratic Party was being split in two with the issues of slavery and states rights. Again similar to the situation today, both parties were deep in the midst of the chaos that often follows times of transformative change.

Ultimately fragments of the Whig Party recombined with Lincoln to form the new Republican Party. The platform of the new party became anti slavery, internal improvements, a homestead act and the initiation of the Pacific Railroad. The newly formed Republican Party prevailed in 1860 over the deeply divided Democrats and the nation rose to face the issue of slavery that would engage the country in the coming Civil War. Abraham Lincoln took his place in history as leader of the new party that would become known as the party of Lincoln.

Anti immigrant (and refugee) fears are nothing new in our history. We have witnessed political and social groups that have spawned from hostilities between natives and immigrants many times. We saw it in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1892, the Japanese internment after WWII, and of course no hate group is more historically notable to American history as is the KKK. All of these lost their power as the fear surrounding the immigrants subsided and assimilation calmed the fears of those who forwarded the cause of the anti-immigrant groups.

Donald Trump is a Democrat when he wants to be and a Republican when he needs to be. He has no commitment to either party’s principals, nor is he interested in understanding how the changing world in which we live is altering our culture and our political system. He has managed, however, to become the flag-bearer for the know nothing anti-immigration faction of the Republican Party and is the voice for their policies that would close borders, limit rights and build walls to keep the Muslims and the “others” from succeeding at their imaginary and eminent takeover of America.

As the Japanese Americans, Jewish Americans, Italian and Irish Americans had to do before, the millions of Muslim Americans who live among us will have to be patient until time proves that the rise of this latest Know Nothing will prove to be as short-lived and as inconsequential as those who have gone before.

Mary Holway

Southwest Harbor

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