The Know-Nothing Party, officially known as the American Party, was a political party that was particularly prominent in United States politics during the 1840s and 1850s. Its moment in the spotlight was short-lived, and it would cease to exist by the time the American Civil War erupted. Still, it remains one of the most significant agents of nativism in United States history.
The origin of the Know-Nothing Party can be traced to June 1843, when a political organization, alarmed by the growing presence of immigrant voters and officeholders, formed the American Republican Party in New York. By 1845, the movement had spread nationwide and it became the Native American Party. By 1855, the name had been changed yet again to the American Party. The origin of the term “Know Nothing” came from the answer members gave to non-members when asked about the activities of the party: “I know nothing.”
The majority of members in the Know-Nothing Party were white, middle or working class, and Protestant. They favored the interests of their group over others, in this case, immigrants or newcomers to their nation. They were not happy with the influx of Irish and German Catholics, believing that they would be more loyal to the head of the Catholic Church, the Pope, than to their new country. This sort of allegiance would mean that they did not respect the Anglo-Saxon Protestant values that the Know-Nothing Party believed the United States was built upon. Thus, party members strove to not only end immigration, but to prevent the newly arrived foreigners from becoming citizens, a process known as naturalization.
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The peak of the Know-Nothing Party’s power occurred in the mid-1850s. In 1854, the party swept the Massachusetts legislature in what would become their greatest political victory. Also, they had mayoral candidates elected in cities such as Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. The Know-Nothing Party was particularly strong in the state of Ohio, where members were actually able to win over non-Catholic Irish and German immigrants, and contributed to the election of Salmon P. Chase as the state’s governor. By the end of 1855, the Know-Nothings had exerted considerable influence in the northeastern U.S., possibly bolstered by the fact that most immigrants arrived in this area of the country; additionally, the party boasted a strength of about a million.
After these successes, however, the prominence of the Know-Nothing Party sharply declined. It began with their presidential candidate, Millard Fillmore, losing the 1856 elections. Also, the party was indecisive on its stance on slavery, with its anti-slavery members beginning to leave the organization for the Republican Party. By 1860, the mass defection was almost complete, and the Know-Nothing Party ceased to exist.