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Depiction of “Citizen Know Nothing,” the Ideal American Man in the Know Nothing Movement

The second American political party system is generally considered to have begun with Andrew Jackson’s election to the presidency in 1828 and ended in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln was elected to the highest office in the land. The second political party system pitted the Democrats against the Whigs and featured growing sectionalism and the ubiquitous slavery question, which both parties wanted to tip toe around. The rise of the Republican Party and the Civil War is generally viewed as factors that ended the second American political party system, but those things only could have happened without the end of the Whig Party, and it was not the Republicans who put the Whigs in the grave.

As political realignment was taking place in the late 1840s and early 1850s around the slavery issue, many people in the North, as well as those in some border states and urban areas of the South, felt more threatened by immigration. To these mainly young and middle aged men, slavery was something far to the west, while immigration affected their daily lives in the form of job competition, increased crime, and the dilution of their votes. Men with these beliefs, often referred to as “nativists,” coalesced to form local lodges and secret orders to promote their ideas, eventually becoming known as “Know Nothings” due to their secrecy.

The Know Nothings offered disaffected voters many things that neither party did or could at the time and they were a true populist movement. In fact, by the mid-1850s it looked like the Know Nothings, many of whom formed the American Party, would become the Whigs’ successor as the opposition party to the Democrats, but by the late 1850s slavery and sectionalism won out and the Republicans became the second major party, ushering in the third American political party system. Despite losing the political battle, though, the Know Nothings left a profound impact on American history. They were the primary reason for the destruction of the Whig Party and the end of the second American political system, they introduced primaries and other innovations to the system, they brought large-scale populism to the political system, and many of their other core ideas survived to some extent in the Republican Party.

The Turbulent 1850s

Sectionalism and the slavery issue continued to grow throughout the Jacksonian Period, with most of the United States’ notable leaders from both the Democrat and Whig parties knowing that it had the potential of permanently dividing the nation. If there was one thing that the Democrats and Whigs agreed on, it was to compromise in order to keep the union intact. The spirit of compromise led to the Compromise of 1850, which made the Fugitive Slave Act the law of the land, but also ended the slave trade in the District of Columbia. The Compromise of 1850 did little to quell the growing discontent caused by slavery, though, especially as new territories in the West began opening for settlement.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which was introduced by Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, introduced the idea of “popular sovereignty” to the territories, essentially nullifying the Missouri Compromise of 1820. This was too much for many Whigs in the Midwest and Northeast, who saw the Kansas-Nebraska Act as an extension of slave power, so they began bolting from the party to form the Republican Party that year. [1] But as important as the slavery issue was in the 1850s, two other issues were just as important, if not more so to many people in the north: temperance and nativism/immigration. [2] It would be the issue of immigration that ultimately decided the course of the second American political system.

Nativism and Populism

Nativist and anti-immigration sentiments had not been major part of American political discourse before the 1840s, but after that decade, due to increased immigration it became more popular. Nativism was nurtured by a new found political populism and the idea that political conspiracies were at work to deny Americans of their freedoms. Conservative Whigs pointed to the Southern Democrats’ support of “slave power” on the one hand, while on the other they argued that Northern Democrats were equally under the thumb of conspiratorial elites, most notably the Catholic Church. [3]

In order to combat the growing power of the “papists” and other new immigrant groups, a group of like minded men formed the Order of United American (OUA) in 1844. First proposed by famous publisher John Harper and his colleague Thomas R. Whitney, the secret organization boasted more than 30,000 members in New York alone in 1855. [4]

The OUA was more of a secret society similar to the Masons more than a political party, but it supported particular candidates who shared their nativist views. Although nativism may have been the primary philosophy of the OUA, it was also opposed to the expansion of slavery. The OUA did, though, support compromise with slave states because they believed that the union was more important than pursuing a radical antislavery agenda. The OUA may have opposed the extension of slavery, but they were by no means racial egalitarians like many of the abolitionists were and they generally did not have a problem with the Kansas-Nebraska Act. [5]

As nativism become a bigger issue in the early 1850s, more nativist organizations formed, such as the Order of the Star Spangled Banner in 1849. Following the secret society model of the OAU, if members of the Order of the Star Spangled Banner were asked by outsiders if they were members, they would routinely answer, “I know nothing,” which is how the greater nativist movement of the 1850s became known as the “Know Nothing” movement. Know Nothing membership was primarily urban, skilled workers and businessmen who were working poor to middle class and most were in their late twenties to forties. At its height in the mid-1850s, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner boasted 800,000 to 1.5 million members. [6] The Order of the Star Spangled Banner benefited when Thomas Whitney and other OUA members bolted for the newer nativist group, [7]

Immigration was without a doubt the single most important factor that drove the ranks of the Know Nothings. More than three million immigrants came to the United States between 1845 and 1854, with four out of five of those coming from either Ireland or a Germany speaking country. [8] Culturally speaking, a good share of those immigrants were Roman Catholics, which seemed anathema to the cultural values of America’s Protestant foundations to many Americans. But even the non-Catholic immigrants were viewed as especially foreign and un-American to many native born Americans. Many German speaking immigrants of the era were refugees from the failed 1848 revolutions; they often held atheistic or agnostic religious views and overall they seemed quite “radical” to many Americans. [9]

The wave of immigration also coincided with a recession in 1854-55, which caused economic anxiety among native born American men. It was truly a time of great cultural and economic change in America. The railroads that were being built east of the Mississippi and in California in the 1850s further transformed the economic structure of the country, suddenly making things much more complicated for many honest Americans.

In 1855, the Know Nothings made the bold move of moving to the national stage. They had already supported many politicians at the local and state levels, but in 1855 they formed the American Party to run candidates at the national level. By that time the Know Nothings controlled all the New England state legislatures except Vermont and Maine, were strong in the Mid-Atlantic and California, and were quickly becoming the dominant party in Texas, Kentucky, and Maryland. The Know Nothings were the primary opposition party east of the Ohio River and in early 1856 they looked poised to become the replacement of the Whigs. [10]

The Know Nothings in Power

Electoral Map of the 1856 Presidential Election

The Americans/Know Nothings trounced the Whigs and Republicans in the 1855 elections, but it was not solely based on the immigration issue. Although anti-foreign sentiment, especially anti-Catholicism was high in that election in the North, the Know Nothings proved to be multi-dimensional with their platform. Many Americans were equally, if not more, drawn to the Know Nothings reform and populist ideas concerning the inherent corruption of the Democrats and Whigs and were happy to cast a vote for them as a protest. For their part, the Know Nothings responded by introducing a primary system that allowed members, not the party bosses, to pick the candidates. [11]

The Know Nothings also offered former Whig voters a more concrete stance on slavery. Where the Whigs constantly vacillated on slavery according to their state and section, the Know Nothings took a consistently antislavery extension stance. [12] Again, it is important to point out that Know Nothings may not have been abolitionists or racial egalitarians, but they did offer antislavery voters a reasonable alternative.

The 1856 presidential election was the Know Nothings big chance to take power nationally and become the opposition party to the Democrats, but problems began emerging as soon as they began to see success. The fissures within the Know Nothings were first laid bare during the American Party convention of 1855, when it was decided to uphold the Kansas-Nebraska Act as part of its platform. [13] The American Party then chose former Whig President Millard Filmore as its candidate, but almost immediately the nomination caused dissension in the Know Nothing ranks. Many Northern Know Nothings were opposed to Fillmore’s signing of the Compromise of 1850 when he was president and the fact that he was not currently opposed to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. [14] Fillmore only won Maryland, but did well in many Northeastern states. Essentially the Americans and Republicans split the nativist and antislavery vote, giving the election to Democrat James Buchanan.

The Republicans Absorb the Know Nothings

Thirteenth President of the United States of America, Millard Fillmore (in Office 1850-1853) and Know Nothing Presidential Candidate

The American Party quickly disintegrated and the Know Nothing movement faded into obscurity after the 1856 election. Slavery replaced nativism and immigration as the major political issue in the United States and the Republican Party became the primary rival to the Democrats. Although slavery became the major issue after 1856, it was partly due to the Republicans’ success and the Know Nothings’ failures to market themselves to the American voters.

Know Nothing legislators had few successes at the state or national level, which turned off some of their more passive supporters. In addition, casual supporters of Known Nothingism and the American Party were often turned off by the secretive nature of the lodges and the often violent behavior of many of its younger supporters – Know Nothing lodges were often comprised of violent young men who behaved more like gangs or paramilitaries than traditional American political parties. [15] On the other hand, the Republican leadership knew how to navigate the complex world of the American political system and that extending an olive branch to the Know Nothings would pay great political dividends.

Although the Republicans did not adopt all, or even necessarily many of the Know Nothings’ ideas, they accepted enough to bring a considerable number of displaced former American Party members into the fold. The Republicans adopted some of the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the Know Nothings, without the blanket anti-immigrant invective, thereby capturing much of the Know Nothing vote, while not alienating Protestant Scandinavian immigrants in the Midwest. The Republicans also incorporated Know Nothing ideas on voter registration and opposition to state funding for private schools into their platform. [16] The olive branch was enough for a large enough numbers of Know Nothings to join the Republicans and give Abraham Lincoln the presidency in 1860.


The Know Nothing movement may have had an ephemeral existence in American history, but it was extremely important none the less. The Know Nothings came into existence during the late 1840s and thrived during the tumultuous 1850s, when the second American political system was coming undone under the strains of slavery, sectionalism, nativism, and heavy immigration. The Know Nothings contributed directly to the demise of the Whig Party and although they ultimately lost to the Republicans in the contest to become the opposition party to the Democrats, the Republicans absorbed many of their ideas and policies.


  1. Holt, Michael F. The Political Crisis of the 1850s. (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1983), p. 150
  2. Gienapp, William E. “Nativism and the Creation of a Republican Majority in the North before the Civil War.” Journal of American History 72 (1985) p. 531
  3. Holt, pgs. 152-5
  4. Levine, Bruce. “Conservatism, Nativism, and Slavery: Thomas R. Whitney and the Origins of the Know-Nothing Party.” Journal of American History 88 (2001) p. 460
  5. Levine, pgs. 477-8
  6. Holt, pgs. 157-61
  7. Levin, p. 480
  8. Wilentz, Sean. The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2005), p. 679
  9. Levine, p. 469
  10. Holt, pgs. 158; 170
  11. Holt, pgs. 166-7
  12. Gienapp, p. 539
  13. Wilentz, p. 694
  14. Holt, p. 171
  15. Holt, p. 173
  16. Gienapp, pgs. 543-549