How the 19th Century Know Nothing Party Reshaped American Politics

Lorraine Boissoneault reports for Smithsonian:

CWBWMA.jpgLike Fight Club, there were rules about joining the secret society known as the Order of the Star Spangled Banner (OSSB). An initiation rite called “Seeing Sam.” The memorization of passwords and hand signs. A solemn pledge never to betray the order. A pureblooded pedigree of Protestant Anglo-Saxon stock and the rejection of all Catholics. And above all, members of the secret society weren’t allowed to talk about the secret society. If asked anything by outsiders, they would respond with, “I know nothing.”

So went the rules of this secret fraternity that rose to prominence in 1853 and transformed into the powerful political party known as the Know Nothings. At its height in the 1850s, the Know Nothing party, originally called the American Party, included more than 100 elected congressmen, eight governors, a controlling share of half-a-dozen state legislatures from Massachusetts to California, and thousands of local politicians. Party members supported deportation of foreign beggars and criminals; a 21-year naturalization period for immigrants; mandatory Bible reading in schools; and the elimination of all Catholics from public office. They wanted to restore their vision of what America should look like with temperance, Protestantism, self-reliance, with American nationality and work ethic enshrined as the nation’s highest values.

Know Nothings were the American political system’s first major third party. Early in the 19th century, two parties leftover from the birth of the United States were the Federalists (who advocated for a strong central government) and the Democratic-Republicans (formed by Thomas Jefferson). Following the earliest parties came the National Republicans, created to oppose Andrew Jackson. That group eventually transformed into the Whigs as Jackson’s party became known as the Democrats. The Whig party sent presidents William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor and others to the White House during its brief existence. But the party splintered and then disintegrated over the politics of slavery. The Know Nothings filled the power void before the Whigs had even ceased to exist, choosing to ignore slavery and focus all their energy on the immigrant question. They were the first party to leverage economic concerns over immigration as a major part of their platform. Though short-lived, the values and positions of the Know Nothings ultimately contributed to the two-party system we have today.

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