After the Know-Nothings
In the 1850s, the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party swept New England. They won local offices and gained the statehouse and almost every seat in Massachusetts’s legislature in 1854. They showed strong in Pennsylvania and New York. Many observers thought that the Know-Nothings would win the presidency—and in 1856 they even ran a candidate, former president Millard Fillmore.
And then, they disappeared. Some went back to the Jacksonian Democrats, but many aligned with the new Republican Party which offered a vision of hope and rejected the hateful messages proffered by the Know-Nothings. By 1860, the Republicans would win the presidency with a positive message. The Republicans transformed voters’ rage, hatred, and anger into an optimistic vision for the American future. And it is from their experience that I, too, have hope.
In a previous essay, written as then-candidate Donald Trump was gaining popularity, I argued that we have much to learn from the Know-Nothings. At a time when native-born white Protestants were nervous about their future and thought the political system unresponsive, Know-Nothings channeled those widespread anxieties into hostility toward Catholic immigrants. Know-Nothings in various states barred teaching foreign languages, prohibited state courts from naturalizing aliens, and attempted to limit immigrant voting through literacy tests and longer waiting periods for citizenship. Worst of all, violence broke out between Know-Nothings and their opponents.
The Know-Nothings’ anti-Catholic rhetoric had meaningful consequences for immigrant Catholics—as Trump’s rhetoric may have for so many Americans today. But we cannot reduce the Know-Nothing movement to anti-Catholicism any more than we can reduce Trump’s supporters to white racism. Many voters were frustrated by the Democrats’ and Whigs’ failure to limit slavery, America’s most pressing problem. Others were concerned about the impact of industrialization and the expansion of corporate power. Most agreed that political elites had stopped listening.
Know-Nothing leaders recognized that they could not win on anti-Catholicism alone. They responded to their coalition’s broader concerns. Massachusetts Know-Nothings integrated public schools. They passed laws to protect debtors from their creditors and abolished imprisonment for debt. Know-Nothings pushed for better regulation of banks, railroads, and corporations. They aspired to make government more accountable to the people. They passed legislation protesting the Fugitive Slave Act.
In other words, the Know-Nothings’ electoral success was multifaceted. White American voters were concerned about deep changes in society, the economy, and the political system. They wanted change and they wanted a party that would help them. The Know-Nothings, like Donald Trump, appealed to these concerns, but did so by tapping into their basest human passions. The Know-Nothings, like Donald Trump, fanned the flames of nativism, channeling many Americans’ anxieties into something dark and dangerous. Immigrants became the scapegoat that Know-Nothings blamed for all the other problems. They united people by appealing to what is worst in all of us. ...