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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Return of the Know Nothings

"Uncle Sam's youngest son, Citizen Know Nothing", 1854.
The Citizen Know Nothing figure is probably an idealized
type rather than a real person.  By lithographer, Sarony & Co.;
published by Williams, Stevens, Williams & Co., NY.
Image courtesy of LOC.

America - the land of opportunity.  Send us your huddled masses.  But only if they are white, Christian, and Anglo-Saxon.  We are a land of hypocrisy.  Our current political situation is abysmal, scary, and depressing to those of us who really believe that all people are equal and deserve the same rights and opportunities.

Image courtesy of LOC.

But we have a history of this hypocrisy.  It seems that even among white folk, some are better than others.  Back in the mid-1800s, there were too many of the wrong kind of whites moving in - Germans and Irish Catholics.  They were considered a threat to the U.S.  There was one conspiracy theory that the Pope planned to control the U.S. through personally selected Irish bishops.

Thomas Nast anti-Catholicism cartoon from Harper's Weekly,
1875, showing Catholic bishops attacking public schools.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Nativism is a term used to convey the favoritism of certain established inhabitants of an area over newcomers or immigrants, so essentially it means opposition to immigration.  It also means xenophobia.  It does not refer to Native Americans or indigenous peoples, but in the U.S., it means those born here, and ideally descended from the inhabitants of the original thirteen colonies.  In other words, WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, for you youngsters).  The term is not used by nativists themselves, but is a derogatory term used by the opposition.

Know-nothingism in Brooklyn.  "None but citizens of the United States can be licensed
to engage in employment in this city."  Brooklyn Board of Aldermen.  From Frank Leslie's
illustrated newspaper, vol. 51, Jan. 15, 1881, p. 340.  Courtesy of LOC

In 1849-1850, Charles B. Allen founded a nativist society called "The Order of the Star-Spangled Banner" in New York City.  It was a secret society, members bound by oath, protesting the immigration of Irish, Roman Catholics, and Germans into the U.S.  To join, one had to be male, 21 years of age, a Protestant, and willing to follow the order without question.  If they were asked about this secret society, they were to say that they "know nothing," hence they became known as the Know Nothings.

Know Nothing Polka dedicated to Everybody by Nobody
1854, Bernard F. Reilly, Boston.  Courtesy of LOC.

In 1843 they became the American Republican Party.  It spread to other states and became a national party in 1845.  In 1855 it was renamed the American Party. Membership was limited further to Protestant males of British heritage who were over the age of 21.  They campaigned for laws that never passed, in particular they wanted a long wait time between immigration and naturalization.

Sheet music cover, 1854.  Raccoon, pumpkins, and cornstalks are
indigenous to the U.S., symbolizing the xenophobic orientation
of the Know Nothings.  Image courtesy the LOC.

Nativism has always been a movement of the dominant culture.  (What?  You've heard that the U.S. is a melting pot and favors multiculturism?  Founded on freedom of religion and the separation of church and state?  That is true.  But the Know Nothings were aptly named; they didn't know.)  In 1834, a nativist mob attacked and burned down a Catholic convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts.  A year later in Philadelphia - the "City of Brotherly Love" - lives were lost in a series of assaults on Catholic churches and community centers.  The Know Nothings killed 22 people, injuring many more and destroying property in an effort to keep Catholics from voting in the Kentucky governor's race in 1855. In Maine, they tarred and feathered a Catholic priest in 1851, and in 1854 burnt another Catholic Church.  (That Catholic priest, Johannes Bapst, later became the first president of Boston College.)

Again, "Native Americans" refers to white people born in the U.S.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although they had some political success in New England (how much influence they wielded is unknown due to their secrecy), very few prominent politicians joined, and few party leaders later had careers in politics.  They were credited with electing the mayor of San Francisco in 1854, and the governor of California in 1856.

Former president Millard Fillmore and VP candidate Andrew
 Jackson Donelson (nephew of Andrew Jackson) ran on the
Know Nothing ticket in 1856, but only won 23% of the
vote and carried one state.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The party grew, taking in many from the defunct Whig party.  The name gained wide but brief popularity, and entrepreneurs sold Know Nothing products such as candy, tea, soap, and toothpicks.  However, by 1860 they were no longer a serious political movement.

Know Nothing Soap, advertising label for soap manufactured in
Boston, 1854, L.H. Bradford & Co., lithographers.
Image courtesy of the LOC

Their platform was simple and included:  severe limits on immigration, especially from Catholic countries; holding political office was restricted to native-born Protestant candidates of English or Scottish heritage; an immigrant could not be made a citizen for 21 years; only Protestants could teach public school; and restricted use of languages other than English.

Know Nothing party platform, courtesy of Duke University.

Their spirit was revived in the KKK, and in the American Protective Association, a society that was not a separate political party but sought to control existing parties, and which stated that the "subjection to and support of any ecclesiastical power not created and controlled by American citizens, and which claims equal, if not greater, sovereignty than the government of the United States of America, is irreconcilable with American citizenship."
Poster courtesy of Northern Sun
So, let's sum it up.  Anti-immigration - check.  Xenophobic - check.  Anti-freedom of religion - check.  Pro-WASP - check.  Sounds like anyone in the current political scene?  One lump or two?

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