Why you should care
Because history repeats itself.
The balloons fell, and confetti too. From the roaring arena floor of the Republican National Convention this summer, Donald Trump completed his yearlong quest to become the face of the Party of Lincoln. The irony behind all the festivities? It wasn’t just that Abraham Lincoln would have likely opposed this sort of nativist party built on anti-immigrant roots — it’s that he already had.
Midway through the 19th century, the country surged with a new political force. Mostly made up of white Protestant working- and middle-class voters, this emerging bloc despised the elites, whom they felt had created a rigged system. They blamed the influx of migrants — namely Irish Catholics fleeing the potato famine of the mid-1840s — for a diversifying nation unlike the America of their youth. While these anti-establishment dissidents eventually formed the American Party, they began as state groups loosely affiliated by one universal nickname: the Know Nothings. As Mark Silk, a professor of religion in public life at Trinity University, puts it: “They easily could have said ‘Make America Great Again.’ ”
Novelty Know Nothing toothpicks, tea and candy became all the rage; stagecoaches and ships were even named after the movement.
As Lincoln finished his freshman term in Congress in 1849, a group called the Order of the Star Spangled Banner got its start in New York with a weekly gathering more fraternal than political, one for similarly minded gentlemen before the creation of Sunday football and poker night. The society immediately differed from other contemporary nativist collectives, like the Order of United Americans or the United Sons of America, because it was stringently secret. Members could not reveal anything about the organization, not even its existence, and most historians credit that feigned ignorance for the moniker the public later bestowed upon it — one which, initially, members did little to discourage.
Few could have predicted it, but by the midterm elections of 1854, Know Nothing leaders had translated their energy into a political force, crafting a slate of candidates fueled by the grass roots in a fashion similar to the recent Tea Party movement. The nascent group won elections in Boston and Salem, and, in the fall, swept the statewide elections. After a full year, eight governors, more than 100 congressmen and thousands of local officials had been elected under the Know Nothing banner. Novelty Know Nothing toothpicks, tea and candy became all the rage; stagecoaches and ships were even named after the movement. “Contemporaries were amazed that an organization with a ridiculous name and a proscriptive platform could attain such popularity, and they debated the causes of the Know Nothings’ rise with great fervor,” writes Tyler Anbinder, author of Nativism & Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings & the Politics of the 1850s.
Emboldened by their electoral success, organizers renamed themselves the American Party and attracted orphans of the Whig Party, which had disbanded, split by the issue of slavery and bitter factionalism. Some anti-slavery Democrats also joined the Know Nothings, motivated by their belief that both major parties were corrupt, and similarly unconvinced of immigration’s benefits. The Know Nothings were a hodgepodge of conservatives united by anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic and, interestingly, anti-slavery views. The party grew especially popular in the Northeast, where most migrants settled.
Lincoln wrote to his lifelong friend Joshua Speed about the Trumpism of the 1800s: “Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid.”
The American Party believed Catholics couldn’t be trusted — a belief that parallels how nativists speak about Muslims today. Meanwhile, Irish and German laborers crowded into city tenements and were blamed for a decline in American values. Unlike today, though, Know Nothingers weren’t so worried about immigrants taking jobs. “They wanted migrants to come,” Anbinder tells OZY. “They just wanted immigrants to have less political clout.” Know Nothingers often backed prohibition efforts and laws that pushed the requirement for citizenship (and thus voting) from five years’ residency to 21.
During the electoral wave of ’54, Lincoln was in Illinois and had just re-entered politics to fight the pro-slavery Kansas-Nebraska Act. Although he lost his Senate run, he famously declared his opposition to slavery. That following summer, Lincoln wrote to his lifelong friend Joshua Speed about the Trumpism of the 1800s: “Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ ”
In the end, the Know Nothing movement collapsed, in part because slavery became a bigger issue than immigration for voters, especially as the number of migrants entering the U.S. declined toward the end of the decade. Lincoln did his part to make sure that vision of America never existed — by helping found the Republican Party. And yet, many of the Know Nothings’ Northern base joined the Republicans, becoming ingrained into the very DNA of the Party of Lincoln. “Now that anti-immigrant, nativist gene has resurfaced,” Silk says.