Also known as the Know-Nothing Party, the American Party was officially formed in 1849. Originally established as a secret society, this Nativist group was concerned with the influx of poor Catholic immigrants into the United States, particularly the Irish Catholics fleeing the potato famine, who settled in New England and New York; and the German Catholics, who tended to congregate in the midwestern states. The members of the movement came to be known as Know-Nothings for their refusal to acknowledge that they belonged to a secret society. Know-Nothings believed that the influx of non-Protestant “foreigners” presented a direct threat to the nation's democratic institutions largely because they believed that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church dictated the behavior of Catholic voters, who were numerous in some areas (a problem later encountered by Catholic presidential candidates such as Al Smith and John F. Kennedy).
Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Know-Nothings were Protestants, and many had formerly belonged to the Whig Party. Many Know-Nothings expressed particular hostility toward the Democratic Party for welcoming this new wave of immigrants into their party in the large industrial enclaves of the Northeast. For example, New York's Tammany Hall political machine proved remarkably successful in integrating Irish immigrants into the local Democratic Party. Thus, the American Party platform called for legislation to require that immigrants live in the United States for 21 years before becoming eligible for citizenship. Indeed, during this era, many states, either by statute or constitutional reform, began to introduce requirements that voters be U.S. citizens to participate in elections. Throughout the first part of the 1850s, the American Party candidates experienced considerable success in winning local and state elections across the United States. In 1854, the American Party became a national political party. In 1856, the platform adopted by the American Party at its Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, convention called for the passage of legislation requiring all candidates for local, state, and federal offices to be born in the United States. The convention also nominated former president Millard Fillmore as the party's presidential candidate largely because of the refusal of the Whig Party to fully embrace its anti-immigrant positions. Fillmore managed to win 21.6 percent of the popular vote, but succeeded in earning only eight electoral votes (by winning the state of Maryland). In the aftermath of the 1856 election, the American Party quickly lost strength in its northern strongholds because of its pro-slavery position.
See also Anti-Catholicism; Campaign of 1856; Nativism Issue.
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