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Definition: Know Nothings from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

US political party that flourished in the early 1850s. It was so called because ‘I know nothing’ was the initial response of its members when asked what they stood for. Its policies were conservative, opposed to immigration and Catholics. It became known as the American Party 1854 and Millard Fillmore was its presidential candidate in the election of 1856.

From Encyclopedia of U.S. Political History

In 1854 and 1855, the "Know-Nothings," the nickname of what was officially termed the American Party, gained national prominence by campaigning against foreigners, particularly Roman Catholics, on the one hand, and corrupt politicians and sectional extremists on the other. Briefly, many thought that the party would take the place of the Whigs as the main opposition to the Democratic Party, but in 1856 it went into an abrupt decline because sectionalism overshadowed nativism and the Republican Party began to absorb most of the Northern Know-Nothings. In the South, Know-Nothings continued to oppose the Democrats and eventually formed the main support for the Constitutional Union Party in the presidential election of 1860.


The Know-Nothings emerged out of the nativist American Republican Party that briefly flourished in 1844 and 1845—concurrent with a new wave of Irish immigration. Strongest in cities of the Northeast where immigrants were most visible, the American Republicans quickly faded because of voters' greater interest in the resolution of issues related to the expansion of slavery into Texas and lands conquered in the war with Mexico. After the party's demise, New York City's American Republican mayor James Harper and Thomas R. Whitney, an engraver and longtime Whig Party activist, helped found the Order of United Americans (OUA), a semisecret society that kept nativist organizing alive in the urban Northeast. In 1853, it merged with another secret society, the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, which restricted membership to native-born Protestants who swore to vote only for men of the same status. This group formed the nucleus of the American Party.

Nativist hostility toward newcomers fit into the more generalized and more difficult to comprehend changes associated with America's rapidly industrializing and urbanizing society. Some foes of immigration argued that foreigners, most of whom had fled monarchical governments, were ignorant of how republican government worked. Some Protestants went further, claiming that Catholic immigrants owed allegiance to the pope and acted as Vatican foot soldiers in a plot to subvert American liberty. Moral reformers believed that immigrants drank to excess, committed crime, and were disrespectful of American cultural values. Know-Nothings addressed these concerns with proposals to extend the time to become eligible for naturalization to 21 years, restrict alien voting and office holding, teach Protestant values in public schools, disband immigrant militia units, and investigate allegations of sexual abuse that had been brought against Catholic priests and nuns.

The Know-Nothings also promised to end political corruption and to preserve the federal Union from the threat of civil war present in the conflict between the North, which opposed the creation of new slave states, and the South, which wanted to allow slavery in newly made states. As heirs of the anti-partisan reformer tradition, Know-Nothings thought that scheming politicians (generally Democrats) manipulated immigrants as part of their general corruption of republican government. Know-Nothing candidates told voters that the Whigs and Democrats had become obsessed with the selfish quest for wealth and power at the expense of pursuing measures for the public good. By making preservation of the federal Union a priority, the American Party also addressed voter concerns about the conflict between the North and the South. Some of the party's more calculating supporters talked about using nativism to distract voters from sectionalism.

Secrecy and Antipartyism

Know-Nothings differed from other political parties in their origins as an oath-bound secret society that commanded members to vote only for party nominees. Some attribute the term Know-Nothing to members' pretense that they "knew nothing" about the organization, others claim that investigators frustrated by the group's secrecy coined the phrase. Secrecy and binding oaths, a by-product of the OUA, mattered to the early life of the party because they enforced loyalty that would override voters' attachments to the Whigs and Democrats and prevent opponents from gauging Know-Nothing strength until Election Day. Secrecy reflected Know-Nothing affinities with anti-partisan reform politics that viewed conventional political parties and professional politicians as both corrupt and opposed to the specific policies of the American Party. While the established parties had advantages that the Know-Nothings' covert organization sought to overcome, the nineteenth century's comparatively open electoral laws made it easier for a third party to compete because, to run for office, candidates needed to do little more than print their own ballots.

Know-Nothings Ascendant, 1854-1855

In 1854, Know-Nothings moved from the shadows to contest elections at every level of American government, excluding the presidency, which was not in contention that year. They did so by capitalizing on nativist concerns that the Whigs and Democrats had largely ignored and by exploiting Northern discontent with the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), which required residents of both the North and South to assist in the capture of escaped slaves, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), which opened territories north of the old Missouri Compromise line to slavery. A more general critique of party politics as inherently corrupt intensified voter alienation. Know-Nothings responded to this discontent by promising to safeguard the federal Union from extremists in both the North and South, to combat cultural anxiety by controlling immigration, and to replace venal office seekers with virtuous public servants.

Combined with the discipline of secret oaths, these broad promises, which appealed to a great number of voters, propelled Know-Nothings to victory in the state and congressional elections of 1854. Because of the irregular schedules of nineteenth-century elections, most of these contests occurred in the North. The party performed best in the populous states of Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania. Know-Nothings won votes from supporters of both the Whig and Democratic parties, although they did better generally among Whigs. They also attracted support from new voters who had not cast ballots in earlier elections. The Know-Nothings' victories—they won more seats in Congress than the combined total of the various anti-Kansas-Nebraska Act candidates who coalesced a year later as the Republican Party—demonstrated the importance of nativism to the electorate. In one year, Know-Nothings doubled their membership to 1 million people organized into more than ten thousand lodges.

Seeking to build on its surge of 1854, the American Party abandoned secrecy heading into the 1855 elections, most of which occurred in the South. Although the party's candidates attracted support from both Whigs and Democrats, slave-state Know-Nothings performed best in places like Kentucky, Maryland, and Louisiana where Whigs had been dominant and where large cities provided a base of nativist worker votes to bolster statewide tallies. Know-Nothings lost some key races in the South, particularly Virginia's gubernatorial election, because Democrats highlighted the antislavery stands of Northern members of the party, including Sen. Henry Wilson of Massachusetts.

Sectional Tensions

As the Virginia governor's race showed, Know-Nothings were vulnerable to the same cross-sectional pressures that had torn the Whigs apart and transformed the Democrats from a truly national party into one dominated by the South. This vulnerability destroyed Know-Nothing hopes for the 1856 presidential election and effectively ended the party's role in national politics. Although most Americans wanted to preserve the Union, Northerners and Southerners profoundly disagreed on how far each side should yield on the slavery question in order to keep the peace. The need for sectional harmony had been less compelling within the American Party in 1854 and 1855 because Know-Nothings ran statewide campaigns—rather than a national one—in those years. Southern nativists were staunchly pro-slavery, but unwilling to back the pro-immigrant and more sectional Democrats. Northern Know-Nothings generally opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, but their support for nativism kept them out of the "free-soil" Republican Party. Know-Nothings prospered in the non-presidential elections of 1854-1855 because the absence of a national campaign allowed supporters to avoid a choice between a more pro-Union nativist party and a more sectional, non-nativist alternative.

The Election of 1856

The presidential election of 1856 forced this sectional choice on the Know-Nothings. At the party's February nominating convention, Northern and Southern Know-Nothings fought over support for laws like the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Fugitive Slave Act. A front-runner for the nomination was former president Millard Fillmore, who hailed from New York but who was popular in the South because he had supported pro-slavery measures during his presidency. Fillmore supporters included a united Southern delegation that, aided by a Northern minority, passed a platform plank that resolved "to abide by and maintain the existing laws on the subject of slavery, as a final and conclusive settlement of that subject." Afterward, 63 of 75 Northern delegates in attendance repudiated the platform and Fillmore's candidacy. These disgruntled Northerners later convened a rival North American Party convention that ultimately endorsed John C. Frémont, the Republican nominee.

Already weakened in the North and doubted by many in the South, Know-Nothings saw their hopes to win on a platform that emphasized nativism, sectional comity, and support for popular sovereignty in Kansas disappear in May 1856, when pro-slavery vigilantes rampaged in Kansas and South Carolina. Representative Preston Brooks caned Republican senator Charles Sumner in retaliation for an inflammatory free-soil speech that impugned a slave-state senator related to Brooks. These incidents not only drew attention to the sectional conflict over slavery, but the violence intensified many Northerners' commitment to defy and bring down what they perceived to be an aggressive and lawless "slave power." Fillmore watched helplessly as most Northern Know-Nothings transferred allegiance to the Republicans.

On Election Day, Fillmore's 871,731 votes constituted 22 percent of all ballots cast, placing him far behind runner-up Frémont and the victorious Democrat James Buchanan. Only one state, Maryland, gave Fillmore its Electoral College vote. While Fillmore picked up a respectable 44 percent of Southern ballots, he garnered only 13 percent of Northern ones, the majority of which went to Frémont. Because Republicans had little support in the South and the increasingly pro-slavery, pro-Southern Democrats were in decline in the North, the fall of the Know-Nothings alarmed Americans committed to preserving the Union.


The American Party survived until 1860 in some Southern states and in the big cities of Baltimore, Louisville, and New Orleans. Although Southern Know-Nothings did not explicitly attack slavery, during the secession crisis many of them backed the Union.

Despite their quick demise as a national party, Know-Nothings' victories in 1854-1856 were impressive. They elected 7 governors, 8 U.S. senators, 104 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and took majority control of 8 state legislatures. Although they had supporters in the countryside and small towns, Know-Nothings were particularly influential in cities. The party controlled municipal governments in most of the country's largest metropolitan centers including Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Louisville, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and San Francisco. Wage earners who were worried about competing for jobs with immigrants were key to these victories. Political violence accompanied the success of urban Know-Nothings. Nativist gangs and partisan police believed that existing laws failed to stop immigrant voter fraud, and they often used violence against immigrants who tried to cast ballots.

Because the American Party never held a congressional majority and rarely controlled all three branches of any state government, it could not pass most of its anti-immigrant agenda. In a few states, Know-Nothings banned immigrant militias and restricted employment in public works projects to the native born. Massachusetts enacted a delay in granting voting rights to naturalized citizens. Proposals to outlaw Roman Catholic convents and lengthen the time before qualifying for naturalization failed, however.

Beyond nativism, the American Party combined the public investment policies of the defunct Whig Party and good-government measures advocated by nonpartisan reformers. In their Massachusetts stronghold, American Party legislators built hospitals for the poor and expanded public schooling. Workers were aided by industrial regulation and the elimination of debtors' prison. Massachusetts Know-Nothings advanced gender equality by protecting married women's property rights; liberalizing divorce law; and giving wives the right to sue, make contracts, and work without their husband's consent. In line with Northern Know-Nothings' opposition to slavery, the Massachusetts party passed a personal liberty law protecting runaway slaves and ended racial segregation in public schools.

Municipal Know-Nothing administrations pursued similar programs of social investment, albeit without the anti-racist provisions in Southern cities. American Party city governments increased public works, professionalized police and fire departments, often in combination with enacting limits on immigrant public employment, and permitted unions to strike over wages without police interference. In a few places, such as New Orleans, where a stevedore won the mayoralty, Know-Nothings placed the working class in positions of power, but most leaders belonged to the familiar office-holding class of lawyers and business professionals.

The Know-Nothing Party began as a secretive grassroots movement aimed at combating immigration and political corruption and ended as a political party geared more toward maintaining the Jacksonian era's status quo on sectional issues than in advancing the populist concerns of its origins. It belonged to the nineteenth-century tradition of third parties that brought new issues and new voters into mainstream politics at the expense of a stable two-party system.

Bibliography and Further Reading
  • Anbinder, Tyler. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Baker, Jean H. Ambivalent Americans: The Know-Nothing Party in Maryland. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.
  • Gienapp, William E. The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • Holt, Michael F. The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Mulkern, John R. The Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts: The Rise and Fall of a People's Movement. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1990.
  • Overdyke, W. Darrell. The Know-Nothing Party in the South. 1950. Reprint, Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1968.
  • Towers, Frank. The Coming of the Civil War in the Urban South. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004.
  • Voss-Hubbard, Mark. Beyond Party: Cultures of Antipartisanship in Northern Politics before the Civil War. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.
Frank Towers
© 2010 CQ Press, A Division of SAGE

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