"A Know Nothing" (Anonymous) Primary Source eText

Primary Source

(U.S. Immigration and Migration: Primary Sources)

U.S. representative Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, a future president, was very much against the Know Nothing movement. U.S. representative Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, a future president, was very much against the Know Nothing movement. Published by Gale Cengage
Campaign poster for Millard Fillmore, the former U.S. president who ran in 1856 as the presidential nominee of the American Party, also known as the Know-Nothing Party. © Corbis. Campaign poster for Millard Fillmore, the former U.S. president who ran in 1856 as the presidential nominee of the American Party, also known as the Know-Nothing Party. Published by Gale Cengage Corbis

Excerpt from the Know Nothing Platform

About 1855

An upstart political party reveals its platform

"The 'Order of Know Nothings' … are Americans by birth, the descendants of those who laid the foundation of our national greatness, and therefore feel that it is a pious duty devolved upon them to transmit the liberties of our country unimpaired, to the remotest posterity."

In the mid-1840s, the United States witnessed a sudden increase in the number of immigrants from Europe, particularly from Germany and Ireland. Political strife and widespread crop failures in Germany sent tens of thousands of immigrants to the United States. In Ireland, a devastating failure of the potato crop resulted in starvation for thousands; those who could afford a ticket out of Europe sailed to the United States, many virtually penniless.

The Irish immigrants in particular were overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, the Christian church headed by the pope in Rome, Italy. The arrival of the Irish immigrants in eastern cities like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia marked the first significant number of Catholics in a country that previously had been primarily Protestant. This sudden inflow of immigrants sparked a sharp reaction among some Americans, who feared that the character of the United States might change dramatically if large numbers of Catholics became citizens. The result was an anti-immigrant movement called the Know Nothings, so called because members of the variety of organizations that constituted the movement customarily replied "I know nothing" when asked about their association.

Until the mid-1830s, most immigrants to the United States were from England or Scotland or were African slaves kidnapped and transported against their will to the United States. The majority of European immigrants were Protestants, whose religious beliefs were based on a three-hundred-year-old opposition to teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Some Protestants feared that the Catholic Church, which had played an important political role in European history, wanted to exert political influence in the United States. These Protestants worried that the Church would use Catholic immigrants as a tool to accomplish this goal by influencing immigrants' votes. Even without any evidence of Church interference in politics, some Protestants were persuaded that a plot existed and were anxious to put a stop to it. To do so, these Protestants formed several organizations with names like the Order of United Americans and the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner. (The term "order" was used in the sense of a group of people united for a particular cause, often implying use of secret rituals, which characterized the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing movement.)

Under U.S. immigration laws dating from the 1790s, newcomers had to wait five years before they could become citizens and obtain the right to vote. Children born in the United States of immigrant parents were full-fledged citizens at birth. There were several organizations devoted to limiting the rights of immigrants, principally by denying them the right to vote. The so-called Know-Nothing organizations also supported banning immigrants from holding public office (the U.S. Constitution required that the president be born in the United States, but other offices were open to any citizen, regardless of place of birth). Additionally, they provided strong support for public, nonreligious (and, therefore, non-Catholic) schools.

Just as the new wave of immigrants was arriving, one of the two dominant political parties in the United States, the Whigs, was rapidly losing influence. (A political party is a group of like-minded people who work together to elect people to office and to influence government policy.) The other major political party, the Democratic Party, actively sought support from new citizens, which was another cause of concern for Know Nothings: that in order to attract votes from people born outside of the United States who became American (a process known as naturalization), the Democratic Party might adopt policies that favored the Catholic Church. Despite a U.S. constitutional ban on laws that favored one religion over another, such bans were not in place for state governments. In Massachusetts, for example, taxes supported the Protestant church until 1833. As late as 1877, the constitution of New Hampshire contained a clause disqualifying Catholics from holding public office. The Whigs were losing influence, largely because the party was divided over the issue of whether slavery should be abolished. In the congressional elections of 1852, some Whigs, in an effort to retain power, also began appealing to Catholic immigrants—a move that shocked and dismayed members of the Know-Nothing groups.

To combat the suspected political influence of the Catholic Church among naturalized immigrant voters, the Know Nothings began organizing their own political parties. Starting in the early 1840s, a party called the National Republican Party (not the same as the Republican Party that was formed in 1852 and continues into the twenty-first century) elected some local officials in New York, as well as a congressman from Philadelphia, Louis Levin (1808–1860). In 1849, the American Party was formally organized in New York to represent the Know-Nothing agenda. Over the next six years, the party attracted significant support in state elections, especially in New England and New York, states where large numbers of Irish immigrants had settled. In the elections of 1854 and 1856, American Party candidates were elected governor in California, Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. The party also controlled state legislatures in Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, and was the leading opposition party in other states. In the U.S. Congress, an American Party congressman, Nathaniel Banks (1816–1894), was elected to the highly influential position of Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Things to remember while reading an excerpt from the Know Nothing Platform:

  • The Know-Nothing movement reflected two different trends in American politics during the middle of the nineteenth century: opposition to the Catholic Church and concern about the sudden rise in immigrants. Anti-Catholic feelings were not new in the United States; some of the earliest settlers from Britain, the Puritans and pilgrims, came to North America to escape what they viewed as Roman Catholic influence over the official Church of England. As reflected in this excerpt from the Know-Nothing Platform: Containing an Account of the Encroachments of the Roman Catholic Hierarchy on the Civil and Religious Liberties on the People in Europe, Asia, Africa and America, Showing the Necessity of the Order of Know Nothings, with a Valuable and Interesting Appendix, prejudice against Catholics was extreme and unjustified. Whatever the history of religion in Europe, there was no evidence in nineteenth-century America that the Catholic Church was trying to seize power in the United States. The anti-Catholic sentiments expressed by the anonymous author of the Know Nothing Platform would hardly be tolerated in twenty-first-century America, but they were not so uncommon in the middle of the nineteenth century, which was a period marked by a revival of strong religious feelings throughout much of the country.
  • In parallel with anti-Catholic feelings was suspicion of "foreigners." Although most Americans could trace their ancestry to immigrants, the immigration of the mid-1840s was different. Many of the newcomers did not speak English as a first language. Moreover, many of those coming to the United States, especially from Ireland, were extremely poor, barely able to afford the cost of a ticket on a ship across the Atlantic Ocean. Once they arrived, the immigrants were willing to take nearly any job that paid money, and were willing to work for relatively low wages, which was a source of annoyance to workers already living in the United States. Underlying some of the bitterness towards immigrants was the economic issue of low wages and competition for jobs.
  • In California, the Gold Rush of 1848 attracted many newcomers, including large numbers of Chinese immigrants who came to the United States in search of instant riches. Like their Irish counterparts on the East Coast, Chinese immigrants were often willing to work for low wages. Combined with obvious cultural differences between Chinese and Americans, Asian immigration added support to the Know-Nothing movement in California.
  • The author of the Know Nothing Platform points to no specific instances in which Catholic immigrants have acted against the interests of the United States while under the influence of church leaders. The "platform" substitutes labels and insults for facts, a technique common in political propaganda. (Propaganda is writing intended to sway people's opinions without presenting a balanced argument.) The author assumes that Catholics are influenced by their religious leaders to act against the interests of the United States, but also takes for granted that Protestants are not subject to similar influences by their religious leaders. The fact that the Know Nothing Platform appeared in print does not automatically give it legitimacy.

Excerpt from the Know Nothing Platform

The spirit of denationalization was fast proceeding, under the policy of the leaders of the two great political parties of the union. Each [party] had degraded the American nationality, by calling to its aid the votes of foreigners, as such, and in invoking the aid of a church [the Catholic church] which, while she exacts the most implicit obedience of her laity, refuses, in her priesthood, allegiance to any temporal authority, save that of the Pope of Rome, as is evidenced by the oath of her bishops, and the oaths taken by the novitiates of the order of Jesus…. The rank and file, the masses of both parties, true to their American instincts, and deeply venerating the institutions of their fathers, had, previously to the formation of the "Order of Know Nothings," shown their abhorrence of the principles of their leaders, by refusing sanction to the same by their suffrages. The democratic party of Pennsylvania refused to degrade the judiciary of Pennsylvania, by elevating to the dignity of the ermine, a man, whose only recommendation was his anti-American sentiments, and a blind devotion to the despotic principles of popery. The whig leaders did not blush while the newspapers of the party were singing paeans of praise in favor of the racy brogue of the Irish, and the sonorous guttural of the Germans. The time had arrived when the American of all parties must, of necessity, give birth to an American party, a party that would not only concentrate the principles of nationality, which were burning in their hearts, but that would devise measures and means that would effectually relieve the country from danger of the degrading serfdom to which it was about to be subjected.

The tocsin of alarm, that our institutions were in danger, had resounded from the pulpit, but the danger was despised; in fact, it would not be comprehended, how a people, inheriting a soil of freedom from their fathers, blest with institutions which, while conservative in their nature, gave the largest political liberty to the people, sanctioned by law, that the world, either in ancient or modern times, has ever beheld, could ever be betrayed by an effete and worn out despotism. The wily serpent approached our Eden with such caution, that even his slimy tracks were invisible, for a long time, to our sight. Scarce had he raised his head to hiss out his temptations, ere the whole country was aroused. Hearts strong in patriotism, imbued with wisdom from on high, banded themselves together, and with solemn vows of devotion to country, on the altar of their God, resolved to free their soil from the poisonous pollution of its slimy trail. To this original band of patriotic worthies, have been, and still are, associated, hundreds of thousands of Americans, knit together by holy ties of brotherhood, and a common devotion to country, for the support of national honor, of national rights, and the common freedom of man.

The great questions are:—1. Whether the principles of "Know Nothings," are thoroughly American, and such as will add force, vigor and vitality to our institutions. 2. Will this concentration of American sentiment, lead to such measures as will render innoxious, the efforts of a foreign church, with her innumerable forces, and despotic centralization, as well as the efforts of the secret traitors to our midst?

Both of these objects, the "Order of Know Nothings" will achieve. Armed with the consciousness of right, each day will increase their strength, and add fresh vigor to their blows.

The first principle of the "order" is self-reliance. Like the majestic oak of our own soil, the "order," self-reliant, raises its lofty head, and bids defiance to the blast. It takes to its embrace none but of American birth, those who have been reared in the lap of freedom, and whose principles of liberty are interwoven with their beings. As Americans, but one common sentiment of liberty can find a lodgment in their breasts. They snuff the breeze, tainted with slavery, afar off, and disinfect it of its poisonous quality. They, by their united action, give body, force, and concentration to American sentiment, regardless of all former party ties, as the principles of a party essentially American in its origin, growth and future progress. They disdain, and will not receive foreign aid, not even the aid of those degenerate Americans who look to foreign aid, to give tone and support to American interests.

Among their resolves, they will the repeal of all those naturalization laws, which by their tolerant and too liberal principles, have invited the despotisms of the old world, to vomit upon our shores, not only the refuse of their own countries, comprising the paupers, vagrants, and criminals, the outcasts of society, but also those who swell the rank and file that are offered in the market to politicians, by Archbishop Hughes, through the columns of his paper, the "Freeman's Journal." This alteration contemplated in the naturalization laws, is not intended, as is falsely alleged, to deprive these emigrants of any right, civil or religious, but will take from them the right of interfering with the civil, literary, and religious institutions of the country, by taking from the future immigrant the donation of citizenship; it will deprive them of all motive and right of interfering with the laws and institutions of the country. The emigrant from foreign shores has no claim to the right of foreigners who are unwilling to become denizens upon the terms of our laws, many remain away, and if any do come, it will be with the full understanding, that they must be satisfied to enjoy the rights we are willing to give, without expecting them either to rule over us, or take any part in the regulation of our political arrangements. When they come here, they will be protected in the same enjoyments of the rights of property, the accumulation of their own industry, as ourselves. They may expect that their children, after becoming Americanized by American instruction, may have the rights of full citizenship conferred on them. They will be tolerated in their religious worship, whether of sticks and stones, the relics of barbarous monks, or any other pagan superstition, but will not be permitted to destroy the American system of common school education, based upon the word of God, without note or comment. Still less will we permit them to arrange the system of instruction for American youth, as to cause them to be false to the allegiance due to our own country, for either a spiritual or temporal foreign head. The American youth, as the future hope of our country, must and shall receive an American education alone.

It is also the firm resolve of the "order," that from this time henceforth, no foreigner shall hold office under the American government, neither shall any degenerate Americans be elected by our suffrages, who may so desecrate the American principle, as to endeavor, by their votes or influence, to place any foreigner in any office of honor, trust, or profit. The Americans may, without vanity, act upon the belief, that they who have been instructed from their youth, in the principles of free government, as founded by their fathers, are better able to conduct the business of the great political firm, than any foreigner whatever, be his abilities what they may. That a foreigner, admitted to the firm as a junior partner, without a knowledge of its general scope, and its practical details, would be as competent to conduct the affairs of the firm, as the senior partners, who had laid the foundation of the house and had erected the superstructure, would be contrary to all experience. Where is there an old and well established mercantile firm in the whole country that would admit a junior partner, totally unacquainted with the business, and whose habits, and training, and associations, during all his previous life, had been such as to make him, in principle, totally ignorant of its principles, that would be received not only as such partner, but placed at the end of the firm, and the management and direction of its complicated and multifarious transactions? Would not such arrangement stamp the senior partners with insanity and justify a commission of lunacy? And is it to be supposed that an ignorant, bog-trotting Irishman, who after years of instruction, can scarcely be taught to shoe a horse—the moment he is imported from Ireland, under the auspices of Archbishop Hughes, to be put up for sale, to the highest bid of profligate politicians—is competent to understand and control, for the good of the community, our complicated system of government and policy? Is it not a fact notoriously known to every school-boy of this country, that the comments upon our laws and institutions, by the most celebrated savans of Europe, are not only miserable failures, but that their ignorance is apparent on every pages? How then, I ask, can the bigoted ignorant Papist from the south of Ireland, who knows no God but his priest, who has surrendered the right of private judgment to an ignorant and vicious priesthood, in things spiritual, be competent to wield the affairs of this great nation, in things temporal? Is he acquainted with the principles of international law? Does he understand, and is he capable of directing the complicated machinery of federal and state governments? Can he do this intuitively, without long previous instruction, when the teachings of a life would scarcely be sufficient, with any regard to the safety of life, to entrust him with the working of an ordinary steam engine, propelling a boat on our navigable streams? Of what right then is he deprived, if the law of the land should compel him, before he sets up the trade of ruler, to qualify himself for the vocation by years of proper training? Does not the law of his own country require a seven years' service as an apprentice before he can exercise any mechanic art, as master? Could he exercise, in his own country, any of the learned professions, before he had been qualified by an adequate training? Is it not the daily and universal practice for every parent to endeavor, by all the means in his power, to train his offspring, by education and unwearied instruction, to fit them for the great battle of life, that they may be well able to perform their parts upon the great theatre of future action? Can fault be found with the "Order of Know Nothings" for insisting upon carrying out the principles of common sense, in excluding from the control of the junior partner of the firm, until, by a series of years of instruction, and by years of obedience to the laws of the firm, they become qualified for a higher trust?

It is also the firm and unyielding resolve of the "Order of Know Nothings," to have a system of common school education, on strictly American principles, commensurate with the wants of the country. By this they mean, not merely schools, where the rudiments of knowledge may be obtained, but schools of regular graduations, where will be taught knowledge in all its branches, and common to all the youth of the country and of both sexes. It is the determination that these democratic schools shall be the very best in the land. That the instruction, there received, shall be of the very highest order, as schools, suited for the education of princes. That hereafter, none shall be esteemed an American imbued with the learning and knowledge which an American ought to possess, unless he or she has been educated at those nurseries of national greatness. Here shall be taught no dogmas of superstition, but the rules of moral conduct and religious belief shall be fully drawn from the fountain of inspiration, the pure word of God, without note or comment. The language of its instruction is democratic equality, in the sight of God, as this government of the United States recognizes the equality of its own citizens. To preserve this equality, each of the youth of the country must have equality of rights, in education, as the most important, being the foundation of all other rights. Upon the good education of the youth of the country, depend not only their political rights, but the rights of property can only be respected and maintained, either by the general diffusion of knowledge, or [by] bayonets. In Europe, their peace establishment for the smallest kingdoms, equals the largest military force ever embodied by this country. Is it not the conservative arm of government, the only protection to the rights of property? For what purpose are such armies kept up in times of peace? Is it not the conservative arm of government, the only protection to the rights of property? In a pecuniary point of view, is it not more costly to keep up one army of soldiery, than ten armies of school masters? We are therefore determined, at whatever cost, that the system of common school education shall be kept up, and enlarged to such an extent, that every child of the Union shall be educated as princes, that they may be able to give a reason for their political and every other faith; that the avenues of wealth, consideration and respect, based upon worth, shall be open to every child of the Union; that the incalculable wealth of dormant talent shall be cultivated and brought out in bold relief, and made subservient, not only to the production of all that dignifies and adorns humanity, but will, in its eventual progress, raise the American people to the highest pinnacle of human happiness and greatness. The child of poverty shall no longer have occasion to mourn, that he is excluded from the temple of science, but to him will be afforded the means for the full development of all the talent and excellencies of his nature, as well as the repression of the rank growth of weeds, which will encumber, and choke the fruitfulness of every uncultivated field….

In order to carry out the reforms contemplated by the "Order of Know Nothings," and effect the purification of American sentiment, they contemplate, and will carry through, a complete re-organization of the naturalization laws…. The introduction of foreigners, as citizens, with all the privileges of citizenship, could be of no detriment, if they honestly, in taking the oaths of allegiance to our constitution, could feel and act as if they were Americans, and had cast their lot with us for good or for evil; and would join heart and hand in support of these leading measures which have elevated the American name, and made it, throughout the civilized world, a more powerful shield of protection than the assertion of ancient times—"I am a Roman citizen!" These foreigners, as their conduct has shown, still, while claiming the rights of American citizens, are unwilling, even on our own soil, to discard the principles and name of a precedent nationality.

They form associations, exclusively confined to those emigrants claiming the same common origin with themselves. The feuds and animosities of their own country, their antipathies and enmities are by them endeavored to be acclimated here. Hence our peace is disturbed by the barbarous feud of Corkonians and Far Downs, the formation of societies of foreign growth, and for the promotion of foreign principles and views, in our midst. Societies, with the names of their patron saint—such as St. Patrick and St. David, as well as St. George—are instituted for the express purpose of keeping alive in their bosoms the love of the father land. To a patriotic recollection of the land of their fathers we do not object; on the contrary, the want of such patriotic feeling would be disgraceful to their character; and perhaps it is impossible for humanity to eradiate such feeling.

Does not this show, that such a divided allegiance, due by them to this country and their father land, is incompatible, on principle? How or on what principle of political ethics can we suppose, in case of collision of interests of the two countries, they will give an undivided allegiance to this? It is contrary to the law of nature to expect the same. Is not such divided allegiance, or rather open hostility, to be expected from them, to our institutions, when, in addition to the temporal allegiance due to their former sovereign, is added the sanction and requirements of religion itself? Does not the fact warrant the conclusion of their hostility? If not, why the undivided front presented by the Catholics, led on by their priests and bishops, against the educational interests of the country? Why the banding themselves together, as volunteer military corps, with distinctive national names, foreign to our own, made up on rank and file, of distinct nationalities? Were they worthy of the national name of American—were they sincere in their professed allegiance to this country—at all times, and under all possible circumstances, they would rally under the stars and stripes, with the recognized nationality of Americans alone, and would rejoice, as Americans, when the national eagle was borne in triumph o'er every sea, and was gallantly borne aloft, as the "avant courier" of victory on every battle field of American principles.

Had the European emigration, now swarming to our shores, been as limited as heretofore, they would have been absorbed and lost among our countrymen, but they have not only recently flooded us with their numbers, but they already boast, that such will soon be their increase, that preserving their distinct nationality and faithful allegiance to the Bishop of Rome, they will be able, by the peaceful action of the ballot box, to revolutionize the country—to enact such laws as will enable them to uproot and overturn our educational institutions and make us panders to the superstition and despotism of Rome.

Forewarned, we are doubly armed. The "Order of Know Nothings," leaving to them every avenue of honorable industry open, and securing to them the rights of person, property, and the free exercise of their religion, are determined so to modify the terms of American political partnership that they shall be excluded from full admission to the control of the firm, until they show by the training that they have full knowledge and capacity, as well as political integrity, to conduct the business of the firm.

The soil of the United States was either fairly acquired by purchase from the aborigines, or won by the valor and blood of our fathers and our own. We have acquired both the legal and equitable title to the soil, by purchase and by conquest, while the right of independent political government is the legitimate fruit of the hardships, efforts and victories of the wars [against Britain] of 1776 and 1812. Those efforts gave us the undoubted right to model our political constitutions as we thought best. We formed the state and federal constitutions embodying the most enlarged principles of personal freedom compatible with due subordination to social order. Having formed our federal constitution, it is true that we enacted laws to ascertain and define the terms upon which foreigners should be admitted into the family compact. Many have availed themselves of those terms, and have become part of ourselves, and would do honor to any community; while others, and their name is legion, although with us, are not of us. They … will not be parted from their idols. They preserve a distinct nationality, as a nucleus for the disaffected; and openly deriding the institutions of the country, threaten, by their increasing numbers, to place us in the same degrading vassalage to the church of Rome as themselves.

If we had the right—and how can it be questioned?—to enact naturalization laws, have we not the same right to abrogate them? Cannot the power that creates, also destroy? Are not all legislative enactments temporary in their nature, dependent alone upon the will of the legislature? Will not this legislative will be exercised in a free government for the good of the constituency, and according to their declared views? Has a foreigner any right of citizenship, inchoate or complete, except by virtue of the naturalization laws? May not that boon be legitimately withdrawn, except so far as rights are already acquired and vested under those laws? If the boon of citizenship of hereafter to be given to foreigners, may not the terms be remodeled and better suited to prevent abuse? Of this there can be no doubt.

The "Order of Know Nothings," therefore, are resolved to have the laws of naturalization so modified, that hereafter, none of foreign birth shall be entitled to the full rights of citizens, and that the boon shall be refused even to the children of foreigners born on our soil, unless educated and prepared for the legitimate exercises of those rights, by a suitable training in the common schools of the country. The children of foreigners trained in our common schools, taught with the youth of the country, imbued by their associations with American sentiments, will look to this as their only country, to it they will cheerfully give their allegiance, and trained in American freedom of thought, they will be Americans in birth, thought and action, and as such can never be made the servile tools of foreign despots, either under the garb of politics or religion.

The emigrant of the first generation, if he really casts his lot with us, and with an honest intent to benefit his offspring, will readily yield his assent to a policy which will qualify his child to become the recipient of the highest honors of the country, while he himself is protected in every legitimate rights, not subversive of the honor or interest of the nation.

It is to accomplish these leading measures of reform, that the "Order of Know Nothings" has been formed. They are Americans by birth, the descendants of those who laid the foundation of our national greatness, and therefore feel that it is a pious duty devolved upon them to transmit the liberties of our country unimpaired, to the remotest posterity. To maintain our institutions in pristine vigor, to transmit them unimpaired, to protect them from foreign aggression, to eschew all foreign assistance, they know that their own right arm is sufficient, aided and directed by the God of their fathers. They appeal not to force, to effect the reforms intended; they are satisfied that the fraternal associations, banded by the brotherhood of the order, will be sufficient for them by constitutional means, and the sacredness of the ballot box, to effect every reformation for the regeneration of the country. To the laws and constitution they will appeal, and with effect.

A "Know Nothing."

What happened next …

In 1856, the American Party nominated former president Millard Fillmore (1800–1874) as its candidate for president. Fillmore had been vice president when President Zachary Taylor (1785–1850) died suddenly. But in the next presidential election, of 1852, Fillmore was not nominated to

run by his own Whig Party, which instead nominated former Army general Winfield Scott (1786–1866). Four years later, in 1856, Fillmore was the candidate of the American Party, representing the Know-Nothing cause. He won a majority of votes in just one state, Maryland, and after the election he retired to his home near Buffalo, New York.

The election of 1856 was the last time the Know-Nothing movement played a decisive role in national politics. Instead, national attention shifted to the issue of slavery. In the next election, in 1860, the Republican Party candidate, Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), was elected president. A few months later, the United States plunged into civil war.

Did you know …

  • One politician of the 1850s who opposed the Know Nothing movement was Abraham Lincoln, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and future president. In a letter written in August 1855 to his lifelong friend Joshua Speed (1814–1882), Lincoln wrote: "I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy [decline] appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy (sic)."
  • Lincoln was a leader of the newly emerging Republican Party, which in 1855 was competing with the American Party for influence. By 1856, the Republicans had largely replaced the American Party as the second major political party, alongside the Democratic Party. Many Know Nothings joined the Republicans, where they influenced the Republican position on issues of immigration for the rest of the nineteenth century and beyond.

For More Information


Anbinder, Tyler. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Beals, Carleton. Brass-Knuckle Crusade; the Great Know-Nothing Conspiracy, 1820–1860. New York: Hastings House, 1960.

Billington, Ray Allen. The Protestant Crusade, 1800–1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1964.


Watson, Harry L. "The American Party Battle: Election Campaign Pamphlets, 1828–1876 (book review)." Journal of Southern History (May 2001): p. 448.

Wernick, Robert. "The Rise, and Fall, of a Fervid Third Party." Smithsonian (November 1996): p. 150.

Web Sites

Anonymous. Know Nothing Platform. Philadelphia: Published for the Author, c. 1855. Also available at Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image, University of Pennsylvania. http://dewey.library.upenn.edu/sceti/printedbooksNew/index.... (accessed on February 25, 2004).

Griffin, Roger A. "American Party." The Handbook of Texas Online. http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/print/A... (accessed on February 25, 2004).

Lincoln, Abraham. "On the Know Nothing Party." Lincoln Home, National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/liho/writer/immigran.htm (accessed on February 25, 2004).