The American Party, better known as the “Know Nothing Party,” emerged in 1843, originally named the “Native American Party” with the intent of preventing Irish Catholic immigration. Anti-Catholic activists formed secret groups to support their cause, and when asked about their activities, members were instructed to reply “I know nothing.” The movement first made news in 1834 with the burning of a convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts. The Know Nothing Party officially organized in New York and by the early 1850’s was operating on a national basis.
Know Nothings promised to purify American politics by restricting the influence of Catholics immigrants, who had begun to arrive in large numbers in the 1840s to work in the mills. Fear of Catholic immigration led to a dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party, which had attracted many members of Irish Catholic descent. The Known Nothings were dominated by Protestant men from the middle and working classes, with whom theories abounded. It was widely rumored and feared that the nation would soon be controlled by Irish bishops obedient to the Pope.
Although the Know Nothings found their strongest support in the Southern states, the American Party experienced its greatest victory in the spring elections of 1854 when it swept the state of Massachusetts, carrying the popular vote in Boston, Salem and other cities. Supporters were concentrated in industrial towns such as Ipswich, Haverhill and Lawrence, where workers faced direct competition with new Irish immigrants. In the 1854 elections, the American Party gained control of all but three of the 400 seats, resulting in a Massachusetts legislature in which only 35 members had any previous legislative experience.
Ipswich native and celebrated lawyer Rufus Choate, by then a member of Boston’s Brahmin inner circle, speculated that working-class “Yankee” resentment at competing with foreigners for jobs had merged with “the traditional New England jealousy of Romanism” to produce the Know Nothing movement. He once asserted that the American Party was the only one that young men should be interested in joining, but later distanced himself from the movement.
The highest priority of the American Party’s platform was reducing the influence of Irish Catholic immigrants, and the party became the home of wildly divergent social movements attempting to organize under one political umbrella. Protestant members of the Massachusetts Legislature pushed through a bill that resulted in harsh penalties for gambling and drinking, including six months in prison for serving one glass of beer. The Massachusetts Know Nothing legislature appointed a committee to investigate sexual immorality in Catholic convents, but it was quickly disbanded when a committee member was discovered using state funds to pay for a prostitute.
The American Party was unable to form a consensus opposing slavery, and declined quickly after being soundly defeated by Democrat James Buchanan in the 1856 Presidential election. Know Nothing candidates for mayor in Lynn, Boston, Newburyport and other area cities were defeated by candidates on the new “Citizens ticket.” Most of the anti-slavery members of the American Party joined the Republican Party, which in 1860 elected Abraham Lincoln, who despised the Know Nothings:
“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 appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began 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.” —Abraham Lincoln
Predicting that the election of a Republican as president would bring about the Civil War, Rufus Choate called on the former Whigs to “unite with some organization of our countrymen to defeat and dissolve the new geographical party calling itself Republican, a party which knows one half of America.” Choate supported Buchanan.
Opposition to immigrants resurfaced during the labor struggles of the early 20th Century, resulting locally in the Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence, and the shooting death of a young Greek woman at the Ipswich Mills strike in 1913. It reared its ugly head again with Donald Trump’s successful campaign for the United States presidency.