THR Web Features   /   November 22, 2016

After the Know-Nothings

Guest Blogger

Pro-Trump chalk messages at Virginia Commonwealth University. Eli Christman via Flickr.


In the 1850s, the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party swept New England. They won local offices and gained the statehouse and almost every seat in Massachusetts’s legislature in 1854. They showed strong in Pennsylvania and New York. Many observers thought that the Know-Nothings would win the presidency—and in 1856 they even ran a candidate, former president Millard Fillmore.

And then, they disappeared. Some went back to the Jacksonian Democrats, but many aligned with the new Republican Party which offered a vision of hope and rejected the hateful messages proffered by the Know-Nothings. By 1860, the Republicans would win the presidency with a positive message. The Republicans transformed voters’ rage, hatred, and anger into an optimistic vision for the American future. And it is from their experience that I, too, have hope.

In a previous essay, written as then-candidate Donald Trump was gaining popularity, I argued that we have much to learn from the Know-Nothings. At a time when native-born white Protestants were nervous about their future and thought the political system unresponsive, Know-Nothings channeled those widespread anxieties into hostility toward Catholic immigrants. Know-Nothings in various states barred teaching foreign languages, prohibited state courts from naturalizing aliens, and attempted to limit immigrant voting through literacy tests and longer waiting periods for citizenship. Worst of all, violence broke out between Know-Nothings and their opponents.

The Know-Nothings’ anti-Catholic rhetoric had meaningful consequences for immigrant Catholics—as Trump’s rhetoric may have for so many Americans today. But we cannot reduce the Know-Nothing movement to anti-Catholicism any more than we can reduce Trump’s supporters to white racism. Many voters were frustrated by the Democrats’ and Whigs’ failure to limit slavery, America’s most pressing problem. Others were concerned about the impact of industrialization and the expansion of corporate power. Most agreed that political elites had stopped listening.

Know-Nothing leaders recognized that they could not win on anti-Catholicism alone. They responded to their coalition’s broader concerns. Massachusetts Know-Nothings integrated public schools. They passed laws to protect debtors from their creditors and abolished imprisonment for debt. Know-Nothings pushed for better regulation of banks, railroads, and corporations. They aspired to make government more accountable to the people. They passed legislation protesting the Fugitive Slave Act.

In other words, the Know-Nothings’ electoral success was multifaceted. White American voters were concerned about deep changes in society, the economy, and the political system. They wanted change and they wanted a party that would help them. The Know-Nothings, like Donald Trump, appealed to these concerns, but did so by tapping into their basest human passions. The Know-Nothings, like Donald Trump, fanned the flames of nativism, channeling many Americans’ anxieties into something dark and dangerous. Immigrants became the scapegoat that Know-Nothings blamed for all the other problems. They united people by appealing to what is worst in all of us.


But the story does not end there. The Know-Nothing movement came to an end. If it was not because Americans suddenly overcame their prejudices, what happened?

Like today, many political leaders in the 1850s were surprised by the Know-Nothings’ success. Like today, many were disgusted by the base nativist appeals that Know-Nothings used to gain power. And like today, political leaders had to find a way to respond without giving in to hatred. And they did.

In the wake of the breakup of the Whig Party, former Whig leaders sought to develop a new coalition. As historian Eric Foner argues in his classic book Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (1970), political leaders worked hard to craft a new, positive, and capacious message to inspire voters. Uniting in opposition to the corporate power of slaveholders, the new Republican Party promised to fight for ordinary people against the concentrated power of the few. Republicans shared with Know-Nothings a concern about the alliance between Democrats and Catholics, and believed that immigrants must and should be given opportunities to assimilate. But the new Republican Party rejected nativism and hate. Instead, Republicans offered a platform that would respond positively to the deeper concerns of American voters.

The Republican Party opposed slavery in favor of a country of free and equal citizens. They demanded due process and civil rights for Americans of all colors. But perhaps most important of all, they promised to use government to help ordinary people. They supported federal aid to railroads in order to encourage western settlement. They promoted federal funding for such infrastructure as improving rivers and harbors to encourage commerce. Their 1860 platform also embraced the tariff and other economic policies designed to encourage domestic industries and increase wages. They opposed “any change in our naturalization laws or any state legislation by which the rights of citizens hitherto accorded to immigrants from foreign lands shall be abridged or impaired; and in favor of giving a full and efficient protection to the rights of all classes of citizens, whether native or naturalized, both at home and abroad.”

After winning the 1860 presidential election, President Lincoln and his fellow Republicans made good on their platform of hope. They passed the Homestead Act (1862) to encourage settlers to move west, work the land, and gain economic independence. The same can be said for the Morrill Act (1862) which offered federal support for agricultural and technical colleges in order to increase access to higher education and professional training. President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and Republicans passed the 13th Amendment to end slavery. In short, the Republicans promised Americans freedom, but they recognized that freedom required a government that protected civil liberties and responded to voters’ needs and aspirations.

During Lincoln’s first term, historian Heather Cox Richardson concludes in her book To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party (2014), “the Republicans’ active government had created a strong and growing middle class.” By doing so, Republicans appealed to many of the same people who voted for the Know-Nothings. Unlike the Know-Nothings, however, Republicans offered help rather than fear, love rather than hate. They offered not just economic policies designed to promote widespread prosperity, but a coherent platform that built on American ideals and united a diverse electorate.

Today, we know that the Republican promise of equality in the west depended on dispossessing Native Americans. We are aware that the decades during and after the Civil War were some of the most violent in American history as the U.S. Army battled Native Americans and forcibly resettled them on reservations. We cannot ignore the fact that the Republican vision for American equality came at a serious cost to Native Americans. And my point is not to ignore these facts, but to make a different one. The Republican Party transformed a moment like our own—when Americans were divided against each other, and when anxieties were high—into a forward-looking inclusive vision for the United States.

Certainly, the analogy is not perfect. Unlike the Whig Party in the 1850s, today’s Republican Party dominates both national and state governments after November’s election. Moreover, the 1850s saw a sectional crisis that led to civil war. In this sense, the 1850s also provide a lesson on the importance of building coalitions that can connect voters across the nation. Republicans only became a national party after the Civil War, when African Americans joined the party and advocated protecting civil liberties, funding public education, and increasing economic opportunity for all citizens.

Yet the analogy is illuminating as well. As in the 1850s, we have seen the rise of a candidate, now president-elect, who appeals to nativist sentiments to mobilize American voters. And, as in the 1850s, the political establishment is seen by many voters as unresponsive and, indeed, is unsure how to respond. Like the Republican Party’s founders, political leaders have to decide whether to continue to invoke hatred and division, or whether to forge a new, larger coalition based on a shared vision of the American Dream. As President Barack Obama recently stated,

Globalization, combined with technology, combined with social media and constant information, have disrupted people’s lives, sometimes in very concrete ways—a manufacturing plant closes and suddenly an entire town no longer has what was the primary source of employment—but also psychologically.  People are less certain of their national identities or their place in the world.  It starts looking different and disoriented.

And there is no doubt that that has produced populist movements, both from the left and the right, in many countries in Europe.  When you see a Donald Trump and a Bernie Sanders—very unconventional candidates—have considerable success, then obviously there's something there that's being tapped into. A suspicion of globalization, a desire to rein in its excesses, a suspicion of elites and governing institutions that people feel may not be responsive to their immediate needs. And that sometimes gets wrapped up in issues of ethnic identity or religious identity or cultural identity. And that can be a volatile mix.

It's a volatile mix indeed. Yet President Obama recognized that it was not reducible to one factor, not even racism. Instead, racism and nativism were as much the products as the cause of the problem.

To combat racism and nativism will take more than rhetoric about tolerance, important as that is. It will take a sympathetic ear and an open heart. It will take a willingness to listen to the concerns of Americans who, in the South and the Rust Belt, have seen good jobs disappear. It will take a willingness to accept honestly the challenges of cultural change. It will take being attentive to sources of solidarity as well as division. It will take recognizing that the concerns of many Trump supporters are in fact widely shared by voters of all colors and backgrounds. Indeed, as President Lincoln put it in his First Inaugural Address, it will take a willingness to appeal to “the better angels of our nature.”

That’s the work now before us. 

Johann N. Neem is Professor of History at Western Washington University and a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, University of Virginia.