Good morning. It’s Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020. Despite its obvious flaws, the two-party system has proved enduring in this country. So has a latent desire among the electorate for more options. But despite the obvious vacuum, which is particularly acute today, third (or fourth) political parties don’t tend to arise from the ideological center. The passion that it takes to start a movement is usually on the ideological fringes.

And so it was on this date in 1856, when the national council of an anti-immigration political movement called The American Party met in Philadelphia. “The Know-Nothings,” as they were to be known, assembled in the City of Brotherly Love to agree on a platform that was the opposite of ecumenical — and to name a presidential nominee who would stump for their exclusionary program in that year’s presidential election.

The “Knowing-Nothing” moniker wasn’t a slur on their platform, as you might assume.

In the 1840s and 1850s, the great American “melting pot” at times seemed more like an overboiling cauldron of competing cultures, religions, and ethnicities. In the first three and a half decades of the 19th century, tens of thousands of immigrants arrived on these shores. Then, in a 10-year span from 1845 to 1854, nearly 3 million more arrived to stake their claim on the dream of a New World.

The promise of instant riches lured them from Asia and Australia and other points around the globe to the California gold fields. Most ended up working the land or on railroad crews or in other Western mines — or building the port of San Francisco into a vibrant city — but the point is that once here, they stayed. On the East Coast, the nation’s largest cities were utterly transformed by the newcomers. The reasons for this migration ranged from political instability in Germany to simple population pressures on the tapped-out agrarian economy in Scandinavia. The single most momentous factor in the seismic demographic shift taking place was the devastating potato famine in Ireland. All at once, half the population of New York City was foreign-born.

The influx of the Irish was not, to put it mildly, universally welcomed. For one thing, many of the newcomers were unskilled. They had large families. And they were, for the most part, Roman Catholic. None of these traits made them reticent about engaging in U.S. politics, however, so the sources of the tension were organic, you might say. If this dynamic seems to have contemporary relevance to you, well, keep reading.

We’re now in the mid-1850s. Until that point, two political parties had dominated U.S. civic affairs since the nation’s founding: the Federalists of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson’s Democrat-Republican Party.

To make a long story short: the Federalists had given way to the Whigs. Jefferson’s old party had morphed into Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party. Where do immigrants fit into this model? And which party would cater to Americans who felt threatened by immigration? Those two questions led to the rise, originally in New York City, of the Order of the Star Spangled Banner. It began as a secret society of men identifying themselves, quite consciously, as Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The group espoused xenophobia and racial conspiracy theories. They came by the latter honestly, as they were conspiratorialists themselves.

They weren’t exactly about “dog whistles” — their anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant beliefs were overt — but they were all about keeping themselves under cover. “Omerta” wouldn’t be a thing in New York for another half-century, but discussing the OSSB outside its ranks was strictly verboten. If asked about the group, its members were to respond, “I know nothing.”

But a movement like that depended on converts, and electing its adherents to public office, and so it gradually went public, as did its platform, which included deportation for any crime (including the “crime” of begging); a 21-year waiting period for naturalized citizens; and mandatory Bible instruction in schools. Catholics were to be opposed whenever they ran for office; alcohol was to be banned everywhere.

The Know-Nothings often referred to themselves as Native Americans. This was not meant to be ironic: The term “Native American” hadn’t yet been formally applied to the various indigenous tribes that were fighting a losing battle for their lands against whites.

In any event, they met in a February 1856 nominating convention. In Philadelphia, they chose Millard Fillmore — who had served as president from 1850 to 1853 after the death of Zachary Taylor — as their standard-bearer. He would carry just one state that November, Maryland, but their problems were worse than having a lousy candidate. The seeds for the Know-Nothing’s demise were planted in Philadelphia when a wing of Southerners moved to pass a platform plank calling for the preservation of slavery. This alarmed many Northern and Midwestern Know-Nothings. Many of them bolted to another newly formed political entity, with a clearer and more inclusive political vision: the Republican Party.

Echoes of conflicting cross-currents still exist in our politics today, and not only within the GOP. One comforting thought is that Abraham Lincoln, as usual, saw things clearly — and before almost anyone else.

“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be?” he wrote in an Aug. 24, 1855 letter to Joshua F. Speed. “How can anyone 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,” Lincoln continued. (I have retained his spelling and capitalization.) “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.” 

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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