“Everybody’s shouting, ‘Which side are you on’?” — Bob Dylan
The United States of America is certainly more divided than ever along party lines. A recent CBS news segment showed a couple living on a farm bitterly divided over President Trump. The man loved President Trump and the woman fought tears during the interview due to her fear of the Trump administration. Families are divided over politics. It is an unsettling vision of America—but is it new? The issue of illegal immigration, for instance, has always been controversial, but now we have a case of refugees fleeing violent countries to seek asylum in America. Recently, Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland attacked Homeland Security Secretary, Kevin McAleenan, for the deplorable conditions facing migrant children. The President, under attack for racist comments, called Cummings a racist. I fail to see the connection, but reviewing history brings a revelation that we have been down these roads before. It also brings a warning: a movement, party or candidate can disappear just as quickly as they appeared.
In 1844, Lewis Charles Levin started the Know Nothing party. They began as a secret society. If members were asked about their affiliation, an individual would state, “I know nothing.” The party on the East Coast professed a hatred of immigrants, not of color but of the German and particularly, Irish Catholic arrivals.
The San Francisco branch targeted Chinese immigrants. Predominantly Protestant, they feared a “Roman” or Papal influence on the country and that hordes of Irish Catholics would grab all the manual labor jobs.
The Know Nothings flourished briefly in 1854 with a landslide victory in Massachusetts. They inspired new products like “Know Nothing candy, Know Nothing tea, and Know Nothing toothpicks” (Wikipedia). They did improve conditions for women, but they also banned Irish Catholics from office resulting in riots. Anyone serving a single beer faced six months in jail. Millard Fillmore, a former President, ran for the Presidency on the Know Nothing or American Party ticket in 1856. Fillmore failed, and with the Kansas-Nebraska Act that allowed people to vote on the issue of slavery, the Know Nothings broke apart, some joining the pro slavery Democrats and others joining the anti-slavery Republicans. Abraham Lincoln personally disliked the Know Nothings and their policies but never publicly condemned them to secure votes. He wrote a letter to Joshua Speed in 1855. Here is a fascinating excerpt:
“I am not a Know-Nothing—that is certain. How could I be? 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. 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 equals, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’” (Brown, Recollections of Lincoln, 1914).
Perhaps “our progress in degeneracy” isn’t far removed from what Lincoln described, though white people and Irish Catholics — if not “foreigners” — are reasonably safe from the Trump administration. The Know Nothings did thrive, did considerable damage, and then vanished when the crisis of the Civil War erupted.
I am not the first journalist to evoke the Know Noting party for our times. James Nevius wrote an article called “Donald Trump is an immigration Know-Nothing, and dangerous for Republicans” (Nevius, The Guardian, August 15, 2016). President Trump’s administration might fade like the Presidency of Millard Fillmore and the Know Nothings, themselves, but I hope it is through the ballot box. I know we will never have another devastating civil war — is that really possible? — but a house divided against itself on any level is not healthy. Perhaps one comfort is that America survived the devastating Civil War and we will survive the next major crisis.
Michael Corrigan of Pocatello is a San Francisco native and a retired Idaho State University English and speech communication instructor. He studied screenwriting at the American Film Institute and has authored seven books, many about the Irish American experience.