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Whaddya Know About the Know-Nothings?
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Title: The Legacy of the Know-Nothings

Daphne and Grace discuss the Know-Nothings
In 1850, three men sat together and may have had the following conversation:

Bob: "Hey Dave, do you know anything about this new political party? I hear they meet secretly around town."

Dave: "No man, I don't know what you're talking about."

Bob: "C'mon! You haven't heard of it?"

Dave: "Er...no."

Bob: "What about you, Bill? What do you know?"

Bill: "Can't say I know what you're talking about, Bob."

Bob: "I can't believe you guys -- you're a bunch of Know Nothings!"

Shrouded in secrecy, their members unwilling to be publicly recognized, the Know-Nothing party caused political uproar during the 1850s. They came out of nowhere and elected eight governors, more than 100 congressmen and the mayors of Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, all within four years of their founding. How? Why? Huh? If this is sounding too confusing, let me explain.

In 1850, a man named Charles B. Allen founded a secret society called "The Order of the Star Spangled Banner" to protest a lot of things, including the number of immigrants coming to America. Sounds familiar? Back in those days, a lot of people were upset at the large influx of immigrants, especially Irish and German Catholic, arriving here. Between 1820 and 1845, the number of newcomers had been steady - 10,000 to 100,000 a year. Then immigration surged: from 1845 to 1854, some 2.9 million people, most of them Irish and German, poured into cities like Boston and New York. That's more people arriving here than in the previous 70 years combined!

Although this building is now a museum, it used to be a gathering place for Know-Nothings
Imagine the chaos: the new immigrants were often poor, sick, and desperate for jobs. They crowded into already crowded cities, competed for jobs and, in the eyes of Mr. Allen, became part of the problem. The Order that he founded became the Know-Nothing party. It had a few tenets and they were:

  • Protestants were good;
  • Catholics were bad;
  • White Protestant males were good;
  • Catholic immigrants were bad;
  • Drinking was bad;
  • Irishmen were drunks and therefore bad;
  • Politicians from the two political parties were corrupt.

The infamous peephole!
OK, so I'm simplifying things a bit, but basically the Know-Nothing party was made up of people with many prejudices, especially against Catholic immigrants. They didn't like them and they tried like hell to stop them from coming to America. They supported laws that would prevent immigrants from running for office, raise the waiting period for naturalization (that's when a citizen from another country gives up her citizenship and becomes American) from 5 to 21 years, limit the sale of alcohol, and restrict public-school teaching to Protestants. In other words, they wanted America to be the land of the Protestant free and home of Protestant brave, and no one else.

Sounds pretty scary and it was. Scarier still was the fact that in 1854, the Know-Nothings gained many political victories, taking many states, especially Massachusetts, by surprise, and had over a million members. Teddy and I visited a building in a small town in western Mass. called Ashfield where members would meet in secret. They would climb a hidden staircase to the second floor, whisper a password through a peephole, and only then be allowed inside. Afterwards, if people asked them about it, they'd say, "I know nothing."

Teddy says, 'Let me in!'
Why did so many people support the Know-Nothings? What accounted for their popularity? Well, there were several issues, such as tensions over mass immigration, Catholic-Protestant divisions, disillusionment with professional politicians, and the failure of political parties to deal with the social and economic problems of the time.

What this all means is that times were hard for the average working man. He found himself working longer hours for less pay under a system that didn't offer him any social security, tax relief or childcare. He and his family lived in a slum dwelling with no access to clean water, heat or plumbing. He noticed that rich people went on getting richer, while he and his buddies could barely scrape up enough money to feed their families. And he grew disgusted at the politicians who did nothing to help the poor and everything to help the rich.

So in came the Know-Nothing party, telling him that immigrants were taking his job, that politicians were corrupt and didn't care about the working class, and that the only way to improve the situation was to turn the government back to the people. The Know-Nothings struck a chord - and won landslide elections in the process. And some of the reforms they passed in states like Massachusetts weren't all bad. For instance, they abolished the law that automatically sent debtors to prison, and also enacted safety measures for railroad crossings.

Teddy and Daphne, pretending to be in a Know-Nothing meeting, were caught off guard!
The Know-Nothings didn't last for very long. By 1857, because of a variety of reasons - slavery, the new Republican Party, tensions between the North and South - their support base disintegrated. Not long after, the US fought the Civil War and the history of the Know-Nothing party lay mostly forgotten.

So why write about it? What can we learn from a fleeting political party that didn't even last a decade?

A lot, it turns out. The same issues that rallied hundreds of thousands of people to vote for the Know-Nothing party are alive and kicking today. Immigrants continue to be blamed for many of America's problems, even as politicians ignore underlying causes. Because we're in the middle of an economic boom, racial and social tensions have eased off a bit - unemployment is down and everyone appears to be more or less happy. But the gap between the rich and poor is not closing; in fact, it's widening. And one out of every five kids is hungry - three-quarters of them children of the working poor.

The Know-Nothings taught us that if these problems are not solved within the existing political system, then people will look for alternatives. They will look for other people to blame. Although the Know-Nothings movement died out, its ideas did not. Organized bigotry - that is, hatred towards a particular group of people - continues.


Sniffle, sniffle... I hate cats!

The Know-Nothing movement taught us something else (a good thing): people CAN make a difference. If and when enough people feel strongly about something, they can act to change the system. In the 1850s, the masses found their voice by voting for a third party that offered an alternative to a system they felt had deserted them. In the years since, other third parties have sprung out for the same reasons. As we enter a new millenium, which groups in America are still struggling to find a voice? What alternatives do they have? And, most importantly, how can your voice help?


Please email me at: daphne@ustrek.org


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MAD - Give nasty, old poverty a kick in the shin!