The Know Nothing Party

By Michael F. Holt, Ph.D.

The other new party to challenge Whigs' role as Democrats' major foe between 1854 and 1856 was the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know Nothing party. Started as a secret fraternity known as the Order of the Star Spangled Banner and reacting to a massive wave of European immigration between 1845 and 1855 as well as fear of the apparently burgeoning political influence of Roman Catholics, Know Nothings confined their membership to native-born Protestants and sought to increase the naturalization period for immigrants from five to twenty-one years while proscribing all immigrants and Catholics from public office. Their sobriquet apparently stemmed from the practice of members to say "I know nothing" about the order ifnonmembers asked them about it. In the congressional and state elections of 1854 and 1855 the Know Nothing party actually grew faster and proved far more damaging to the Whig party by siphoning off its adherents than the Republican party. Unlike the Republicans, moreover, Know Nothings flourished in the South as well as the North. By 1856, when the party had abandoned secrecy and campaigned publicly as the American party, many people expected it to elect the next president. But at the national convention in February 1856 which nominated ex-Whig Millard Fillmore for president. Know Nothings split along sectional lines over the slavery extension issue. That year the great majority of northern Know Nothings would join the Republicans in supporting John C. Fremont, and between 1856 and 1860 almost all the rest of Fillmore's northern supporters would become Republicans. Those converts helped Lincoln garner 500,000 more votes in 1860 than Fremont had won in 1856.