Industrial Revolution Conflicts
As immigration from Europe increased in the early 1800s, citizens who had been born in the United States began to feel resentment at the new arrivals. Those opposed to immigrants became known as nativists. Violent encounters between immigrants and “native-born Americans” would occasionally occur in American cities in the 1830s and early 1840s. In July 1844, riots broke out in the city of Philadelphia. Nativists battled Irish immigrants, and two Catholic churches and a Catholic school were burned by mobs. At least 20 people were killed in the mayhem.
Several small political parties promoting nativist doctrine existed, among them the American Party and the Nativist Party. Of all the American political parties in the 19th century, perhaps none generated more controversy than the Know-Nothing Party, or the Know-Nothings. Officially known as the American Party, it actually emerged from secret societies opposed to immigrants coming to America.
At the same time, secret societies, such as the Order of United Americans and the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, sprang up in American cities. Their members were sworn to keep immigrants out of America, or at the least, to keep them out of mainstream society once they arrived.
Members of established political parties were at times baffled by these organizations, as their leaders would not publicly reveal themselves. And members, when asked about the organizations, were instructed to answer, “I know nothing.” That cryptic answer led to the political party which grew out of the secret societies being commonly called the “Know-Nothings.” The party’s official name was the American Party, and it formed in 1849.
Many Americans, of course, were appalled by the Know-Nothings. Abraham Lincoln expressed his own disgust with the political party in a letter written in 1855. Lincoln noted that if the Know-Nothings ever took power, the Declaration of Independence would have to be amended to say that all men are created equal "except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics." Lincoln went on to say he would rather emigrate to Russia, where despotism is out in the open, then live in such an America.
The basic principle of the party was a strong stand against immigration and immigrants. Know-Nothing candidates had to be born in the United States. And there was also a concerted effort to change the laws so that only immigrants who had lived in the US for 25 years could become citizens. Such a lengthy residency requirement for citizenship had a deliberate purpose: it would mean that recent arrivals, especially the Irish Catholics coming to the US in great numbers, would not be able to vote for many years.
In the mid-1850s, the American Party, which had been neutral on the slavery issue, came to support the pro-slavery position. As the power base of Know-Nothings was in the northeast, it proved to be the wrong position to take. The stance on slavery probably hastened the decline of the Know-Nothings.
The nativist movement in America did not begin with the Know-Nothings, and it certainly didn’t end with them. Prejudice against new immigrants continued throughout the 19th century (and, of course, it has never ended completely).