Commentary: ‘Americans must rule America’: Recalling, with dread, the Know-Nothing Party

Guest Columnist

All this vitriolic debate today over immigration to the United States reminds the historian of one of the worst periods in American history, the era of the 1850s, when the goal of some voters was not only to make “America First” but to make war on prospective immigrants as well as those living in the nation. The result was the formation of the Native American Party, a name later changed to the American Party (so as to bury its real intent of nativism) and commonly referenced as the Know-Nothing Party (its sworn-to-secrecy members to respond “I know nothing” when queried).

Much of the nativists’ fear was economic. The sheer number of immigrants was too great, they claimed. The newcomers would steal jobs from Americans, work for low wages and tolerate poor conditions — all claims unsubstantiated by the reality that the nation in this era was still short on labor. A second fear was religion: the immigrants were Catholic; many were German, did not speak English and therefore could not fit in with “real” Americans. With the papacy guiding such immigrants, it ensured, in the words of one minister, that these newcomers would be “the ally of tyranny, the opponent of material prosperity, the foe of thrift, the enemy of the railroad, the caucus, and the school.”

And, most of all, immigrants, according to the nativists, were responsible for the great increase in crime in the nation. So a 21-year stay, they felt, was required before citizenship could be considered.

The American Party did well in New England states, where large numbers of Irish-Catholic immigrants settled. But its influence spread across the nation, even to the West Coast where Chinese immigration was the dominant feature. In 1854, the mayor’s post in Washington, D.C., went to a Know-Nothing candidate; ditto the mayor of Chicago, who barred immigrants from any municipal jobs.


The party was shrewd. It opposed slavery at a time when the debate over the matter was reaching a fever pitch. And it had the luxury of such a stance because in many states — in New England, for instance — there were few slaves or freed slaves, meaning its stance was high-minded, likely to appeal to abolitionists. Politician Abraham Lincoln in Illinois, although off-the-record opposing the party, refused to denounce it publicly in fear that it would diminish his efforts to eliminate slavery.

The American Party entered the 1856 presidential race, nominating former President Millard Fillmore, from New York state, who believed that “Americans must rule America.” Fillmore was out of the country at the time of his nomination, but he had name recognition, which was sorely needed among leaders who were obscure. Still, the party received 21.5 percent of the popular vote and carried the electoral votes of one state, Maryland. In the House of Representatives, 76 Know-Nothings ran for a seat, with 35 winning. Four years later, the party withered, with the focus then on the necessity to deal with slavery, especially after the election of Lincoln led Southern states to secede.

But nativism was revived later in the century. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act cut all immigration from China for 10 years, the first time that the United States had ever barred immigrants on an ethnic basis. In 1885, Congress forbade American companies to bring in skilled foreign workers under contract. In 1886, it passed a bill requiring that all immigrants pass a literacy test. President Grover Cleveland, in one of the few portraits of courage in the era, vetoed the bill, arguing that what mattered was not literacy — but willingness to work.

The nativist beat went on, however. In testimony offered in 1902, the American Federation of Labor added racial reasons to its usual economic arguments for Chinese exclusion:


“The free immigration of Chinese would be for all purposes an invasion by Asiatic barbarians, against whom civilization ... has been frequently defended, fortunately for us. It is our inheritance to keep it pure and uncontaminated.”

Congress agreed, and in 1902 it ended all Chinese immigration. Japanese immigration was also restricted five years later. Then in the 1920s anti-immigration laws reached another peak, this time establishing quotas that favored countries that had already sent the greatest number of immigrants, namely, Northern and Western Europe. The new immigrants coming from Southern and Eastern Europe were discriminated against in terms of low quota numbers.

Although legislation in1965 made the system equitable for newcomers of more nationalities, the controversy today is more fine-tuned, focusing on illegal immigrants, with the rhetorical lines drawn, as illustrated by former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former Congressman Dennis Kucinich. “Nothing is going to stop me from cracking down on illegal immigration,” said Arpaio, “as long as the laws are there.” Argued Kucinich: “I take issue with many people’s description of people being ‘illegal’ immigrants. There aren’t any illegal human beings as far as I’m concerned.”

Thomas V. DiBacco, a 1959 Rollins College graduate, is professor emeritus at American University.