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‘Know Nothings’ opposed immigration in Lincoln’s day
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‘Know Nothings’ opposed immigration in Lincoln’s day

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In the 1856 national election, former U.S. President Millard Fillmore ran at the top of the American Party (or “Know Nothing”) ticket. His running mate was Andrew Jackson Donelson. The anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic party garnered 21.5 percent of the popular vote. 

Several times in American history a significant number of voters have embraced anti-immigrant sentiment and candidates.

Today it’s mostly Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa, or Spanish-speaking people from Mexico and Central America, that are the target of incendiary rhetoric on the campaign trail and debate stage.

In the years before the Civil War, it was German and Irish Catholics who were attacked by native-born Americans as a threat to their way of life. Back then the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic “Know Nothing” movement flexed enough political muscle to win state and municipal elections, send congressmen to Washington, D.C., and act as a third-party spoiler in the 1856 presidential election.

Not surprisingly, this was also a period of mass immigration. Something like 3 million newcomers, the majority of them Catholic, poured into the United States between 1845 and 1855.

The rise of the Know Nothing movement was aided and abetted by various secret fraternal societies, such as the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, which shared likeminded nativist beliefs. The odd “Know Nothing” name evidently originated from the fact that members would reply “I know nothing” when asked about the goings-on of their “order.” By 1855, Know Nothings had coalesced around the banner of the savvier-named American Party.

The 1856 national election featured James Buchanan, a pro-slavery Democrat; John Fremont, the first presidential nominee of the newly established Republican Party, organized to stop the spread of slavery; and Millard Fillmore of the American Party. Fillmore was a former president (1850-1853) from the collapsing Whig Party. Although he never declared allegiance to the Know Nothing platform, he nonetheless served as the anti-immigrant party’s standard-bearer.

The threat of slavery’s expansion and the escalating guerilla war in Kansas between pro- and anti-slavery settlers and armed invaders brought “monster discord” to the nation. The Know Nothings vainly attempted to ignore the slavery issue, but much like the Democrats and the Whigs before them, they were unable to maintain national unity and suffered a sectional split along the North-South divide.

The American Party was never particularly strong in Illinois, at least statewide, and in 1856 there was considerable confusion as to who was and who wasn’t on the Know Nothing ticket.

For instance, James Miller of Bloomington (Miller’s family is the namesake of Miller Park) was considered both the Republican and American Party nominee for state treasurer. Publicly, Miller disavowed any ties to the Know Nothing movement, telling Republicans that he “never had nor did he now belong to the order.”

In response to Miller’s public rebuke, prominent Know Nothings, including U.S. Senate candidate W.W Danenhower of Chicago and Bloomington Mayor Franklin Price, paid a visit to Miller. According to Price’s recollection, Miller, despite his previous disavowal, now declared himself “friendly and favorably inclined to the order.” As a result, the Know Nothing state council instructed its members to cast their lot with Miller.

The Weekly National Flag, a Bloomington newspaper squarely in the Democratic Party camp, took perverse pleasure in painting Republicans with the broad brush of “Know Nothingism.” With this strategy Democrats hoped to draw away hundreds of thousands of German immigrants whose anti-slavery views made them a natural ally of Republicans.

About one month before the election, The Flag offered James Miller $50 to publicly repudiate the American Party. Two weeks later the paper reported that Miller had met their offer with silence. “If he has no sympathy with the Know Nothings, why does he not come out flat-footed against them, and earn our money?” asked the paper on Oct. 24, 1856. “That is the question!”

Abraham Lincoln, too, would not repudiate Know Nothing tenets in public for fear of alienating a large bloc of potential Republican voters. However repugnant their nativist views, many northern Know Nothings also opposed the expansion of slavery, which for Lincoln and many Republicans, was the far more momentous issue, both politically and morally.

In private, Lincoln dismissed Know Nothingism as un-American. “How can anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people?” Lincoln asked his friend Joshua Speed in an Aug. 24, 1855 letter. “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 equal, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.”

A little more than a year later, during the 1856 campaign, Lincoln wrote a series of letters to Know Nothing supporters urging them not to squander votes on a third party presidential candidate with little prospect of electoral triumph. The collections of the McLean County Museum of History include one of these letters, signed in Lincoln’s own hand.

“Be not deceived,” Lincoln wrote in this Sept. 9, 1856 letter to William Ryan of Logan County. “Buchanan (the Democratic candidate) is the hard horse to beat in this race. Let him have Illinois, and nothing can beat him; and he will get Illinois, if men persist in throwing away votes upon Mr. Fillmore.”

Lincoln’s fear that the American Party would siphon off enough Republican votes to put a pro-slavery Democrat in the White House proved spot on. James Buchanan captured Illinois with 44 percent of the vote, with Fremont second at 40 percent. Fillmore picked up the remaining 16 percent, with the majority of those votes coming at the expense of Republicans. The Know Nothings received 21.5 percent of the national vote, enough to wreak similar havoc on Republican designs in other northern states.

Yet in the end, a majority of northern Know Nothings came to view slavery, and not immigration, as the far greater danger to the nation. One could say then that for these “conscience” Know Nothings, slavery would soon “trump” (pardon the pun) immigration as the republic’s true existential threat.

“Remember that there is one, and but one, great and all-important question involved in this contest — the question of whether slavery shall spread over our territories, and over our states as well, and convert our noble republic into a great slave empire,” declared The Weekly Pantagraph on the eve of the 1856 election. “In this great contest between right and wrong, there is in reality no middle ground. He who is not for freedom is against her.”

Such morally indignant language, based on the promise of a fair and just America, would propel Lincoln to the White House four years later.

Bill Kemp is the librarian at the McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington. He can be reached at BKemp@mchistory.org.

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