The Know-Nothing Party and How It Got Its Strange Name

Chuck Banner | February 16th, 2017

They say that history repeats itself, and that seems to hold some weight while looking at the origins of the Know-Nothing Party. With a humble beginning in the 1849 creation of the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, a secret society protesting the rise of Roman Catholic, Irish, and German immigration in the United States, the party was firmly anti-immigrant. One of this club’s main tenets was that America was under siege by a wave of new, Catholic immigrants who were loyal not to American law, but to the Pope in Rome. They also feared that Catholicism would soon replace Protestantism as the majority religion in the United States. But it wasn’t just Catholics they disliked; as nativists, they were wary of all new immigration.

The name “Know-Nothings” wasn’t a dig at their beliefs, but rather a nickname stemming from the fact that the movement was secretive, so that when asked what they knew about the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, men would reply, “I know nothing.” The name Know-Nothings was first coined by newspaper editor Horace Greeley, but it would stick and become one of the oddest political party names in American history (second only perhaps to Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party.)

The Know-Nothing movement was overwhelmingly composed of Protestant men, and its main goals were to curb or halt immigration. The party achieved its greatest success in northern states, especially Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York, but soon had its problems dealing with an anti-slavery platform espoused by some of its Southern members.

By 1855, the Know-Nothings had shed most of their secretive air and officially entered the political arena under its alternate (and more flattering) name, the American Party. The party nominated Millard Fillmore for president in 1856, but by that time, it was harshly divided over the issue of slavery. Fillmore received a puny 23% of the popular vote and carried only one state, which was a big blow to an already crumbling party.

The Know-Nothing Party shares obvious similarities to Trump’s America in 2017, with its firm stance against immigration and special opposition to members of a particular religious group. However, it remains to be seen if this new wave of nativism will outlive the 5-year lifespan of the Know-Nothings.

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