Social historian David H. Bennett provides an in-depth view of the Know Nothing Party’s origins and attempts to get at the reasons for its emergence in his outstanding book, The Party Of Fear: The American Far Right from Nativism to the Militia Movement. He points to the incredible social upheaval occurring in America in the mid-19th century. Drawing from analysis of the way that people deal with change, Bennett points to the growing sense of a loss of control over personal destiny experienced by many native born American men, the complete antithesis of the self-deterministic opportunities upon which the nation was formed. The result was xenophobia, the target those who were not native born and the largest immigrant groups by the 1850’s were Irish and German.
Immigrants proved the perfect target for many Americans in these troubled times. They could associate their own loss of power or status with the emergence of a subversive group disrupting time-honored relationships. In a social order threatened by catastrophe, polarization between the forces of good and evil satisfied the desire for enemies on whom to pin the blame, whose defeat could restore the stability of the cherished past.
(1) David H. Bennett, The Party Of Fear: The American Far Right from Nativism to the Militia Movement , (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 107.