Winner of the Avery O. Craven Award of the Organization of American Historians
New York Times 1992 Notable Book of the Year
Chosen by The Gustavus Myers Center as a 1992 Outstanding Book on Human Rights in the United States Outstanding Book on Human Rights
Dr. Anbinder is chair of the Department of History at The George Washington University. You can view his complete C.V. here.
Few would argue that a resurgence of nativism in the mid-19th century had a rational footing. It was, rather, “a nonrational response to contemporary problems” in “an age of social upheaval, an age of deprivation, stress, and imminent disaster.”
The nation was not facing civil war because of immigration from Ireland and Germany. The dislocations of urban-industrial growth were not produced by the newcomers, more victims than villains in this story. Attacking the Irish would not resolve the dilemma of sectional strife. Striking out at the aliens would not bring an end to socioeconomic changes or even the illusion of stability.
But embracing an antialien movement would allow frustrated nativists a sense of “escape from the central problems of their time. Unwilling to accept the dark side of their American experience—the wages of slavery, the stresses of a competitive culture, the crisis of community—they struck out at the most vulnerable group within their midst.” Thus Bennett posits, “the Know Nothing movement and the great appeal of nativism are found in concerns about immigration and historic fears of Catholicism.”
Many nativists thought the solution to the growing turmoil was to return to that which was familiar in the nation’s past, waging battle against an invading alien threat.
Americanists constructed a polarized world in which the enemy (now Catholic Irish and Germans) was an alien intruder and they were the “chosen people.”
In the end, Bennett asserts, the membership of the American Party would discover that “the issues over which they differed were as important as the religious, ethnic, and political bonds that united them.” Even though they achieved considerable early success as a party, they had not found a way to handle the great divisive issue of the day, slavery.
About the image.
A memorial to nativist casualties of the violent clashes occurring between anti-foreigner “Native Americans” and Irish-American Catholics in Kensington, Philadelphia, May 6 through 8, 1844. The female figure of Columbia holds a large, billowing American flag near a broken column on which she places a wreath. On the column are the names of those Native Americans killed during the attacks on Catholic homes and institutions. At the top of the list, circled by Columbia’s wreath, is the name of George Schiffler, the first and most famous of the nativist martyrs. Other names inscribed on the column are: Wright, Rhinedollar, Greble, Stillwell, Hammitt, Ramsey, and Cox. To the right of Columbia is an American eagle supporting a shield with the names of the wounded, including: Peale (the artist?), Whitecar, Lescher, Young, Wiseman, Willman, Schufelbaugh, Yocum, Ardis, Boggs, Ford, Bartleson, and Ort. Above the figure floats a streamer with the print’s title. Below a similar banner reads “Deceased—-We Revere Their Memory—Wounded—We Cherish And Reward Them—.”
Medium: lithograph on wove paper
Published by Colon & Adriance, 28 & 29 Arcade, 1844.
Library of Congress Call Number: LOT 10615-34 [item] [P&P]
With the election of 1854, a stunning demonstration of the Know Nothings’ magnetic appeal, nativism became a new American rage.
Know Nothing candy, Know Nothing tea, and Know Nothing toothpicks were marketed, buses and stagecoaches received the charmed name, the clipper ship Know Nothing was launched in New York. Books appeared with “KN” on the cover, “Know Nothing” poems found easy publication, and the widely circulated Know Nothing Almanac or True American’s Manual was issued. The Almanac had schedules for sunset and moon phases mixed with a potpourri of nativist polemics, including stories of Catholic machinations in Ireland, statistics of foreigners in the almshouses and charity hospitals, as well as warnings of every kind of alien conspiracy. (1)
What had humble beginnings, as a fraternity, was now the American party. “Those in the movement remained proud of the secret order at the heart of the political organization.” (1) —— (1) David H. Bennett, The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History, 115.
About the image:An illustrated advertising label for soap manufactured in Boston, interesting for its imagery and allusion to the popular “Know Nothing” or nativist movement. In the foreground are two American Indians, emblematic of the movement’s prejudice against the foreign-born. In the lower right is a seated brave, leaning against a rock and holding a pipe. Above him a large American flag, with thirty-one stars, unfurls across the main picture area. The flag is supported in the upper left corner by an Indian woman, who points to the words “Know Nothing Soap” emblazoned on it. In the background is a landscape with tepees and a campfire on the bank of a stream. Medium:1 print : lithograph printed in red, grey, blue, and black on coated paper ; 15.2 x 12.6 cm. (image) Created/Published:1854.
Historian James McPherson points out that the membership in the Know Nothings was “drawn primarily from young men in white-collar and skilled blue-collar occupations. A good many of them were new voters. One analysis showed that men in their twenties were twice as likely to vote Know Nothing as men over thirty.” (1)
Their leaders were also “new men” in politics who reflected the social backgrounds of their constituency. In Pittsburg, more than half of the Know-Nothing leaders were under thirty-five and nearly half were artisans and clerks. Know Nothings elected to the Massachusetts legislature in 1854 consisted mainly of skilled workers, rural clergymen, and clerks in various enterprises. Maryland’s leaders were younger and less affluent than their Democratic counterparts.” (1)
For more information on the Know Nothing Party in Massachusetts, see the Massachusetts Historical Society here.
Historian David H. Bennett contends, “Only in extraordinary times could nativism shape the policies of and give its name to a major party. Such was the situation from I852 to 1854” as regards the Know Nothing Party.
Men of political prominence began to join. In several New England states, the Know Nothings became a formidable force by appealing to the antislavery wing of the former Whig party. But throughout much of the South, displaced Whigs looked to nativism to protect their proslavery institutions. Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act accelerated the movement’s growth; with talk of “bleeding Kansas” on every lip, converts flocked in at the rate of five thousand per week in 1854. Men with promising futures began to seek entry. In the South there were John Bell (right), to be presidential candidate of the Constitutional Union party in 1860, and John J. Crittenden, senior senator from Kentucky, author of the compromise plan to solve the sectional struggle in the months before the outbreak of war. Henry Winter Davis, powerful Whig from Baltimore, and Andrew Jackson Donelson became Know Nothings. In the North, Nathaniel P. Banks and Jerome C. Smith, who would ride the antialien tide to prominence, one as Speaker of the House of Representatives and the other as mayor of Boston, were initiated. Henry Wilson, vice-president of the United States two decades later, Edward Everett, a future secretary of state, and Edward Bates, Lincoln’s attorney general, came to the new party. After considering the triumphant run of victories for the Know Nothings in the fall elections, even Millard Fillmore joined, taking the secret rites of the Star Spangled Banner in his own home in late winter.
David H. Bennett, The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History, 114.
In the spring of 1850, another nativist fraternity, The Order of the Star Spangled Banner (OSSB) was founded in New York City by Charles B. Allen, a thirty-four-year-old commercial agent born and educated in Massachusetts. (1) At first a simple “local fellowship numbering no more than three dozen men, there was little to distinguish their order from many other ‘patriotic’ groups, little reason for anyone to expect that it would be the core of a major political party, the greatest achievement of nativism in America.” (1) By 1852, it began to grow quickly and leaders of the Order of United Americans (OUA) took notice. Many of their membership joined and the OSSB membership swelled “from under fifty to a thousand in three months.” (1) Later that year, the two organizations joined under the leadership of James Barker and, with astute organizational skill, hundreds of lodges were formed “all over the country with an estimated membership ranging up to a million or more.” (2) Those who joined promised, as a part of secret rituals, to “vote for no one except native-born Protestants for public office” and “the Order endorsed certain candidates or nominated its own” in secret councils. Because their rules required them to say they “knew nothing” about the organization if asked, the movement became known as the “Know Nothings” (3)
About the image: Cropping of Order of United Americans / M. Lafever, del. ; drawn on Stone by K[arl] Gildemeister.
Library of Congress Call Number:PGA – Nagel & Weingaertner–Order… (D size) [P&P]
REPRODUCTION NUMBER:LC-DIG-pga-02260 (digital file from original print)
LC-USZ62-91369 (b&w film copy neg.)
SUMMARY:A certificate for the nativist fraternal organization the Order of United Americans. The central illustration shows one of the society’s ceremonies in the interior of a massive neoclassical building with dome and barrel vault. The vignette is signed “M. Lafevre del,” as is the vignette of the “Adopted design for Washington Monument, New York.” Other scenes include (clockwise from upper right): “Adopted design for Washington Monument, New York”; a parade of United Americans passing a public school, with the title “Patriotism and Education Our country’s hope!”; the inauguration of George Washington; Washington’s reception at Trenton; the capture of Major Andr; the American Army at Valley Forge; General Marion at Snow Island; the Battle of Trenton; Bunker Hill; the British retreat from Concord; the Bunker Hill Monument; and the signing of the Declaration of Independence (after the painting by John Trumbull). At the top is an eagle with shield, and a streamer with the arms of the thirteen original states.
MEDIUM:1 print on wove paper : lithograph printed in buff, black, and gold ; image 63 x 48.2 cm.
CREATED/PUBLISHED:[New York] : Printed by Nagel & Weingaertner N.Y., c1850.
Bits of white paper strewn across a prearranged site announced the meeting of the brotherhood. Held at night, in keeping with the secrecy that shrouded its early years, the sessions of the local chapters of the Order of the Star Spangled Banner were open only to initiates and those about to join them in the ranks. The ritual for admission to the lodge seemed endless. But instead of irritating men tired after a long day’s work, the elaborate raps and special handclasps, the passwords between brothers, and the sentinels sent to escort candidates long known to the membership seemed to heighten the feeling of camaraderie, the sense of special excitement at the dangerous but essential mission they were privileged to share. For they were there to save and cleanse the nation, to preserve for themselves that abstraction which some would later call the American dream.
About the image available from the Library of Congress:
TITLE:United American. Patriotism, chari
REPRODUCTION NUMBER:LC-USZ62-91519 (b&w film copy neg.)
SUMMARY:An idealized portrayal of a member of the nativist Order of United Americans [which merged with The Order of the Star Spangled Banner], a society founded in New York in 1844 as the American Brotherhood. (The organization acquired its present name the following year.) The United Americans were established to oppose foreign influence in American institutions and government. (See also notes on two certificates for the order, nos. 1848-1 and 1850-2). Currier’s portrait shows a young gentleman, of obvious good breeding, wearing the sash of the order. He stands before a desk and a chair, from which he seems to have just risen and above which hangs a copy of John Trumbull’s “Battle of Bunker Hill.” He has removed one glove, which he holds in his right hand, and tucks his left hand in his vest.
MEDIUM:1 print on wove paper : lithograph with watercolor ; image 30.7 x 22.7 cm.
CREATED/PUBLISHED:[New York] : Lith. & pub. by N[athaniel] Currier, 152 Nassau St., cor. of Spruce, N.Y., c1849. N. Currier (Firm)
According to Daniel Walker Howe, the Know Nothing Party had its origins in a movement called the “Order of the Star-Spangled Banner” which was a secret society started by native born Protestants fearful of the growing political power of Catholic immigrants. I am on the trail of the origins of this society for a paper due tomorrow.
About the image:
Library of Congress TITLE:Uncle Sam’s youngest son, Citizen Know Nothing / Sarony & Co., lith., 117 Fulton St., N.Y. CALL NUMBER:PGA – Sarony & Co.–Uncle Sam’s… (D size) [P&P] REPRODUCTION NUMBER:LC-DIG-pga-02603 (digital file from original print)
LC-USZC2-6319 (color film copy slide)
LC-USZ62-14088 (b&w film copy neg.) SUMMARY:A bust portrait of a young man representing the nativist ideal of the Know Nothing party. He wears a bold tie and a fedora-type hat tilted at a rakish angle. The portrait is framed by intricate carving and scrollwork surmounted by an eagle with a shield, and is draped by an American flag. Behind the eagle is a gleaming star. The flag hangs from a staff at left which has a liberty cap on its end. The Citizen Know Nothing figure appears in several nativist prints of the period (for instance “The Young America Schottisch,” no. 1855-5) and is probably an idealized type rather than an actual individual. The publishers, Williams, Stevens, Williams & Company, were art dealers with a gallery on Broadway. MEDIUM:1 print on wove paper: lithograph printed in black, olive, and buff ; image 67 x 46 cm. CREATED/PUBLISHED:[New York] : Williams, Stevens, Williams & Co., 353 Broadway, N.Y., c1854.