In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

Know Nothing


This portrait shows the ideal, the Citizen Know Nothing. (Edited: Britannica)

Nativism has been resurrected in American politics. The billionaire Donald Trump remains the staunch front-runner, with his share in polls for the Republican nomination increasing after proposing a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the United States [1].

John Higham, writing his book Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925 [2], defined nativism in the following manner:

He believed — whether he was trembling at a Catholic menace to American liberty, fearing an invasion of pauper labor, or simply rioting against the great English actor William Macready — that some influence originating abroad threatened the very life of the nation from within. Nativism, therefore, should be defined as intense opposition to an internal minority on the ground of its foreign (i.e., “un-American”) connections.

Order of the Star-Spangled Banner

Around 150 years ago, the Know-Nothing Party, the nickname of the American Party, was thriving [3]. After flows of immigration, of Germans into the Midwest and of Irish into the East, strong sentiment against these new settlers became manifest.

It was believed that these immigrants, particular those who were Roman Catholic, posed a threat to the native-born Protestants, and to their economic and political security. Furthermore, the nativists deemed Roman Catholics as subversive to the American cause and the republic’s values, because that religious group was supposedly subservient to a foreign power, namely the Pope.

The Know-Nothing Party gained its nickname due to its origins as an oath-bound secret society, the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner. Born in New York City in 1849, the Order soon had lodges in nearly every other major city. When members of the Order were asked about their nativist connections, they were meant to reply that they “knew nothing”.

The American Party

Alongside other similar orders, the Know Nothing Party emerged from its clandestine chrysalis to form the American Party for elections in the 1850s. As a formal party, it called for restrictions on immigration, the exclusion of foreign-born citizens from voting or holding public office, and for the establishment of a 21-year residency requirement to become an American citizen.

The peaks of its electoral power were in 1855, where the American Party had 51 members elected into the Congress [4]. In the following year, the American Party became split over slavery. Its presidential candidate Millard Fillmore, who was the last Whig President and neither a nativist nor anti-Catholic, carried the lone state of Maryland in the 1856 election [5]. By 1860, the party had been formally dissolved.

Nativism today

Back in 2015, in defence of his proposed southern wall, Donald Trump said of Mexicans [6]:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re not sending you, they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they’re telling us what we’re getting.

During his call for a temporary ban on all Muslims from entering the country, Mr Trump stated [7]:

Without looking at the various polling data, it is obvious to anybody the hatred is beyond comprehension. Where this hatred comes from and why we will have to determine. Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.

It is clear that nativism and populism [8] have returned as major forces in the American polity.


[1] RCP, 2015. 2016 Republican Presidential Nomination. Available from: [Accessed: 3rd January 2016]

[2] Higham, J., 1955. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925. Rutgers University PressAvailable from: [Accessed: 3rd January 2016]

[3] Britannica, 2014. Know-Nothing party. Available from: [Accessed: 3rd January 2016]

[4] History, Art & Archives, U.S. Houses of Representatives, 2016. Party Divisions of the House of Representatives. Available from: [Accessed: 3rd January 2016]

[5] History Central, 2016. 1856 Election Results Buchanan vs Freemont. Available from: [Accessed: 3rd January 2016]

[6] Gamboa, S., 2015. Donald Trump Announces Presidential Bid by Trashing Mexico, Mexicans. NBC News. Available from: [Accessed: 3rd January 2016]

[7] Trump, D., 2015. Donald J. Trump Statement on Preventing Muslim Immigration. Available from: [Accessed: 3rd January 2016]

[8] Masters, A., 2015. Against Populism. In Defence of Liberty. Available from: [Accessed: 3rd January 2016]



This entry was posted on January 4, 2016 by in American Politics and tagged , , .
%d bloggers like this: