Sunday, January 29, 2017

Know Nothings

Every once in a while, crusading nativists have their day. But it's only a day.

In 1854, the “Native Americans,” a political party better known as the "Know Nothings," skyrocketed to national prominence, capturing scores of congressional seats, state legislative seats, and governorships. The party so grabbed headlines that candy, tea and toothpicks named after it suddenly appeared on grocers' shelves.

Party members were doggedly anti-immigrant, begrudging in particular Irishmen, who were streaming into the country by the hundreds of thousands to escape famine. But members denied the fact, claiming they "knew nothing" about the secret anti-Irish rallies they loved to stage.

The officials the Know Nothings put in office hoped to take steps to purify the nation of any influence by the Irish, who they labelled "foreign criminals and paupers." But they accomplished little—except to stir violence. Catholic churches were burned and deadly riots broke out in Baltimore, Louisville and New York (the latter the subject of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York).

Because it was ineffective, the Know Nothing Party's life-span was brief. Within only a year, its members found themselves at odds over slavery; most defected to the newly-formed Republican Party. Their presence in the new party troubled one member, Abraham Lincoln, who wrote to a friend:

"I am not a Know Nothing, that is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. 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 equals, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.' When it comes to that I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty, to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."
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