The American or “Know-Nothing” Party
The influx of immigrants in the wake of Ireland’s potato famine in the 1840s sparked the nativist political movement of the American Party. Also known as the “Know-Nothing Party” for its staunch denial of participating in anti-immigrant activities and secret societies, the party sought to limit immigration and require that all elected officials be native-born Americans.
A search on the phrase, American Party, yields books such as L.W. Granger’s Wide-Awake! Romanism: Its Aims and Tendencies (1854). Granger’s treatise, subtitled “Sentiments of a Know-Nothing,” warns that the Roman-Catholic church and its followers have infiltrated the United States political system:
If, when our venerable ancestors . . . deemed all FOREIGN INFLUENCE conspiracy against the United States--then the more enlightened . . . people at the present day, should cause every ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOP AND PRIEST in this country who come among us to usurp the powers of the General Government . . . [to] hang between heaven and earth--a warning to their cohorts yet to come!
Thomas Thorpe’s A Voice to America (1855), on the other hand, criticized the naturalization processes that allowed European immigrants to become U.S. citizens. Instead of accepting five years residency and other minimal standards to naturalize an immigrant, Thorpe called for “tangible proof . . . that [immigrants] are capable of intelligent attachment of our institutions . . . [and] that they can speak and read reasonably well, the language in which was originally written the Constitution of the United States,” (page 280).
A search on the term, immigration, yields Samuel Busey’s likeminded book, Immigration, Its Evils and Consequences (1856). Busey does not declare an allegiance to the American Party but he attempts to use the 1850 census “to substantiate any one of the evils enumerated as flowing from immigration” (page 3). In his analysis, Busey asserts that foreigners are more susceptible to drunkenness, disease, “pauperism,” and criminal activity: “One out of every 154 foreigners is a criminal, and but one in every 1,619 Americans. The proportion of native and foreign crime, then, is as 1 to 10—one Americans to ten foreigners,” (page 117).
- Do you think that Granger, Thorpe, and Busey’s claims are accurate assessments of immigrants?
- What techniques and information did nativists use to support their claims against immigrants?
- What factors do you think contributed to the temporary success of the American Party?
- Do you think that certain types of immigrants are currently targeted by nativist organizations? If so, who is targeted and what claims are made?