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Old Folks at Home - cover sheet music

[Detail] Old Folks at Home - sheet music

Nativism and the Know-Nothing Party

Cover of sheet music Know Nothing Polka

"Know Nothing Polka." The symbol on the cover of this piece of sheet music was one commonly used by nativists. What do you think the symbol represents?

The Know-Nothing or American Party came to the fore in American politics in the 1850s. The Know-Nothings, so-called because members responded "I know nothing" when asked about their party's positions, sprang from nativist sentiments that became increasingly common in reaction to the influx of immigrants resulting from the Irish potato famine (1845-1851). Nativists believed that the United States should be reserved for those born here (i.e., natives). They opposed immigration and were anti-Catholic, arguing that Catholics were loyal to a foreign power (the pope).

The Know-Nothing Party was able to capitalize on problems in the existing political parties in elections in 1854 and 1855, winning several contests at the state and congressional levels. When the party endorsed the Kansas-Nebraska Act at its 1856 convention, however, northern members left the party for the new Republican Party. The Know-Nothings' voting power waned, and the Party was not a significant influence in the election of 1860.
Nativist sentiment did not end with the party's demise, however.

Songs were written both in praise and opposition to the goals of the Know-Nothings. "Few days, or, The united American's" and "Thoughts for Americans" took opposite views on the Know-Nothings. Read the lyrics of these two songs carefully and answer the following questions:

  • Which song supports the views of the Know-Nothings? What is your evidence?
  • Which song opposes the views of the Know-Nothings? What is your evidence?
  • How do the two lyricists use the name Know-Nothing in their songs? Which song do you thing is more effective in making its point? Why?
  • What can you learn about the policies of the Know-Nothings from reading these two songs? Write a one-paragraph summary of the party's policies based on information from the songs.

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