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Republicans, Democrats and Know-Nothings?

It's 1855. What party are you voting for? The Democrats, Republicans, Whigs or the Know-Nothings?

The Know-Nothings started in 1849 as a secret organization with an anti-immigrant agenda. Reacting against the large tide of immigrants arriving in the 1840s, they actively promoted "natives," which they defined as American-born Protestants. Because a large number of immigrants were foreign-born Catholics from Germany and Ireland, the Know-Nothings also took an anti-Catholic stance. The party received its unusual name from the fact that when members were asked about the organization, they were supposed to reply "I know nothing."

By the mid 1850s, the Know-Nothings had grown in popularity and adopted their official name, the American Party. At the height of their brief period of power, they had many members in Congress and ran their own presidential candidate in 1856, Millard Fillmore (who was a U.S. president in 1850-53). The issue of slavery ultimately split the party, however. Most of the antislavery Know-Nothings joined the Republican Party while the Southern proslavery Know-Nothings joined the Democratic Party.

Find out more about political parties and the election process on the Learning Page's Elections...the American Way feature.

Although The Learning Page is designed to help educators use the Library's American Memory collections to teach history and culture, anyone can learn from it.

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