The “Know-Nothing” Platform Established
at the American Party’s First and Only National Convention
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The American Party gained strength in the 1840s and 1850s as the Whigs and the entire second party system disintegrated. The “Know Nothings” were xenophobic; and especially opposed to immigration and Roman Catholicism. The party was backed by members of secret societies such as the Order of the Star Spangled Banner and the Order of United Americans, which were dedicated to electing native-born, Protestant candidates to office. As to the existence of these secret societies, members were instructed to say “I know nothing” when questioned about their participation. KNOW-NOTHING PARTY.
Broadside, “Platform of the American Party, adopted by the National Convention, June 15, 1855,” signed in type by E.B. Bartlett, C.D. Deschler, and James M. Stephens, [Philadelphia, 1855]. 1 p., 10 x 13 in.
“V. --A radical revision and modification of the laws regarding immigration and the settlement of immigrants. Offering to the honest immigrant, who, from love of liberty or hatrend of oppression, seeks an asylum in the U. States, a friendly reception and protection. But unqualifiedly condemning the transmission to our shores of felons and paupers. VI. --The essential modification of the Naturalization Laws. The repeal by the Legislatures of eh respective States of all State laws allowing foreigners not naturalized to vote.... VIII. --Resistance to the aggressive policy and corruption tendencies of the Roman Catholic Church in our country by the advancement to all political stations—executive, legislative, judicial, or diplomatic—of only those who do not hold civil allegiance, directly or indirectly, to any foreign power whether civil or ecclesiastically, and who are Americans by birth, education, and training, thus fulfilling the maxim, ‘AMERICANS ONLY SHALL GOVERN AMERERICA.’....XII.—The American party, having arisen upon the ruins and in spite of the opposition of the Whig and Democratic parties, cannot be held in any manner responsible for the obnoxious acts or violated pledges of either....And as experience has shown it impossible to reconcile opinions so extreme as those which separate the disputants, and as there can be no dishonor in submitting to the laws, the National Council has deemed it the best guarantee of common justice and future peace, [is] to abide by and maintain the existing laws upon the subject of slavery, as a final conclusive settlement of that subject....”
Nativism and hostility to Irish and German Catholic immigrants became a potent factor in electoral politics in the 1840s. The Order of the Star Spangled Banner, a secret society formed in New York in 1849, soon had chapters across the country. The corresponding “Know Nothing” movement, so called because its members denied knowledge of their organization’s existence, gained early success in local and state elections, especially in Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, Ohio, and California, among other states. By 1855, those associated with the Know Nothings included 8 governors, 5 Senators, and 43 Congressmen nationwide. That year, the party held its first and only national convention in Philadelphia in hopes of bringing together the many local variants of the movement. “In June, 1855, the national convention of the Know Nothing party witnessed the most determined attempt to unite all segments of the party on a single platform,” wrote historian Eric Foner, “an effort which ended in the most singular failure.”
The national platform reflected the general anti-immigrant and nativist positions that anchored the party. It contained 14 resolutions, and included a number addressing immigration, details of excluding Catholics from office, an end to political corruption and machine politics, public schooling that taught Christian values, and a “reformation of the character of our National Legislature, by electing to that dignified and responsible position me of higher qualifications, purer morals, and more unselfish patriotism.”
The issue of slavery had effectively destroyed the Whig party, which in turn opened the door for the Know-Nothings. Similarly, sectional disagreement over slavery dogged the national convention. An anti-slavery faction left the convention in protest. Ultimately, the delegates decided that adherence to the current laws as they existed in individual states was the best way to keep the peace in the nation. The Know Nothings decided to follow the path laid out for them by precedents going all the way back to the Revolutionary War and Constitution: ignore slavery by adhering to the current set of laws. They hoped their anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, pro-American message would trump the race card. The trouble was that in the 1850s, the slavery issue had moved to the forefront of American political debate. There was simply no way for a political party to maintain the status quo for the sake of political ease and expedience. Much as it had done to the Whigs, taking sides over slavery fractured the Know-Nothing movement as well. In 1856, they nominated former President Millard Fillmore as their candidate, whose poor showing (a distant third behind Democrat James Buchannan and Republican John Frémont) helped seal the party’s fate. Further, antislavery advocates followed the nascent Republican party, while proslavery supporters joined the Democratic party, effectively ending any national significance for the American Party.
Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican
Party Before the Civil War (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) p. 240.
“Know-Nothing Party.” http://law.jrank.org/pages/8005/Know-Nothing-Party.html
Good. A few small chips in margins, some foxing and stains, mostly in margins, one tiny hole with loss of four letters from one word.