The Know-Nothing Party Opposed Immigration to America

Secret Societies Emerged as Serious Political Players in the 1840s

Anti-Catholic political cartoon showing members of the Know-Nothing Party
A strident Anti-Catholic cartoon depicting members of the Know-Nothing Party opposing the Pope as he arrives in America. Library of Congress

Of all the American political parties in existence in the 19th century, perhaps none generated more controversy than the Know-Nothing Party, or the Know-Nothings. Officially known as the American Party, it originally emerged from secret societies organized to violently oppose immigration to America.

Its shadowy beginnings, and popular nickname, meant it would eventually go down in history as something of a joke. Yet in their time, the Know-Nothings made their dangerous presence known—and no one was laughing. The party unsuccessfully ran candidates for president, including, in one disastrous effort, former president Millard Fillmore.

While the party failed at the national level, in local races the anti-immigrant message was often very popular. Adherents to the Know-Nothing's strident message also served in Congress and at various local levels of government.

Nativism in America

As immigration from Europe increased in the early 1800s, citizens who had been born in the United States began to feel resentment at the new arrivals. Those opposed to immigrants became known as nativists.

Violent encounters between immigrants and native-born Americans would occasionally occur in American cities in the 1830s and early 1840s. In July 1844, riots broke out in the city of Philadelphia. Nativists battled Irish immigrants, and two Catholic churches and a Catholic school were burned by mobs. At least 20 people were killed in the mayhem.

In New York City, Archbishop John Hughes called upon the Irish to defend the original St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mott Street. Irish parishioners, rumored to be heavily armed, occupied the churchyard, and the anti-immigrant mobs that had paraded in the city were scared off from attacking the cathedral. No Catholic churches were burned in New York.

The catalyst for this upsurge in the nativist movement was an increase in immigration in the 1840s, especially the great numbers of Irish immigrants who flooded East Coast cities during the years of the Great Famine in the late 1840s. The fear at the time sounded much like fears expressed about immigrants today: outsiders will come in and take jobs or perhaps even seize political power.

Emergence of the Know-Nothing Party

Several small political parties espousing nativist doctrine existed in the early 1800s, among them the American Republican Party and the Nativist Party. At the same time, secret societies, such as the Order of United Americans and the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, sprang up in American cities. Their members were sworn to keep immigrants out of America, or at least to keep them segregated from mainstream society once they arrived.

Members of established political parties were at times baffled by these organizations, as their leaders would not publicly reveal themselves. And members, when asked about the organizations, were instructed to answer, “I know nothing.” Hence, the nickname for the political party that grew out of these organizations, the American Party, formed in 1849.

Know-Nothing Followers

The Know-Nothings and their anti-immigrant and anti-Irish fervor became a popular movement for a time. Lithographs sold in the 1850s depict a young man described in a caption as "Uncle Sam's Youngest Son, Citizen Know Nothing." The Library of Congress, which holds a copy of such a print, describes it by noting the portrait is "representing the nativist ideal of the Know Nothing Party."

Many Americans, of course, were appalled by the Know-Nothings. Abraham Lincoln expressed his own disgust with the political party in a letter written in 1855. Lincoln noted that if the Know-Nothings ever took power, the Declaration of Independence would have to be amended to say that all men are created equal "except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics." Lincoln went on to say he would rather emigrate to Russia, where despotism is out in the open, than live in such an America.

The Party's Platform

The basic premise of the party was a strong, if not virulent, stand against immigration and immigrants. Know-Nothing candidates had to be born in the United States. And there was also a concerted effort to agitate to change the laws so that only immigrants who had lived in the U.S. for 25 years could become citizens.

Such a lengthy residency requirement for citizenship had a deliberate purpose: it would mean that recent arrivals, especially the Irish Catholics coming to the U.S. in great numbers, would not be able to vote for many years.

Performance in Elections

The Know-Nothings organized nationally throughout the early 1850s, under the leadership of James W. Barker, a New York City merchant and political leader. They ran candidates for office in 1854, and had some success in local elections in the northeast.

In New York City, a notorious bare-knuckles boxer named Bill Poole, also known as "Bill the Butcher," led gangs of enforcers who would fan out on election days, intimidating voters.

In 1856 former president Millard Fillmore ran as the Know-Nothing candidate for president. The campaign was a disaster. Fillmore, who had originally been a Whig, refused to subscribe to the Know-Nothing’s obvious prejudice against Catholics and immigrants. His stumbling campaign ended, not surprisingly, in a crushing defeat (James Buchanan won on the Democratic ticket, beating Fillmore as well as Republican candidate John C. Fremont).

End of the Party

In the mid-1850s, the American Party, which had been neutral on the issue of enslavement, came to align itself with the pro-slavery position. As the power base of Know-Nothings was in the northeast, that proved to be the wrong position to take. The stance on enslavement probably hastened the decline of the Know-Nothings.

In 1855, Poole, the party's main enforcer, was shot in a barroom confrontation by a rival from another political faction. He lingered for nearly two weeks before dying, and tens of thousands of spectators gathered as his body was carried through the streets of lower Manhattan during his funeral. Despite such shows of public support, the party was fracturing.

According to an 1869 obituary of Know-Nothing leader James W. Barker in the New York Times, Barker had essentially left the party in the late 1850s and threw his support behind Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln in the election of 1860. By 1860, the Know-Nothings Party was essentially a relic, and it joined the list of extinct political parties in America.


The nativist movement in America did not begin with the Know-Nothings, and it certainly didn’t end with them. Prejudice against new immigrants continued throughout the 19th century. And, of course, it has never ended completely.

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McNamara, Robert. "The Know-Nothing Party Opposed Immigration to America." ThoughtCo, Feb. 11, 2021, McNamara, Robert. (2021, February 11). The Know-Nothing Party Opposed Immigration to America. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Know-Nothing Party Opposed Immigration to America." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).