The Know Nothing Party, 1856

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This 1856 broadside outlines the “Basis Principles of the American Party of Virginia.” Courtesy of Duke University Libraries via North Carolina Digital Heritage Center.

Formed in the early 1840s and popular through the 1850s, the Know Nothing movement was a reaction to the influx of German and Irish immigrants to the United States. Proponents saw these newcomers as a “foreign invasion” that threatened to influence politics and religion. They advocated to curb immigration and naturalization and played on white native-born fears about outsiders. More extreme members of the movement claimed that new Catholic immigrants would help subjugate America under the authority of the Pope. The movement organized in various social clubs and political forums across the country and created propaganda to draw adherents to their cause.

The Know Nothing Party, otherwise known as the American Party and the Native American Party, functioned as the political arm of the movement. By 1856, it had gained enough momentum to launch a bid for the presidency on a singularly focused platform—shutting down immigration to the United States and containing and marginalizing Catholicism. Former president Millard Fillmore ran as their candidate for a non-consecutive second term. Although not previously a nativist, he saw the Know Nothings as the only viable option for national unity in the face of the dissolution of the Whig Party and the ongoing struggle between other parties on the issue of slavery. Fillmore won only eight electoral votes but achieved 21% of the popular vote. Many 1856 Know Nothing adherents also voted in support of the fledgling Republican Party, which had started to court this demographic by campaigning around anti-Popery and bans on immigration.