draft 2

Here’s my updated draft.  I took out a few sections from the original because they were dumb and made less sense than chewbacca and I added a few pages about public opinion on the know-nothings.  its still a work in progress, but its coming along.

Know-Nothing Dominance and Public Opinion in 1854

The political spectrum in America changed greatly during the 1850s.  Established political parties, such as the Democratic Party underwent sweeping changes that would permanently shape them, while other once powerful parties, such as the Whig Party would not be able to survive the decade as a result of internal strife and external pressures.  All the while, smaller parties were able to infiltrate the political sphere and bring about great reform.  Notable parties that would not survive but would leave their mark included the Know-Nothing, or American Party, which will be the subject of this paper, and the Free-soil party, which would eventually help to form the Republican Party.  This paper will address the impact of the Know-Nothing party, in terms of its impact on other political parties.  Although they were an organized group, their activities were kept highly secretive, so little is known about them, but what is known is that the Know-Nothings were able to infiltrate the Whigs, Democrats, and Republicans so as to support their own candidate[1].  This paper will assert that as a result of the subversive the actions of the Know-Nothing party, politics in Pennsylvania were greatly impacted.

From their inception as the “Order of United Americans” in 1848 and their official organization in the 1854, the Know-Nothings were very prominent in politics in Pennsylvania, even though they tried very hard to avoid drawing attention to themselves and making themselves noticeable[2].  The infiltration in some instances went as high as the governor.  In October of 1854, James Pollock, then a candidate for governor who would go on to win election, was present and spoke at a council of Know-Nothings[3].  The know-nothings of Pennsylvania pledged their support for Pollock on the grounds that his opponent, William Bigler’s parents were German, unlike those of Pollock, who were Scotch-Irish, but were born in America.[4] Pollock’s election as governor was widely recognized to be a result of the know-nothing vote[5].  The know-nothing vote greatly affected every election in which it was counted.  The Know-Nothings had strong enough numbers, that when combined with the party of the candidate that they were backing, they were almost unstoppable.  In 1854, the Democratic party of Pennsylvania asserted that the Democrats stood very little chance in elections because, “on all questions of importance the Whig and Native American members of course out vote them”[6].  In the election, the Democrats were only able to secure less than 45% of the vote, falling by a wide margin to the combined vote of the Whigs and Know-Nothings who combined for 55% of the total vote, with the remaining one percent being distributed to other candidates[7].  The know-nothings generally made a point not to nominate their own candidate, and instead opted to support whichever candidate from another party best represented their views.  Typically, the candidate being supported by the know-nothings did not know that were supported by the know-nothing delegation[8].

One of the keys to the success of the Know-Nothings in infiltrating politics was the way they dispersed.  Many similar organizations were spread out across the country, btu the know-nothings were centralized in cities.  They were able to first focus on gaining local leadership and winning local elections.  As they became established in the cities, they were then better able to extend to extend their influence over the major population centers, which of course led to the ability to dictate the course of larger elections[9].

The know-nothings were a relatively large group in comparison to the other parties of the time both nationally and locally[10].  In Pennsylvania, the Know-Nothing order had more members and supporters than the Whig party, and almost as many as the Democratic Party with roughly 120,000 members, as opposed to only 83,000 Whigs and 167,000 Democrats.  They were however, very well dispersed and drew members from many parties.  The know-nothings were not a political party per se, but rather an amalgamation of malcontent members of other political parties.  In addition to outright joining the know-nothing order, members of anti-Nebraska, Temperance, Whig, and anti-slavery movements all felt a “natural sympathy” towards the know-nothings and their movement[11].  During the 1850s the Whig party was in a sharp downward spiral, and as it begin to disintegrate, the Know-Nothings were quick to step in and fill the gaps in the Whig party.  In essence, the collapse of the Whig party provided a medium for the Know-Nothing movement to flourish[12].

With substantial amounts of members and sympathizers operating within the Whig party, the know-nothings were able to determine who the Whigs would put up for nomination, and in many instances, were able to shoot down the nomination of once prominent Whigs in favor of a Nativist sympathizer, especially a Kansas-Nebraska supporter. In the 1854 elections in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia, this happened in several notable instances.  In the Philadelphia mayoral election of 1854, Gilpin was favored to receive nomination, however, as a result of know-nothing influence within the Whig party, Judge Robert T. Conrad was instead given the nomination.  The same goes for William M Meredith, a prominent and popular Whig who had previously held the position of Secretary of the Treasury, was defeated for nomination by the Know-Nothing delegation of the Whig party.  John Yarrow and Joseph R. Chandler were also denied nomination by their own party in favor of candidates more favorable to the nativist movement[13].  Chandler had previously been popular amongst Whigs, however, the Know-Nothings within the party managed to deny him nomination for reelection on the grounds that he was a catholic, and when he decided to run as an independent without the support of the Know-Nothings, he was easily defeated, while the nominees who were backed by the Know-Nothings were able to win handily. Conrad was able to win the position of Mayor in June of 1854 by a margin of over 8,428 votes in an election that proved to be a prelude to the gubernatorial election held in October, where James Pollock easily defeated the incumbent Democrat, William Bigler[14].  In Lancaster, the Know-Nothing influence was obvious in the elections.  In 1854, Lancaster was dominated by Democrats, and at election, the Democrats were expected to win heavily, which they did, with the lone exceptions being the three democratic candidates who were not born in the United States.  In Chambersburg, the Know-Nothings were able to claim a surprising victory over the Whigs, who dominated the area to the point that the Democrats did not even field a ticket.  Despite the Whig domination, the Know-Nothings secretly submitted their own candidates and managed to steal the election from the Whigs[15].

The Know-Nothings staunchly opposed the Kansas-Nebraska act and opposed any legislation or candidate who would work to support it.  It was their opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska legislation that motivated many of their activities in Pennsylvania.  The order knew that they held substantial political pull in the state and decided to use it to only support candidates who it knew to be in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska act. In the 1854 congressional election, of the twenty-five men elected to office, twenty-one were pro-Kansas-Nebraska act and were thus backed by the Know-nothings, leaving the Democrats with only four representatives from a state that was once a haven for democrats[16].  The 1854 Philadelphia elections were among the first of the Know-Nothing victories, and they were victories that made the other parties, especially the democrats pay attention.[17]

Surprise Know-Nothing victories were not limited to Philadelphia.  In Pennsylvania, the Know-Nothings were successful in getting their candidates elected municipal elections of 1854 held in Lancaster, Chambersburg, Allegheny, and Washington[18].  After the elections in 1854, the Pennsylvania State Legislature was comprised of 33 Know-Nothings or Know-Nothing backed candidates, against 25 Democrats and 36 Whigs[19].  When considering these numbers it is important to remember that the Know-Nothings never organized as a party and did not submit their own candidate for nomination.  Know-Nothings were also successful outside of Pennsylvania.  Know-Nothing backed candidates were able to walk away with sweeping victories in Massachusetts, Delaware, New York, and were generally successful throughout New England and the Ohio Valley[20].

Little was known about the Know-Nothing party in 1854 and many Americans were both afraid of the order and mystified by it.  In 1854, most Americans only knew about the Know-Nothings because of their tremendous success in elections throughout the country.  They saw how the Know-Nothings were able to successfully elect their candidates or the candidate that they supported and were quick to assume that they would be able to have similar success in other elections.  Many people were fearful of the know-nothings and likened them to a disease that was rapidly spreading throughout the country and infecting everyone, regardless of their social standing.  Many were afraid because the know-nothing vote was very strong and very active in the politics.  Fear of the know-nothings also came from the mystery that surrounded them.  The American public knew very little about the order, but they did see what they were capable of in elections.  As a result, people were wary of the order and considered them a “terror” that was not to be trusted.  The perception was that Know-Nothings voted together and were able to elect unknown politicians who supported their cause, and typically, get them elected over prominent, well-respected politicians[21].  At times, fear of the know-nothings led to action.  The democrats held rallies and meetings in Washington DC to “extinguish the ‘enemies of civil and religious liberty’”, but were widely recognized as meetings specifically targeting know-nothings.  They only reason they used the phrase “enemies of civil and religious liberty” because the know-nothing movement was popular in DC at the time, and to outwardly proclaim a meeting to criticize them would not have been popular and nobody would have gone to the meetings.  However, it did not matter, as the meetings proved to be remarkably unsuccessful to the point that the democrats essentially gave up on holding anti-know-nothing meetings during the 1854 campaign[22].  In some places, Know-Nothings were the target of persecution.  During a Brooklyn riot in the summer of 1854, men wearing a particular style of hat that had been associated with the order were targeted and assaulted[23].  Although that was an extreme case, it shows how high tensions rose between know-nothings and the rest of the country, particularly the foreign-born population.  However, there were foreign-born Americans that did support the know-nothing order.  Some foreigners felt that the know-nothings were working to instate a status quo that had existed in their old country.  In many parts of Europe, rights were restricted for foreign-born citizens, however, it did not negatively affect them and they were able to go about their lives and be productive members of society.  Some foreigners also supported the know-nothings because their children were American-born and the know-nothing platform supported the well being of them[24].


[1] Humprey Desmond, The Know-Nothing Party (Washington: New Century Press, 1904), 51; Thomas R. Whitney, A Defense of the American Policy. (New York: DeWitt and Davenport Publishers, 1856), 284; Henry Richard Mueller, The Whig Party in Pennsylvania (New York: Columbia University, 1922), 213-214

[2] Whitney 272

[3] “Pennsylvania Politics.” New York Times. 6 October 1854; “The Know-Nothing Convention- Proceedins of the Second Days Session- Political Nomination.” New York Times. 6 October 1854. Both articles are referring to the same meeting.

[4] Mueller 209, James Pollock, LL.D. Governor of Pennsylvania 1854-1857, 10

[5]Pollock, LL.D., 21-22; the chapter also includes excerpts from several newspapers that assert that Pollock was supported by the know-nothing vote.

[6] A Few Words to the Thinking and Judicious Voters of Pennsylvania. (Pennsylvania, Democratic Party, 1854), 24

[7] from Snulls Legislative Handbook (1919), 720, as cited by Mueller, 215

[8] “The Society of Know-Nothings- its Principles and its Purposes.” New York Times. 10 October 1854.

[9] ibid

[10] most contemporary estimates claim that the order had between 800,000 and 1.5 million members nationally (Michael F. Holt,  The Political Crisis of the 1850s. (New York: Norton, 1983), 157).  Thomas Whitney asserted that the Know-Nothings had at least 1.5 million registered voters (Whitney, 285).

[11] Allan Nevins, Ordeal of the Union, V. 2. (New York: Scribner, 1947), 329

[12] John F. Coleman, The Disruption of the Pennsylvania Democracy, 1848-1860 (Harrisburg: The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1975), 66

[13] To the Thinking Voter, 26; Mueller, 214

[14] Mueller 212, election results from Keystone (Harrisburg), 6/14/1854, as cited in Coleman, 67. Conrad defeated Richard Vaux (Democrat) 29,421 to 20,993

[15] Tyler Abinder, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850’s.  (New York, Oxford University Press, 1992.), 53

[16] Whinety, 368; Mueller 214-125

[17] Nevins, 326

[18] Hewitt, Warren F. “The Know Nothing Party in Pennsylvania”. Pennsylvania History 2.2 (1935), 75

[19] Mueller, 216

[20]“Know-Nothing Victory in Wilmington, Del.” New York Times. 4 October 1854.;  Nevins, 341-344.

[21] “The Know Nothing Movement: Correspondent of the Boston Chronicle,” North American and United States Cazette, 23 August 1854; “The Administration and the Know Nothings,” North American and United States Gazette, 21 December 1854

[22] “Correspondence of the North American and United States Gazette,” North American and United States Gazette, 23 September 1854

[23] “The Know Nothing Party in New York,” North American and United States Gazette, 14 June 1854

[24] “Letter from Pittsfield, Massachusetts,” North American and United States Gazette, 22 august 1854

Leave a Reply

WP-SpamFree by Pole Position Marketing