Yes, it existed and it was the third-largest party in Congress… a byname of American Party, a U.S. political party that flourished in the 1850s. When Congress assembled on Dec. 3, 1855, 43 representatives became members of the Know Nothing Party.
Immediately, during the following years – as the Encyclopaedia Britannica mentions – “it got to include 100 elected congressmen, eight governors, a controlling share of half-a-dozen state legislatures from Massachusetts to California, and thousands of local politicians. Party members supported deportation of foreign beggars and criminals; a 21-year naturalization period for immigrants; mandatory Bible reading in schools; and the elimination of all Catholics from public office. They wanted to restore their vision of what America should look like with temperance, Protestantism, self-reliance, with American nationality and work ethic enshrined as the nation’s highest values.”
How did this party come about?
“The Know Nothings came out of what seemed to be a vacuum,” says Christopher Phillips, professor of history at the University of Cincinnati. “It’s the failing Whig party and the faltering Democratic party and their inability to articulate, to the satisfaction of the great percentage of their electorate, answers to the problems that were associated with everyday life.”
He adds: “One can’t possibly make sense of [current events] unless you know something about nativism,” he says. “That requires you to go back in time to the Know-Nothings. You have to realize the context is different, but the themes are consistent. The actors are still the same, but with different names.”
“The American Party, as it was officially called, was born after a period in which the major parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, later transforming themselves into National Republicans or Whigs, and later the Democrats, basically disintegrated themselves over their stand on slavery.”
When the movement originated there were rules about joining the secret society known as the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner (OSSB) and an initiation rite called “Seeing Sam” – very much like the KKK has had, some established as part of their initiation ceremonies – which included the memorization of passwords and some hand signs. A pureblooded pedigree for party membership included being of Protestant Anglo-Saxon stock and the rejection of all Catholics. And above all, members of the secret society weren’t allowed to talk about the secret society. Their pledge meant that if asked anything by outsiders, they would respond: I know nothing, which is the origin of the party’s other name: the Know Nothing Party.
“By 1852 the Know-Nothing party was achieving phenomenal growth and with passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 it won additional adherents from the ranks of conservatives who could support neither the proslavery Democrats nor antislavery Republicans.”
As the Smithsonian magazine further states:
“Caught in the sectional strife disrupting all national institutions, the American Party fell apart after 1856. Antislavery Know-Nothings joined the Republican Party, while Southern members flocked to the proslavery banner still held aloft by the Democratic Party. By 1859 the American Party’s strength was largely confined to the border states. In 1860 remnants of the Know-Nothings joined old-line Whigs to form the Constitutional Union Party and nominated John Bell of Tennessee for president. Bell finished fourth in popular votes in the four-man contest of that year, won by the Republican Abraham Lincoln”.
In our day and age, there is much talk about populism.
We are seeing it in different nations and dressed-up in different customs but all, if not most of them, behind the shield of being the only valid and legitimate representation of a sector, or even, the majority of people. They might even use questionable referendums, after winning with one or two percentage points and rather low participation, emboldening their leaders to embrace changes about which their supporters know little or nothing, but having enormous consequences that haven’t even been fully transmitted, much less thoroughly explained and discussed at all levels of society, most of whom would in any case be unable to either have the time and opportunity, or the knowledge, to fully grasp what these changes entail and their repercussions.
Precisely for the above reason, populism embraces their political message on an “us versus them” basis, using rhetoric that stirs up anger, often touching on very basic emotional grounds, such as joy-fear, joy-sadness, anger-fear, trust-distrust, surprise-anticipation, or linked to conspiratory-like theories.
Can populism be ignored?
Populism is often short-lived. Its effects can evaporate or have long-lasting effects. Yet, the underlying sentiments can be long-lasting and get under people’s skins… until they surface again. But populist sentiments can also respond to a mixture of real problems and concerns mixed, to a lesser and greater degree, with unconventional, even whimsical, ideas. Often, power-hungry individuals, be they authentic idealists or unscrupulous opportunists, use and manipulate these sentiments. Manipulation is always dangerous. Popular sentiment that is being manipulated runs the risk of turning into something very different that has little or nothing to do with the original concerns. Hence, populist ideals should not be ignored. If illegal activity is linked to it, then the pertinent laws have to be reinforced.
This said, there are no guarantees that public sentiment reflects reality, or that it’s valuable and conducive to improvements. Obviously, anyone can question the definition of improvement. Whilst some may feel that what they aspire is beneficial to them, it’s important to consider the extent to which it’s detrimental to the rights and general welfare of others and, therefore, for society at large. It’s here that we must strike some sort of balance. How can this be accomplished?
The role of democracy
Is Democracy a populist idea? One could choose to look at it that way if everybody’s fundamental concern is that consensus dictates the ideals and the concrete laws and policies that are to be enacted in order to make things happen. One could perhaps choose the word “popular”, rather than “populist” if we wish to adhere to the more commonly accepted definitions for “populism”.
In any case, a majority on any given issue, or on all issues, automatically implies that the aspirations of minorities may be put to the side, at least temporarily. Hence when populist ideals – as defined previously – surface in democracies, the lack of consensus may intensify, at least in the short-term, generating feelings and actions, which may go as far as contradicting the very bedrock and reason for democracy.
Democracy has, therefore, built-in in mechanisms that are there precisely to minimize the effect that any given’s majority sentiments and opinions can have on everyone over time. Society is changing, hence the issues and sentiments about them change too; and so too must the people that are put in place to carry out those wishes.
But is this enough? Democracy has failed in the past. Therefore, there has to be a built-in check and balances.
These control mechanisms are just as important as voting, freedom of speech, and the right to channel people’s choices through parties and elected officials, be this in presidential type democracies or in parliamentary democracies. The built-in check and balances are not just the three branches of government; it’s the basic constitutional Separation of Powers enacted in its 1st, 2nd and 3rd Article that sustain the American democracy, to use just one example. But it certainly doesn’t stop there. The three branches of government function by abiding by the principles, rules, and regulations that are the only guarantees democracy can offer to comply with it’s stated objectives.
Needless to say, the popular sentiment should, above all other things, reflect these core values. They are the only ones that will protect each and everyone’s right to express and support those who will give a voice to their opinions. There is no football, soccer, basketball, rugby or any sport without rules. It’s as basic as that. When populist ideas dominate the political arena, and their representatives, the “sport players on the field”, put all those opinions above the given and necessary consensus on the framework of democracy’s structure and functionality, true democracy ceases to exist or puts it at risk. There is no fair game or, rather, no game whatsoever, without the corresponding framework.
The No Nothing Party was a short page in history. Yet the party’s followers and their leaders reflected basic sentiments that may be as prevalent today as they were then, in the 1850s. And the fact that such sentiments existed so long ago, should make everyone think!
There is a huge difference in, for example, promoting and discussing laws and policies that govern immigration – taking into account practical and ethical considerations – versus trying to ignite this discussion with hate-inspired misinformation, not to speak of not playing by the rules. Acting in that manner is risky and would truly deserve the name: The Know Nothings.
In a democracy, the first choice, the vote, the winner, must be a democracy. Otherwise, everyone loses.
Sources and/or quotes from:
- Smithonianmag.com (and contributors)