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Trump: a throwback to the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s

REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
My hope is also that Americans do as they did in 1856 and reject a Know-Nothing presidential candidate again.

A candidate for president of the United States calls for reduced immigration in part because of differing religious beliefs. Is this 2016 or 1856?

Back in the 1850s, there was a political party called the Know-Nothing or formally the American Party. This party was the outgrowth of strong anti-immigrant feelings — especially toward Catholic immigrants, who were feared to be controlled by the Pope. The rising number of immigrants from Ireland, who largely settled in the east, and from Germany, who settled in the Midwest, posed a perceived threat to those who already lived here. Nativism became the rage.

When questioned they said, ‘I know nothing’

kiedrowski portrait
Jay Kiedrowski

The party originated as a semi-secret society. When a member was asked about the organization, they replied, “I know nothing.” As a national party, it called for limitations on immigration, the exclusion of foreign-born Americans from voting or holding public office, and for a 21-year residency requirement for citizenship. The party was also hostile to wealth, to elites, and to expertise, and was deeply suspicious of outsiders. Violence was associated with the party’s activities. Many conservatives supported the movement.

By 1854, the Know-Nothings succeeded in electing 52 of the then 234 members of Congress. The mayor of Chicago was a Know-Nothing. The legislature and the cities of Boston, and Salem in Massachusetts were controlled by the Know-Nothings. A Know-Nothing chapter was formed in San Francisco to oppose Chinese immigration.

In the presidential election of 1856, Millard Fillmore ran as the Know-Nothing candidate. He won 23 percent of the vote and carried one state, Maryland, with eight electoral votes. Abraham Lincoln expressed his own disgust with the Know-Nothing Party. By the 1860 election, the Know-Nothing Party was no longer a viable political movement, in part because of the conflict over slavery within the party.

Another anti-immigrant, anti-elite, anti-expert platform

Fast forward to 2016: Donald Trump is running on an anti-immigrant, anti-elite, and anti-expert platform. He expresses disdain for the media, suggests that the voting process is rigged, and incites violence. He wants to “Make America Great Again.” Many conservatives are supporting him.

Today, when there is significant dislocation from immigration, aggressive foreign competition, and the transition to the information age, people are asking to go back to a former perceived better era. Politicians like Donald Trump seize on these feelings and claim changes to the system will make everything like they were. But how do you roll back progress? And isn’t there a better day ahead once the transition to the new era is completed?

We need immigration and trade

My hope is that we continue on the path that has served the United States so well over time. We need immigration to supplement are slowing population increases. We need to trade with the world to create a global community more interested in economic progress than military aggression. We need to complete the transition to the information age, with all of its opportunities and rewards.

My hope is also that Americans do as they did in 1856 and reject a Know-Nothing presidential candidate again. Americans are smarter than to fall for the empty promises of Donald Trump. And I bet Maryland citizens vote against Trump in 2016, making up for their vote for Fillmore in 1856.

Jay Kiedrowski is a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.


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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 09/09/2016 - 09:49 am.

    Thanks for this. Just reading a history of the lead-up to the civil war (Battle cry of Freedom) and one can’t halo but notice the similarities between the know-nothing movement and the Trump candidacy. Frightening.

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