It didn’t start in 1849. but that was the year it got organized – Charles Allen founded the Order of the Star Spangled Banner.
The rules were simple: to join, you had to be free, white and 21. And Protestant of course. You also had to agree to follow the policies of the Order absolutely without question. Policy included secrecy – if anyone asked you about the Order, you were instructed to reply, ‘I know nothing.’
Horace Greeley made the leap and simply called Allen’s followers ‘Know-Nothings.’
The Know-Nothings – which included all similar groups forming throughout the country – were by definition nativists. They were appalled by the swell of immigrants that flooded the country between 1830 and 1850. Irish-Catholics and German Catholics were arriving in great numbers and to the Know-Nothings, it meant secret control of the country by the Pope.
Their rise came at the exact moment the old Whig party was declining. As the Democratic Party included many Irish-Americans and the Republican Party didn’t exist until 1854, the Know-Nothings attracted a large following. They weren’t secret anymore, of course. By 1854, Know-Nothings had collected under the banner of the American Party. Their candidates swept mayoral races in most big cities, including Chicago and Boston.
The American Party platform included limits on immigration, especially from Catholic countries; restricting political office to native-born Americans of English/Scottish lineage who were Protestant and mandating a wait of 21 years before an immigrant could gain citizenship. Public school teachers could only be Protestants.
Chicago Mayor Levi Boone stuck to the tenets of his party, banning immigrants, whether naturalized or not, from city jobs.
In February of 1856, the American Party convened in Philadelphia to pick a presidential candidate to support. Their choice was Millard Fillmore, whose Whig party had ceased to exist. Fillmore, who had been president for three years as a result of the sudden demise of Zachary Taylor, was trying to get back into the White House and agreed to be the American Party’s candidate. He came in third, after Republican John Fremont and winning Democrat James Buchanan.
They didn’t know it, but the Know-Nothings had peaked. They fell apart over the issue of slavery for the most part, but even occasionally over temperance. (Boone had caused what was called the ‘Lager Beer Riot’ in Chicago when he ordered bars closed on Sundays, the only day most workers had off.)
Most of their fears were channeled into politics, but the Know-Nothings did manage to accomplish one act of vandalism that delayed the construction of the Washington Monument – they stole a block of granite that had been donated by the Pope.