Like Fight Club, there were rules about joining the secret society known as the Order of the Star Spangled Banner (OSSB). An initiation rite called “Seeing Sam.” The memorization of passwords and hand signs. A solemn pledge never to betray the order. A pureblooded pedigree 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. If asked anything by outsiders, they would respond with, “I know nothing.”
So went the rules of this secret fraternity that rose to prominence in 1853 and transformed into the powerful political party known as the Know Nothings. At its height in the 1850s, the Know Nothing party, originally called the American Party, included more than 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.
Know Nothings were the American political system’s first major third party. Early in the 19th century, two parties leftover from the birth of the United States were the Federalists (who advocated for a strong central government) and the Democratic-Republicans (formed by Thomas Jefferson). Following the earliest parties came the National Republicans, created to oppose Andrew Jackson. That group eventually transformed into the Whigs as Jackson’s party became known as the Democrats. The Whig party sent presidents William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor and others to the White House during its brief existence. But the party splintered and then disintegrated over the politics of slavery. The Know Nothings filled the power void before the Whigs had even ceased to exist, choosing to ignore slavery and focus all their energy on the immigrant question. They were the first party to leverage economic concerns over immigration as a major part of their platform. Though short-lived, the values and positions of the Know Nothings ultimately contributed to the two-party system we have today.
Paving the way for the Know Nothing movement were two men from New York City. Thomas R. Whitney, the son of a silversmith who opened his own shop, wrote the magnum opus of the Know Nothings, A Defense of the American Policy. William “Bill the Butcher” Poole was a gang leader, prizefighter and butcher in the Bowery (and would later be used as inspiration for the main character in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York). Whitney and Poole were from different social classes, but both had an enormous impact on their chosen party—and their paths crossed at a pivotal moment in the rise of nativism.
In addition to being a successful engraver, Whitney was an avid reader of philosophy, history and classics. He moved from reading to writing poetry and, eventually, political tracts. “What is equality but stagnation?” Whitney wrote in one of them. Preceded in nativist circles by such elites as author James Fenimore Cooper, Alexander Hamilton, Jr. and James Monroe (nephew of the former president), Whitney had a knack for rising quickly to the top of whichever group he belonged to. He became a charter member of the Order of United Americans (the precursor to the OSSB) and used his own printing press to publish many of the group’s pamphlets.
Whitney believed in government action, but not in service of reducing social inequality. Rather, he believed, all people “are entitled to such privileges, social and political, as they are capable of employing and enjoying rationally.” In other words, only those with the proper qualifications deserved full rights. Women’s suffrage was abhorrent and unnatural, Catholics were a threat to the stability of the nation, and German and Irish immigrants undermined the old order established by the Founding Fathers.
From 1820 to 1845, anywhere from 10,000 to 1000,000 immigrants entered the U.S. each year. Then, as a consequence of economic instability in Germany and a potato famine in Ireland, those figures…