In the 19th century, American politics was briefly dominated by a small but determined group of people who detested foreigners.
The pace of immigration in the 1850s had reached a level that was five times higher than it was the previous decade, mostly of Catholic laborers from Ireland and Germany, causing widespread resentment from the native Protestant population. The sudden wave of newcomers to already crowded cities fuelled the rise of the Know Nothings. (So named because their members, many of whom were in clandestine organizations, were told to say they knew nothing if asked about their underground gatherings.)
Their eventual political platform consisted entirely of anti-immigrant measures. Formally called the American Party, the Know Nothings wanted to bar foreign-born citizens from running for office and voting and deny citizenship to anyone who hadn’t lived in the US for at least 21 years. They ranted against ”the transmission to our shores of felons and paupers.” Their maxim: “Americans only shall govern America.”
The Know Nothings won power in several cities and control of the legislature in the state of Massachusetts. When Congress assembled in 1855, 43 representatives were Know Nothings. The following year, the American Party ran Millard Fillmore as its candidate for president; he won 22% of the vote.
Abraham Lincoln, then a relative unknown years away from giving his inaugural address on behalf of the newly formed Republican Party, wrote to his friend Joshua Speed of the disdain he had for the Know Nothing nativists, while also criticizing those who defended slavery. As another Republican is inaugurated this week, these words from the first Republican president might still be of some use:
Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’
When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia for instance.