07 September 2016

Remembering the Whig party and the Know Nothings

Before the creation of the Republican party, the two-party system centered around the Democrats and the Whigs.  When the Whigs collapsed, they were replaced by the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings:
At one point or another, Presidents John Quincy Adams, and Benjamin Harrison, and Chester Arthur and Rutherford B. Hayes and Abraham Lincoln, at some point, in all of their careers, all of those American presidents were all members of the Whig Party.  William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, Miller Fillmore, they were all Whig Party members while they were president...

The Whigs were riven by internal divisions dealing with emerging things as the nation grew and changed. A lot of the division had to do with the issue of slavery and some other principled issues. But the Whig party, it had been a huge deal, and then it fell apart.

And political parties back then weren`t exactly what they are today. But when the Whig Party fell apart, the two-party system at the time fell apart as well. You have two parties and one collapses. It doesn`t just mean good news for the other party, it mean that is two-party system that counts on tension between the two parties, that falls apart if one party ceases to function.

And when the two-party system fell apart because the Whigs fell apart, when that two-party system rocked by them collapsing as a major party, what was left behind in American politics, for a while, at least, turned incredibly nasty – a little bit violent, but also nasty.

One of the things that happened in American politics at that time is that we got a series of secret societies that formed, basically to try to drive Catholics out of this country. One of them was a secret Order of the Star Spangled Banner. There was also a Secret Order of United Americans...

When the movement embodied by the societies spread out of the cities of the East Coast and spread out of New England and went big nationwide, it did go big nationwide, the movement, it was interesting, it morphed a little bit depending on where it was. It was very strikingly anti-Catholic in, say, Massachusetts.

By the time that movement was ready to spawn its sort of offspring or offshoots in California – well, in California, it didn`t that that much sense to be rabidly anti-Catholic. In California, the version of it became rabidly anti-Chinese, because those were the immigrants they had out there...

This movement in American politics around the time that the two-party system collapsed because the Whigs fell apart, it was nativism. They hated immigrants. They blamed everything wrong in the country on immigrants. And it started as disparate movements and disparate secret societies.

But eventually, they got a name. They became known as the Know Nothing movement, which is also a funny name. People remember it to this day in part because it`s a strange thing to call some sort of political movement... Their origins were in secret societies, if you were a member of the movement, you`re supposed to say, oh, I know nothing...

But for a brief period in our history, around the collapse of Whigs before the civil war, the Know-Nothings got really big and fast and they did that in the waste land of this two-party system getting rattled. The Whigs collapsed, two major party democracy fell apart for a time because of that, and so, we got these Know-Nothing politicians, this know-nothing movement across the country. They`re very successful.

The know-nothing mayor of Chicago declared there will be no city job for any immigrant of anywhere. The know-nothing mayor of Philadelphia said there would be no political appointments for any immigrant. Native born Americans only.

And they took over major cities. They took over the legislature in Massachusetts. They spread nationwide and they had more than a million members. Know-nothings were a big deal in American politics for a couple of years, as the normal party system broke itself down and stopped to function.

But then they collapsed...
The rest of the essay is here.  And here's the Wikipedia summary of the Know-Nothings:
The movement arose in response to an influx of migrants and promised to "purify" American politics by limiting or ending the influence of Irish Catholics and other immigrants, thus reflecting nativist and anti-Catholic sentiment. It was empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by German and Irish Catholic immigrants, whom they saw as hostile to republican values and as being controlled by the Pope. Mainly active from 1854 to 1856, the movement strove to curb immigration and naturalization but met with little success. Membership was limited to Protestant men. There were few prominent leaders, and the largely middle-class membership was divided over the issue of slavery.


  1. Sander's supporters are Loco Focos

  2. I was relieved to see the link was not to an "essay" but the transcript of a televised monologue.

  3. The Know Nothings would be right at home with Trump.


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