Who were the Know-Nothings?

The American Party System Read more from
Chapter Government and Politics

The Know-Nothings were members of a U.S. political movement during the mid-1800s: Americans who feared the foreign influence of immigrants (there was an influx of new arrivals in the 1840s) banded together, sometimes in secret societies, in order to uphold what they believed to be the American view. When people who were thought to be members of these groups were asked about their views and activities, the typical response was, “I don’t know,” which gave the movement its name.

The Know-Nothings worked to elect only “native” Americans (U.S.-born citizens) to political office, and they advocated the requirement for citizenship be 25 years of residence in the United States. Since many immigrants came from European countries and were Roman Catholics, the Know-Nothings also opposed the Catholic Church.

In 1843 Know-Nothings formed the American Republican Party. By 1854 they had allied themselves with factions within the Whig Party and in the state elections held that year, Know-Nothings swept the vote in Massachusetts and Delaware, nearly carried New York and Pennsylvania, and pulled substantial votes in the South. The following year, the Know-Nothings dropped much of their secrecy and became known simply as the American Party. It was the issue of slavery that finally split the party in the national election of 1856, and the group dissolved after that. Antislavery members of the American Party joined the newly formed Republican Party.


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