The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 1 (Spring 2016)

The New Know-Nothings

Johann N. Neem

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2016

(Volume 18 | Issue 1)

The emergence of Donald Trump as a populist leader took observers of the American political scene by surprise. Dismissed initially as a joke or fringe candidate, he is now a top contender for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. And precisely because Trump can no longer be ignored or laughed away, it would be foolish to ignore the sources of his appeal.

Above all, that attraction appears to have little to do with a detailed program or platform, and far more with Trump’s successfully projected image as a fearless man of action who will, in the words of his ubiquitous slogan, make America great again. To many Americans facing a changing world and fearing that globalization is depriving them of a fair shot at the good life, not to mention basic security, Trump’s promise to do something makes him stand apart from a political establishment, right and left, that seems clueless and adrift.

What’s more, Trump promises to do dramatic things, take drastic steps. He’ll build a wall to protect Americans from Latino immigrants, who, he says, “have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems [here].” In the wake of the shootings in San Bernardino and Paris, Trump called for stern, even unconstitutional measures, from surveilling American mosques to barring Muslims from entering the country until we know “what’s going on.” In short, Trump will build barriers between America and the wider world to protect Americans from the corrosive, debilitating, and dangerous threats posed by people beyond the country’s borders.

Trump’s crude nativism is deplorable, but it is hardly a novelty on the American political scene. Many commentators have rightly drawn parallels between his anti-immigrant statements and the nativist anti-Catholicism of the Know-Nothing movement of the 1850s. In his classic 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” the historian Richard Hofstadter observed that American politics has time and again served “as an arena for uncommonly angry minds” engaged in “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Hofstadter recognized the civic component of that paranoid style—that citizens are concerned not only with themselves individually but also with the fate of “a nation, a culture, a way of life.” In the nineteenth century, the paranoid style gained expression among voters who worried about “a Catholic plot against American values”; in his own time, Hofstadter saw that style at work in the Red-scare hysteria fomented by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Significantly, Hofstadter argued that the paranoid style had greatest force and appeal when citizens believed they were unable to “make themselves felt in the political process.”

The Know-Nothings—so called because, when asked about their party, they claimed to know nothing—rose to power by exploiting fear of Irish Catholic immigrants. In addition to winning many local offices, they took the statehouse and almost every seat in the Massachusetts legislature in 1854, while also making strong showings in Pennsylvania and New York. The following year, they gained control of most statehouses in New England. They displaced the Whigs as the Democrats’ primary opposition in other parts of the nation, and elected seventy-five representatives to Congress. They even fielded a candidate for the White House in 1856, former president Millard Fillmore, who won 873,000 popular votes and Maryland’s eight electoral votes.

What is most striking about the Know-Nothing movement was that it was ultimately about much more than anti-Catholicism. As the historian Tyler Anbinder makes clear in his book Nativisim and Slavery (1992), many supporters of the upstart party voted out of frustration and disgust with the political system. As Trump would do 175 years later, the Know-Nothings promised to do something. They appealed in particular to antislavery voters who felt that neither the Whigs nor the Democrats were willing to address what they considered America’s most pressing problem.

To be sure, the Know-Nothings made good on many of their specifically anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant promises. In Massachusetts, Know-Nothing legislators passed laws requiring the exclusive use of the Protestant version of the Bible in public schools. Thanks to their efforts, Massachusetts and Connecticut disbanded Irish militia companies, while Maine mandated that no more than one-third of a militia company’s members could be immigrants. In Massachusetts, Know-Nothings condemned public support of immigrant paupers, and forced almost 300 immigrants to return to Europe. In various New England states, they barred the teaching of foreign languages, prohibited state courts from naturalizing aliens, sought to limit immigrant suffrage through literacy tests, and proposed waiting periods before immigrants could vote. Violence sometimes broke out between Know-Nothings and their opponents.

But if Know-Nothings focused on immigrants as the main cause of America’s ills, they gained a broad following because they tackled problems and concerns that went well beyond the immigrant question. In Massachusetts, Know-Nothing legislators who sought to encourage unity among Americans mandated racial integration in the same schools in which they had imposed Protestant Bibles. They passed laws to protect working people from creditors and, in Massachusetts, abolished imprisonment for debt and passed child labor legislation. In Connecticut, they passed a law stating that ten hours was the de facto workday. Know-Nothings also pushed for greater regulation of banks, railroads, and other corporations. Whether successfully or not, Know-Nothings brought working people’s concerns to the legislative floor. They also sought to render government more accountable to voters by making more offices elective, increasing punishment for corruption, and promising to curb patronage.

When it came to America’s “peculiar institution,” Know-Nothing legislators came through on their promise to back US senators who opposed slavery’s expansion, including New York’s Whig senator William Henry Seward, who as governor had proposed offering public funds to Catholic schools. In Massachusetts, Know-Nothing legislators passed resolutions calling for restoration of the Missouri Compromise (to prevent slavery’s expansion) and repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act. And, in 1856, when Know-Nothing presidential candidate Fillmore emphasized the need for national unity, most Know-Nothings instead sided with the new Republican party’s candidate John C. Frémont because they considered the issue of slavery more pressing than Catholic immigration. Despite the party’s previous electoral successes, only thirteen percent of northern voters cast their ballot for Fillmore, and Frémont swept New England.

None of this is to celebrate or even to defend the Know-Nothings. They appealed to some of the darker impulses of the American electorate. They scapegoated and hurt people. But context matters. The Know-Nothings won not only because they were anti-Catholic but also because they appealed to and spoke for a great number of white northerners who felt that the politicians of the major parties were indifferent to their concerns. Opposition to immigration served as a way of bringing focus and galvanizing action on those diffuse issues.

Ultimately, however, the Know-Nothing movement could not sustain itself. As Mark Voss-Hubbard writes in Beyond Party: Cultures of Antipartisanship in Northern Politics before the Civil War (2002), the Know-Nothings came to power on the basis of “their millennial appeal to purify politics and governance,” but found that the real work of change was much harder than they anticipated.

To the extent that Trump’s supporters represent a new Know-Nothing movement, the lesson is clear. Globalization has resulted in significant cultural and economic changes that many Americans feel have been hurtful not only to themselves but also to the nation as a whole. Those same voters feel betrayed by a political elite that seems, in their view, more committed to cosmopolitanism and the international order than to national self-interest.

The loss of jobs and even of whole industries, drug use, violent crime, the spread of terrorism, and the challenges of an increasingly diverse society—all of these can be connected with some of the disruptive and dislocating effects of globalization. Trump’s brand of nativism shifts all of the blame for these and other problems to people and nations beyond our borders. But it would be wrong to see his supporters’ attraction to such nativism as simple xenophobia, though of course it can easily become that. Above all, Trump’s supporters want someone who will do something, almost anything, about problems they think are growing worse.

—Johann N. Neem

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.1 (Spring 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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