In 1856, former President Millard Fillmore ran for president as a part of the Know Nothing movement. The movement attracted 23% of the popular vote and as a result James Buchanan became President. A year later, most of the Know Nothing supporters joined the newly formed Republican party. While the Know Nothing movement seems like no more than an interesting historical anomaly, the rhetoric in today’s political climate seems to be a reincarnation of this earlier movement.
Immigration was a major concern among people in the Know Nothing movement in the mid-nineteenth century. At the least they wanted more stringent and effective immigration laws. Among their proposals was a 21-year mandated wait for immigrants to obtain citizenship.
Some proposed doing away with all naturalization laws: in other words, only those born Americans would be allowed to be American. The repeal of all naturalization laws was actually the first item listed in their party platform.
In the recent GOP primary debates:
Bachmann says the Federal government has failed to set immigration policy, and it's reprehensible that Obama sued Arizona over its immigration policy law. Of course that's called setting policy. She says she'd put a wall on every single inch of the border with Mexico.
Romney beating up on Rick Perry for letting "illegal aliens" get instate tuition for Texas. He says it's unfair to Americans in other states. Of course those "illegal aliens" are actually the sons and daughters of undocumented immigrants who have grown up in America and aren't responsible for their status.
Closely allied with their concern for immigration was their insistence that only “Americans” (meaning “American born”) should be allowed to hold and run for public office. Furthermore, they felt that holding public office should also be restricted to native-born Americans of English and/or Scottish lineage and Protestant persuasion.
The nineteenth-century “Americans only” requirement for public office seems to be reflected in today’s birthers. Lawrence Sellin, for example, writes:
Being born in the U.S. makes one a U.S. citizen, but not necessarily a natural born citizen, which requires U.S. citizen parents at the time of birth. The Founding Fathers specifically put that requirement in the Constitution to prevent someone having dual allegiance from becoming president.
The primary concern of the Know Nothing movement in the 1850s was the large number of Irish and German Catholics who were coming to the United States. Today, of course, the modern Know Nothing folks concerns are Hispanics (xenophobia over language and skin color) and Muslims (the religious issue has shifted).
The Know Nothing movement favored the use of English-only in public meetings and advocated the restriction of all other languages.
The Know Nothing movement sought government protection for Protestants. Conspiracy theories regarding papal influence abounded, including the fear that American law would somehow incorporate or become subservient to Catholic law. One Protestant minister described Catholicism as:
"the ally of tyranny, the opponent of material prosperity, the foe of thrift, the enemy of the railroad, the caucus, and the school."
Their opposition to Catholicism was so great that they allegedly stole and destroyed the block of granite which had been contributed by Pope Pius IX for the Washington Monument.
The Know Nothing party platform called for “War to the hilt, on politican Romanism,” “Hostility to all Papal influences, when brought to bear against the Republic,” and “The amplest protection of Protestant Interests.”
The present day Know Nothing movement’s concern for Sharia law seems to echo the 1856 platform plank:
“Finally,-American Laws, and American Legislation, and Death to all foreign influences, whether in high places or low.”
The American Party, the official political arm of the Know Nothing movement, advocated restricting public school teacher positions to Protestants. They also felt that daily Bible readings should be required in all public schools.
The followers of the Know Nothing movement were not content to simply discuss their agenda: they used intimidation to keep Catholics away from the ballot box. In 1855, a riot perpetrated by the Know Nothings broke out in Louisville, Kentucky which resulted in 22 deaths, numerous injuries, and much property damage. In Baltimore, the elections of 1856, 1857, and 1858 were all marred by violence. In Maine, the Know Nothing followers were involved with tarring and feathering a Catholic priest and burning a Catholic church.