Know Nothings in the South

The greatest challenge to Irish and German immigrants in the 1850’s was the rise of the American party, known as Know Nothings. The American Party succeeded to the Whig Party. Most Know Nothings were former Whig Party members. So, most Democrat Party members instinctively opposed the Know Nothing movement. This was especially true in the South where the Democrat Party was strongest.

They were known as “Know Nothings.” They started as a secret society, with secret handshakes, passwords and the whole nine yards. They were instructed to answer when asked about the society, “I know nothing.” See Smithsonian article for more about the Know Nothings.

In Virginia, Henry Wise, future Confederate Congressman and future Confederate general, ran for governor in 1855 against Know Nothing Thomas Flournoy. Flournoy was a strong candidate. But, Mr. Wise overcame the challenge. Years later, Gov. Wise would say that Know-Nothingism was “the most impious and unprincipled affiliation by bad means for bad ends.” He compared the struggle of Irish Catholics in Ireland against the Protestant ascendancy to the struggle in America against Know Nothingism. Gov. Wise also believed the Know Nothings sought a “fanatical and sectional demolition of slavery.” In the South, as in many parts of the North, Abolitionists were viewed as fanatics.

Know Nothings opposed German and Irish immigrants. Yet, they were even more concerned about any breach of the union. They were staunch unionists.

Some former Southern Whigs were appalled at Know Nothingism. In Georgia, former Congressman Alexander H. Stephens, the future Confederate Vice-President, and former Senator Robert Toombs, who was also a future Confederate general, strongly opposed Know Nothingism. Some former Whigs joined the American party, but minimized the nativist plank. Former Whig Senator John MacPherson Berrien of Savannah, Georgia, joined the American party to “promote Unionism rather than nativism and anti-Catholicism.”

In the North, the Know Nothings found considerable success. But, in the South, not as much. They elected several Congressmen, but only two Senators, Sam Houston of Texas and John Bell of Tennessee. They elected a few state representatives, but did not gain control of any state legislatures. In large part, the lack of Southern success was due to the Democrats who would not abandon the Irish immigrants. In Alabama, the Know Nothings tried to institute a plan to exclude “foreign paupers.” The plan failed due to Democratic opposition.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 110-112.

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