Xenophobia, the Know Nothing Party of the 1850s and the Trump/Pence NeoFascist Republican Agenda for 2017

Gary G. Kohls, MD

”The Know-Nothings were the depraved portion of our native-born population….It was not the American people who were seeking to make war on the church, but merely a party of religious fanatics and unprincipled demagogues who as little represented the American people as did the mobs whom they incited to bloodshed and incendiarism. Their whole conduct was un-American and opposed to all the principles and traditions of our free institutions.”—Bishop J. L. Spaulding


Xenophobia = an intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries

Nativism = the policy of protecting the interests of native-born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants

The pre-Civil War 1850s was an era when there was serious political instability and economic uncertainty partly because of the fear of a rising immigrant population without a concomitant increase in job opportunities. There was, as yet, no stable two party political system in the US. Because of these realities, a relatively new, very inexperienced political party, popularly known as the Know-Nothing Party, came out of nowhere and won 43 seats in the US Congress in the national election of 1856.

Although the existence of the new party was no secret, the names of its members were a closely kept secret. “I don’t know” was the preferred answer when the press asked about the party’s behind-closed-doors meetings and conspiratorial agendas. And so the pejorative label “know-nothing” was quickly applied to the group. It was a well-deserved title.

The Know-Nothing Party had originally named itself the Native American Party, although the name obviously did not refer to the real, non-white “native” Americans who had occupied the land for the previous 10,000 years – and then had it stolen from them. What the party meant by the designation “native” was “native-born”, and membership was limited to white people who were born in the USA. Only white Protestants were allowed in the party, which specifically excluded Roman Catholics, most of whom were recent immigrants from Europe. The party soon changed its name to the American Party, but the label of “Know-Nothing“ stuck.

The Know-Nothing Party enshrined nativism and virulent xenophobia in its founding document. By today’s standards, it was a white supremacist party and its members would have been good Ku Klux Klan members when that “Christian” organization came into existence after the racist South “lost” the Civil War. Not wanting to admit that they had lost, many of the most diehards pledged on their honor to “rise again” (a pledge still taken quite seriously 150 years later by Confederate Flag-waving, gun-toting southerners in the Tea Party wing of the GOP).

The fact that they actually chose “Native American Party” as their official original name was evidence for why they may actually deserve their “know-nothing” label, for they appeared not to know the history of the genocidal way that their American ancestors had dealt with the real native Americans just a generation earlier. What was particularly ironic is the fact that their ancestors at one time had also been non-native-born immigrants themselves.

Because of the rash of European migrants in the mid-1800s (many of whom couldn’t speak English) there was naturally a lot of fear of job competition with desperate poor people who would work for subsistence (or lower) wages. So an often hysterical fear of those foreigners arose and politicians exploited those fears. This “xenophobia” and the resultant violence that that fear generated was largely directed at Roman Catholicism, which was commonly practiced by the immigrants that were coming from countries like Ireland and southern Germany.

The young and inexperienced Know-Nothing Party reactionaries were unashamedly racist and also religiously pious, and it turned out to be a flash-in-the-pan reality as more and more moderate and open-minded Americans rejected the vile nature of the party’s goals.

A Party of Religious Fanatics and Unprincipled Demagogues

A Catholic Bishop, J. L. Spalding, said that the Know-Nothings were “the depraved portion of our native(-born) population….It was not the American people who were seeking to make war on the church, but merely a party of religious fanatics and unprincipled demagogues who as little represented the American people as did the mobs whom they incited to bloodshed and incendiarism. Their whole conduct was un-American and opposed to all the principles and traditions of our free institutions.”

The know-nothing movement reached its peak in the mid-1850s, and by 1859 it had essentially disappeared from national politics. But the ideology did not disappear.

The irrational fear of foreigners and fear of foreign religions that characterized the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s has a lot of similarities to the “America First” party of Donald Trump’s xenophobic GOP and their closely allied white supremacist Tea Party faction that sprang up after Barack Obama became America’s first black president.

Just like today’s right-wing parties in America, the Know-Nothings were energized by the perception that America’s immigration policies were too liberal. And a lot of narrow-minded voters throughout American and world history have easily become irrational haters of misunderstood or demonized foreigners. And those fears are typically fanned by media outlets that thrive on controversy. Xenophobia was normalized in the 1850s and it appears that not much has changed over the past 150 years. Racial conflict still sells newspapers.

Xenophobia is Incompatible with Sermon on the Mount Christianity

Of course, the Know-Nothing Puritanical/Calvinistic Protestants, never having been carefully taught the primacy of the ethics of the non-violent Jesus as summarized so well in the Sermon on the Mount, were not very likely to be truly merciful to the stranger or to lovingly feed the hungry immigrant or to offer shelter to the homeless ones, as Jesus instructed his followers to do.

The helpless refugees who came to America’s “welcoming” shores may have been trying to escape political persecution, pestilence, poverty, homelessness and starvation or they may have been innocent victims of war, simply trying to psychologically or spiritually heal from their traumatizing experiences at the hands of war’s killing soldiers, secret service torturers and ruling tyrannical elites who were trying to maintain their wealth and power by any means possible.

Emma Lazarus’ famous poem (apparently now newly obsolete in the brave new world of Trump’s xenophobic Republican Party) is engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty that has inspired so many millions of refugees since it was gifted to America by France in the 1870s. The plaque says “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.” But Emma Lazarus and the Statue of Liberty weren’t around in the 1850s.

So rather than welcoming beaten-down refugees into the New World, the Know-Nothings had their armed thugs administer beatings, shootings, and torchings of Catholic homes and Catholic churches. They even tarred and feathered a Jesuit priest, sending a clear message to other tired, poor, abused refugees who happened to have been followers of an “alien” religion.

The clear message was that they should self-deport – or else.

The History of Xenophobia in American Politics

The recent resurgence of the Christian Militias, Christian Dominionists, Christian Theocrats, the Pseudo-Christian Tea Party populist movements and now Trump’s and Pence’s xenophobic movement should give pause to all true patriots who love American democracy. Trump’s campaign rhetoric has successfully recruited millions of short-sighted voters to his cause and, in the last couple of election cycles, these groups have come out of nowhere to wield significant - albeit often dysfunctional - power in the US Congress. It should not be a surprise to discover that many of these xenophobic and racist-leaning Trump-supporting legislators have come from formerly pro-slavery and segregationist states. The perceived rapidity of the movement should call to mind what Christian supremacist and Islamophobe Ralph Reed (decidedly not a Sermon on the Mount-type Christian) once said:

“What Christians have got to do is take back this country, one precinct at a time, one neighborhood at a time and one state at a time. I honestly believe that in my lifetime, we will see (America) once again governed by Christians....and Christian values….I want to be invisible. I do guerilla warfare. I paint my face and travel at night. You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag. You don’t know until election night.”  -- Ralph Reed (Republican Christian Coalition executive director 1987-1989)

But the beneficiaries of all acts of genocide, just like the beneficiaries of inherited wealth, are typically unaware of the fact that they don’t deserve the land or the privileges that accrued to them from the greed, criminal acts and/or cruelty of their forefathers. Often the inheritors of luxury wealth have been parented in a sociopath-creating parenting style of being over-indulgent, non-disciplining, non-nurturing and often absent or neglectful as is often the case in punitive, conscienceless, sociopathic, narcissistic and independently wealthy conservatives like Donald Trump and any number of similarly parented children like the thrill-killing sons of the millionaires Leopold and Loeb back in the days of the roaring twenties in Chicago.

America’s true history is blood-drenched, putrid, genocidal, anti-democratic and un-Christ-like in the extreme, and it contradicts the wide-spread and deeply-indoctrinated (albeit false) “Christian” belief that America has always been “a shining city on a hill” that is blessed by God.

One has to be a historically-illiterate know-nothing to believe that.

The most gruesome parts of American history have been censored out of America’s school books ever since history books began being published. Lying about the past has been true of all pseudo-patriotic nations since the beginning of time. The textbooks from my history classes never mentioned the mass slaughter of America’s First Nation’s peoples, nor was there anything taught about the horrific history of slavery or about the lynchings of black African-Americans at the hand of white supremacists after they had been emancipated. It was the rare history teacher who taught about the war crimes committed by American soldiers during the Vietnam War. Usually the class never got to that part of the book before the semester ended.

Indeed, the real history of our nation has been profusely sugar-coated. Most of us grew up believing the myths of history that now desperately need to be re-learned in this era when America is so profoundly and justifiably hated for the wartime atrocities and injustices its leaders have perpetrated around the world. Ever since the homicidal white supremacist Christopher Columbus (and his greedy, sex-starved crew) began raping and pillaging the aboriginal inhabitants and their resources in 1492, the patriotic story/lie of the heroic adventurer Columbus has been told over and over again until we sheeple believed that it was true.

The Political Platform of the Know Nothing Party

Following is the platform of the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s: It might sound familiar. Only the type of religion might be different now.

• Severe limits on immigration, especially from predominantly Catholic countries.

• Restricting political office to native-born Americans.

• Extending the residency requirements for citizenship from five to twenty-one years.

• Limiting public office to native-born individuals.

• Restricting public school teachers to (white) Protestants.

• Mandating daily Bible readings in public schools (to be read from the Protestant version

of the Bible).

• Restricting the sale of liquor.

Article III of the Know-Nothing Party’s founding document declared that “a member must be a native-born citizen, a Protestant either born of Protestant parents or reared under Protestant influence, and not united in marriage with a Roman Catholic….no member who has a Roman Catholic wife shall be eligible to office in this order”.

When a Know-Nothing Party member was admitted into the secret organization, he was required to take the following oath:

“In the presence of Almighty God and these witnesses, you do solemnly promise and swear that you will never betray any of the secrets of this society.…that you never will permit any of the secrets of this society to be written.…that you will not vote.… for any man for any office.… unless he be an American-born citizen, in favor of Americans ruling America.…that you will not, under any circumstances, expose the name of any member of this order nor reveal the existence of such an association; that you will….obey the command of the.…president or his deputy.”

The Know-Nothings had conveniently forgotten that their ancestors had been complicit with Democratic Party President Andrew Jackson and his “Trail of Tears” atrocities (which would have easily met the 20th century’s definition of crimes against humanity). And of course the POW death camps of both the Confederate and Union Armies in the soon-to-erupt War Between the States would have met the definition of international war crimes.

The sorry state of some voters’ intelligence, their understanding of Christian ethics, their knowledge of basic science and the ease with which they have been led to believe obviously false campaign rhetoric has been breath-taking.

And their apparent studied ignorance on such issues as global climate change, the threat of rising sea levels, the obvious environmental degradation and mass pollution of the planet’s air, water and soil (thanks to the many sociopathic multinational corporations who only care about next quarter’s earnings and share price), the stubborn racism, and the obvious lack of knowledge of history, science, foreign affairs, drug policy, privatized prisons, gun violence, income and wealth inequality, access to medical care, etc, etc has been appalling. But it lends further credence to making the comparisons with the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s.