You hear much in the media these days about “Knownothingism”, especially as it relates to the current Republican Party and its recent slate of candidates. Lest you think this is just another hit piece in that tradition, let me clarify.
The “Know-Nothings”, known as the Nativist, Native American (before that term assumed an entirely different meaning), and the American party, were a political movement of the mid-19th century. The guiding mission of the Know-Nothings was the exclusion of foreign-born citizens from all offices of public trust, whether federal, state, or local. Facing successive waves of Italian and Irish immigration and competition for jobs, the Know-Nothings were virulently anti-Catholic—the religious affiliation of most of these immigrants—and it’s during this period that some of the most persistent myths about practicing Catholics (polytheistic, priest-ridden) were forged.
Modern sources are apt to link “Knownothingism” with ignorance, but the name of the movement is an allusion to its secrecy, not the wider knowledge of its members. Initiates to the party, not privy to the object of this fraternity, its name, or its higher-ranking members, found their curiosity over Nativist attentions greeted with the stock answer “I don’t know”. Secret societies steeped in ritual rites-of-passage were common throughout this period (notably freemasonry). Nativist belief, or outright involvement in the American Party (as it was officially known, beginning in 1854), became so mainstream that former president Millard Fillmore accepted the American Party’s presidential nomination in 1856.
That same year, the Republican Party nominated John C. Fremont as their first presidential nominee.
While the Republican Party has distanced itself from the Know-Nothing’s anti-Catholicism, it—or, a sizable, vocal segment within it—remains the torch-bearer of much of the Nativists’ social attitudes, and its single-minded pursuit of a small handful of crank issues.
There’s the insistence on rigid citizenship tests. Pending legislation in the current House of Representatives (H.R. 1503) would require “the principal campaign committee of a candidate for election to the office of President to include … a copy of the candidate's birth certificate, together with such other documentation as may be necessary to establish that the candidate meets the qualifications for eligibility to the Office of President under the Constitution. This carries on the proud tradition of proposals like the “Citizenship Reform Act in 1995,” which aimed to deny automatic citizenship to children born in the U.S. whose parents aren't citizens or permanent resident aliens—a proposal resurrected almost every year since 1995.
The 1856 American Party platform called for a 21-year period of residency for foreigners in the United States before granting naturalization—an attempt to bar the swelling Irish immigrant population, newly arrived but politically adroit, from public office.
But to talk to Know-Nothings and their biographers, like William Elliot Griffis, the aim of this legislation wasn’t simple hostility to foreigners—they wanted to insure that they were properly “imbued with American sentiments” before taking part in politics.
How to define “American sentiments” in a country as large, culturally-varied, and imperfectly assimilated as ours remains a challenge. But taking their cues from the Know-Nothings, and the McCarthyites who followed that tradition, modern Republicans have agitated for a more aggressive, almost nationalistic, sense of “Americanism”—seen more frequently in post-9/11 America, and epitomized in Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann’s call for the media to investigate “the views of the people in Congress and find out, are they pro-America or anti-America?”
The Know-Nothings, like anything that finds itself on the brink of extinction, failed to adapt to major changes in their immediate environment. On the touchstone question of the day, slavery, Know-Nothing candidates deferred, in favor of “trifles and side issues”.
British conservative Henry Fairlie, writing in the 1980’s, anticipated the GOP’s current populist everyman/hyperindividualist divide, and planted himself firmly in the everyman camp. “The conservative can all too easily drift into a morally bankrupt and intellectually shallow defense of those who have made it made and those who are on the make.” Attempts at uniting the country were destined to fail, so long as conservatives supported business interests to the exclusion of everything else. “The nation,” Fairlie wrote, “cannot be brought to you, as if it were Masterpiece Theatre, by a grant from Mobil Oil.”
Time will tell if, on the current question of the moment (health care reform), conservative Republicans cast their lot with the everyman, or with their corporate patrons (one such patron, Americans for Prosperity, is a major beneficiary of Exxon-Mobil monies). If the latter, stars may align for another extinction-level event.