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Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s

Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s - Tyler G. Anbinder Anbinder argues that the Know Nothing party was formed and motivated by combination of anti-Catholic, nativist, and anti-slavery sentiments. Anti-slavery attracted many northerners, swelling the ranks of the party initially, but eroding its strength as more specifically abolitionist political options became available. Anbinder also suggests that interest in the party reflected a lot of pent-up frustration with the Whigs and Democrats. This generalized discontent also facilitated the shift from Know Nothingism to Republicanism. “From 1845 to 1854, some 2,900,000 immigrants landed in the United States, more than had come in the seven previous decades combined. As a percentage of the nation’s total population, the influx of immigrants...amounting to 14.5 percent of the 1845 population, has never been surpassed.” (3) “Irish immigrants to the United States in the two decades after the War of 1812 tended to be...well-to-do farmers and middle-class city dwellers...[and] usually brought business or artisanal skills with them. (4) Then the potato blight struck in 1845. “It is estimated that between 1,000,000 and 1,500,000 Irishmen died either of starvation or of starvation-related illness (out of a total pre-famine population of 8,000,000) during the famine.” (6)“Although they received less publicity than the Irish, nearly as many Germans emigrated to the United States during the mid-1800s. In fact, in the peak year of immigration, 1854, German emigration to the United States outpaced that from Ireland by two to one.” (and “the sources of greatest emigration do not correspond to the areas of revolutionary unrest.” 7) “By 1855, immigrants outnumbered native-born citizens in Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee, and...would soon surpass the native in New York, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Cincinnatti.” (8) “Samuel F. B. Morse charged in a series of published letters that the monarchies of Europe had enlisted the aid of the Catholic Church to subvert the spread of democracy by sending Catholic immigrants to take control of the under-populated American west.” (9) Like father, like son...Lincoln, in a letter to his friend Joshua Speed in 1855:"I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty -- to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."Anbinder’s argument with William Gienapp seems to revolve around Gienapp’s claim that in the 1854 elections, nativism trumped anti-slavery, and that’s why the Know Nothings did so well. Anbinder suggests that a Know Nothing “vote usually carried both anti-Catholic and anti-slavery connotations. The temperance issue also drew many voters to the Know Nothing ticket, as did a general resentment toward the existing parties.” (66-7) Even so, Anbinder agrees that “if the question is posed...to determine whether anti-slavery or Know Nothingism played a key role in the Democrats’ defeat...it is evident that Know Nothingism was the decisive factor in bringing about the Democratic setback in Pennsylvania.” (67-8)