Notes Concerning the Author:
Tyler Anbinder received his Ph.D. in history at Columbia University in 1990 and then taught history as an Assistant Professor at the University of Wyoming from 1990 to 1994. It was there that he completed his book, which was published by Oxford University Press in 1992. Following publication, he took a job at George Washington University (1994-present), rising to Chair, History Department. His book on Know Nothings won the Avery O. Craven Award of the Organization of American Historians soon after its publication.
Anbinder’s dissertation adviser at Columbia was Eric Foner. Of that relationship, he writes, “I developed an interest in the Know Nothings in his graduate seminar on slavery and the origins of the sectional conflict, in which I was given the unenviable assignment of critiquing his own work on nativism. Throughout the progress of my study, he provided invaluable guidance and advice, and his editorial skills improved every facet of this book.” Anbinder also credits William Gienapp for “providing invaluable suggestions concerning manuscript sources.” Gienapp’s book, “Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856,” is key to understanding sectional politics in the northern States during the 1850’s. And Anbinder’s book on the Know Nothings complements Gienapp’s in a fine and complete way.
Eric Foner’s book, “Reconstruction, America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877,” published in 1988, is not on the Society’s Recommended Reading.
A book of 330 pages, “Nativism & Slavery, The Northern Know Nothings & the Politics of the 1850’s” had less to do about slavery in the southern States and the National Territories than the title of Tyler Anbinder’s book would suggest. It was all about opposition to political influence by recent immigrants and secret schemes to defeat the Democratic Parties of the various northern States. The huge influx of immigrants into those States during the 1850’s and their natural affinity for the Democratic Party had spawned a secret reactionary political organization to oppose Democratic candidates. The Whig Party had died. There was no effective opposition to Democrats in the northern States. The idea of secret Know Nothings lodges filled that vacuum with amazing success, but only for a short time. Remember, politics was primarily local during the 1850’s, and Federal offices were far less important than today. Political control first required control over local and State offices, from which influence over Federal offices would hopefully follow.
What would become the Know Nothings originated in about 1850 in New York City under the name the “Order of the Star Spangled Banner.” It was a secret organization whose members secretly gathered in lodges and arranged to support men who would secretly support their agenda once elected. Through secrecy, the Know Nothings passed the word to support so and so while deceiving the general public about their actions and the agenda of their chosen candidates. The deception worked. Politically active men secretly flocked to secret lodge meetings and deals were struck. Because no one would admit to knowing anything about the lodges and the “Order of the Star Spangled Banner,” the public began calling the organization, “the Know Nothings.”
The primary political agenda of Know Nothings was opposition to immigrant influence and Catholic influence in schools and government. Know Nothings lodges focused on recruiting native-born men, while recent immigrants were to be excluded. The idea was very successful, scoring many victories in 1854.
On page 127 of his book, Tyler Anbinder wrote, “With more than 10,000 lodges and 1,000,000 members, Know Nothings entered 1855 brimming with confidence. In the first weeks of January, Know Nothing governors were inaugurated in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, and the Order believed (correctly, as it turned out) that upcoming spring elections in New England would provide additional victories. . . . Besides capturing the governorship, Know Nothings in Massachusetts occupied every seat in the Senate that convened in January 1855, and all but 3 of the 378 positions in the House. In Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, Know Nothings also controlled both the executive and legislative branches of government, albeit with smaller legislative majorities.”
Know Nothings confidence backfired when leaders decided to become an open political party and call itself the American Party. Influence faltered and the lodge members rapidly drifted into the Republican Party camp. By 1856, Republicans were the dominant opposition to Democrats. Opposition to immigrants and Catholic influence had been a powerful force, but Republicans, taking advantage of propaganda out of Bleeding Kansas, recognized that, in spite of the fact that political power was derived from winning local and State elections, a ground-swell of opposition to Democrats could be augmented through opposition to allowing African slaves to live in the National Territories and all future States.
By 1856, the Republican Party was rapidly seizing power in the northern States and the rest is history. To understand the rapid rise of the Republican Party, you should read William E. Gienapp’s book, “The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856.” In fact Gienapp had advised Anbinder during the latter’s Ph. D. work on the Know Nothings and the two men’s books complement each other quite well.
Availability of this Book
You can get a new or used copy of Anbinder’s book on the Know Nothings on Amazon.com and other places. There is no Kindle e-book, but a Google digital book is available.