Would you believe it? The ‘Know-Nothings’

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Would you believe it? The ‘Know-Nothings’

We already know the origins of the rising US political party calling themselves ‘The Tea Party’. Tea-loaded ships sailing from Britain in 1773 threatened other tea importers with their monopolies. The American Sons of Liberty, mostly raw young sons of important Boston traders, rowed or swam out to the tea ships, boarded them by main force, and threw all the tea casks overboard. So there! The waters of Boston harbour were stained tea colour for weeks.

The recently founded Tea Party, more radical than republican adopted the name. But did you know that there was a nineteenth century American political party calling itself ‘The Know-Nothings’. Some commentators would perhaps agree with me in observing that this would have been a most appropriate, if optimistic name for the last Zapatero administration in Spain. They knew nothing about crises, pending or actual. They knew nothing about rampant corruption in  the ‘Autonomous Communities’, previously called Regions. They knew nothing about political bias in the State-owned broadcasting services. There was even a Ministress of Defence who knew nothing of guns! And a Ministress of Health who knew nothing of medicine.

The original Know-Nothings were native-born Americans worried mainly about immigration (3 million immigrants between 1846 – 54). The K-N said these emigrants from poorer countries worked in Americafor low wages, and to cap it all were mostly Roman Catholics. Several secret societies already prominent for their anti-Irish stance were formed up to make a counter-attack against this terrible menace. If any should be arrested, they were instructed to say “I know nothing!”

The group claimed in the press that their aim was not to prevent immigration, but to prevent Catholics and foreigners from holding public office; they demanded more stringent naturalization laws, and a literary test for applicants before being given the vote. Eventually several societies merged and became ‘The American Party’ – mostly Protestants and minor businessmen. They won 104 out of 234 seats in Congress, but Abraham Lincoln was unimpressed; not even his hard upper lip was seen to tremble: “I am not a Know-Nothing,” he announced, and went on: “How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes be in favour of defrauding classes of white men?” This was a good question coming from a slave-owning family originally from Kentucky.

The Know-Nothings split up eventually, as most parties do when their ideology is too radical. They were split, for instance, over the inescapable question of slavery. But they managed a First National Convention in 1855, in which Southern Know-Nothings supported the Cansas/Nebraska Act. The Northern Know-Nothings walked out.

The party nominated Millard Fillmore as President of the United States in 1856, but he won only one state. The groups began a massive disintegration, most participants going to the Republicans, who rapidly accepted Know-Nothing principles. In fact the Republicans were mostly practising Protestants and only native-born until the 1930s.

In the United Kingdomanother eccentrically named party was set up by Auberon Waugh in the West Country in the 1970s. It was called ‘The Dog-Lovers Party’, named in remembrance of Rinka, a Great Dane supposely murdered at the orders of a Whiggish leader of the Liberal Party.

It did not do well at the polls, and had to be disbanded.

By | 2012-09-07T10:50:01+00:00 September 7th, 2012|British History, Humour, US History|0 Comments

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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