The Know Nothings


MILLARD FILLMORE, AMERICAN CANDIDATE FOR PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATESIn response to the growing immigration of the 1840’s, a nativist movement began to develop throughout the eastern United States. Roman Catholics were frequently the target of controversy in Maryland with the creation and request for government financing of the parochial school system. Local fire brigades also tended to be Irish Catholic, and their sometimes-violent competition with one another added to the growing resentment. This xenophobic sentiment solidified into the creation of the Native American party at a conference in Philadelphia in 1845. 

This political party stalled while the country focused on the Mexican War, but after the Compromise of 1850, the nativist sentiment reemerged. Secret societies such as the Order of United Americans and the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner formed. When questioned, members were to respond that they knew nothing about the group. These Know Nothings established themselves as the American party in 1854. They further strengthened their ranks with disenchanted Whig members. The focus of the American party was to elect native-born men to political offices and to create a 25-year residence restriction for citizenship. Additionally, Maryland members of the American party sided with a growing temperance movement.

The American party was extremely successful in Maryland. Its candidates won in the municipal elections of Hagerstown and the mayoral election of Baltimore in 1854. By 1857, the Know Nothings had captured the House of Delegates and witnessed Thomas Hicks sworn in as governor. The elections of 1856 within Baltimore City were particularly noticeable for their violent and illegal voting practices.

Seeking to add southerners to their party eventually lead to the splintering of the American party. At the June 1855 convention in Philadelphia, Southern members seized control and adopted a pro-slavery platform. As a result of this issue and the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, anti-slavery Know Nothings left the American party and joined the new Republican party.

Millard Fillmore ran for President in 1856 on the American-Whig-Know Nothings ticket. Only Maryland issued its electoral votes to the former President.

In Maryland, the Know Nothings were forced out of state office by 1859 when the Democrats seized control. In an effort to staunch the American party within Baltimore City, the city police were put under state control, voting practices were regulated, and the recent election results were voided.

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades K-4:

Era 4 Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)

STANDARD 2: How the industrial revolution, increasing immigration, the rapid expansion of slavery, and the westward movement changed the lives of Americans and led toward regional tensions

Standard 2B: The student understands the first era of American urbanization.

7-12: Analyze how rapid urbanization, immigration, and industrialization affected the social fabric of early 19th-century cities. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

STANDARD 3: The extension, restriction, and reorganization of political democracy after 1800.

Standard 3A: The student understands the changing character of American political life in "the age of the common man."

7-12: Relate the increasing popular participation in state and national politics to the evolving democratic ideal that adult white males were entitled to political participation. [Identify relevant historical antecedents]

Primary Resources

  1. TITLE:  Political Parties in Maryland and Election Returns
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: December 3, 1856
    SOURCE: Meetings of Presidential Electors in Maryland, 1789-1980 1785-1791
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  2. TITLE: Proceedings and Debates of the 1867 Constitutional Convention
    NOTE: shows contextual remembrance of improper voting practices during Know-Nothing times
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  3. TITLE: Thomas Holliday Hicks - Maryland governor 1858-1862
    NOTE: use “biography” and then “extended biography” link for information on participation in Know Nothing party
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  4. TITLE: Thomas Swann - Baltimore Mayor 1856-1860; Governor 1866-1869
    NOTE: use “biography” and then “extended biography” link for information on participation in Know Nothing party
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  5. TITLE: Know Nothing Platform
    DATE PUBLISHED: August 1996
    REPOSITORY: Duke University Special Collections Library

  6. TITLE: Letter from Abraham Lincoln
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: August 24, 1855
    NOTE: letter from Abraham Lincoln to Joshua F. Speed on views of Know-Nothing party
    SOURCE:  National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior: Lincoln Home

  7. TITLE: Speech by Hon. J. S. Millson of Virginia in the House of Representatives February 23rd, 1854
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: Feb 23rd, 1855
    SOURCE: A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 - 1875
    RESPOSITORY: Library of Congress

  8. TITLE: Examiner's Questions for admittance to the American (or Know-Nothing) Party
    Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division's First 100 Years
    Library of Congress

  9. TITLE: Millard Fillmore, American Candidate for President of the United States
    SOURCE: By Popular Demand: Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress

  10. TITLE: The Great Know Nothing Song, "I Don't Know"
    SOURCE: America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress

  11. TITLE: Know Nothing Polka
    SOURCE: Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress

  12. TITLE: The "Know-nothings" & the "Savage" by "Timid"
    SOURCE: An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress: American Memory

  13. TITLE: Paddy's fight with the know-nothings
    SOURCE: America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress: American Memory

  14. TITLE: Know nothing song. Air: Grave of Bonaparte
    SOURCE: America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress: American Memory

  15. TITLE: Remarks upon the Majority and Minority Reports of the Select Committee on Secret Societies of the Maryland House of Delegates  
    May 1856
    NOTE: p. 430-431.
    SOURCE: The United States Democratic review
    REPOSITORY: Cornell University Library

  16. TITLE: Tricks of the enemy! "Know nothing" Falsehoods!!
    SOURCE: An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress

  17. TITLE: Abraham Lincoln to Abraham Jonas, July 21, 1860
    SOURCE: The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Series 1. General Correspondence. 1833-1916.
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress

  18. TITLE:  “Platform of the American Party, adopted at the Session of the National Council, February 21, 1856”
    NOTE: anti-American party bias
    SOURCE:  The Annapolis Gazette
    REPOSITORY: microfilm available at the Maryland State Archives

  19. TITLE:  “Bloody Riots”
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: October 11, 1856
    NOTE: pro-American party bias
    SOURCE:  Kent News
    RESPOSITORY:  microfilm available at the Maryland State Archives

  20. TITLE: “The Baltimore Elections”
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  October 18, 1856
    NOTE: anti-American party bias
    SOURCE:  Cecil Democrat
    REPOSITORY:  microfilm available at the Maryland State Archives

  21. TITLE: “To the Democrats Who Have Been Deceived by the Know-Nothings”
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: October 1, 1856
    NOTE: anti-American party bias
    SOURCE: Daily Baltimore Republican
    REPOSITORY: microfilm available at the Maryland State Archives

  22. TITLE: “Fraud and Violence Triumphant”
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  October 9, 1856.
    NOTE: anti-American party bias
    SOURCE: Daily Baltimore Republican
    REPOSITORY:  microfilm available at the Maryland State Archives

  23. TITLE: “The Bloody Work of Yesterday”
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  October 9, 1856
    NOTE: anti-American party bias
    SOURCE: Daily Baltimore Republican
    RESPOSITORY:  microfilm available at the Maryland State Archives

  24. TITLE:  Interview with Robert B. Landry
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  February 28, 1974
    NOTE: brief description of Truman’s interest in the Know-Nothing party due to ties with McCarthyism
    INTERVIEWER:  by James R. Fuchs
    RESPOSITORY:  Harry S. Truman Library

Additional Media Resources

Chronology of Maryland events from the Maryland Manual, 1985-86

Secondary Resources

Anbinder, Tyler, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Baker, Jean H. Ambivalent Americans:The Know Nothing Party in Maryland. Baltimore: Books on Demand, 1977.

Baker, Jean H. The Politics of Continuity: Maryland Policitcal Parties from 1858 to 1870. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1973.

Beals, Carleton, Brass-Knuckle Crusade. New York: Hastings House Publishers, 1960.

Billington, Ray A., The Origins of Nativism in the United States, 1800-1844 (1979)

Billington, Ray A., The Protestant Crusade, 1800-1860 (1938; repr. 1964)

Bladek, John David. "America for Americans: The Southern Know Nothing Party and the Politics of Nativism, 1854-1856." (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Washington, 1998).

Bowers, Douglas. “Ideology and Political Parties in Maryland, 1851-1856.” Maryland Historical Magazine. LXIV Fall 1969, 197-217.

Gienapp, William E. "Nativism and the Creation of a Republican Majority in the North before the Civil War." The Journal of American History, Vol. 72, No. 3. (Dec., 1985), pp. 529-559.

Hicks, John D. "The Third Party Tradition in American Politics." The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 20, No. 1. (Jun., 1933), pp. 3-28.

Holt, Michael F. "The Politics of Impatience: The Origins of Know Nothingism." The Journal of American History, Vol. 60, No. 2. (Sep., 1973), pp. 309-331.

Levine, Bruce, “Conservatism, Nativism, and Slavery: Thomas R. Whitney and the Origins of the Know-Nothing Party.” The Journal of American History 88.2 (2001): 93 pars. 28 Nov. 2003.

Overdyke, W. D., The Know-Nothing Party in the South (1950; repr. 1968)

Price, Sean. Junior Scholastic; 12/3/93, Vol. 96 Issue 8, p13. Note: Relates the Know-Nothing Party's murder of 20 immigrants in Kentucky in 1855. Rampage through immigrant neighborhoods; Anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic party; Origin of their name.

Silbey, Joel H. “Know-Nothing Movement.” Grolier Incorporated, 2000.

Steiner, Bernard Christian. The Patriotic Marylander. 1915, Vol. I, 34-42. The Life of Henry Winter Davis.

Towers, Frank. “Violence as a Tool of Party Dominance: Election Riots and the Baltimore Know-Nothings, 1854-1860.” Maryland Historical Magazine. 1998 93(1): 4-37.

White, Jr., Frank F. The Governors of Maryland 1777-1970 (Annapolis:  The Hall of Records Commission), 165-170.

Wilner, Alan M. "The Reign of the Commissioners: 1851-1864." The Maryland Board of Public Works A History. Annapolis, MD: Hall of Records Commission, Department of General Services, 1984. p.45

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Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

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This document packet was researched and developed by Traci Siegler.


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