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Immigration Archives - The "Native American" and "Know-Nothing" Movements

The second period, from 1835 to 1860, is sharply defined by the so-called "Native American" and "Know-Nothing" movements, which, as is generally known, were largely based on opposition to the immigration of Roman Catholics. This hostility early took the form of a political movement.

In 1835 there was a Nativist candidate for Congress in New York City, and in the following year that party nominated a candidate for mayor of the same city. In Germantown, Pennsylvania, and in Washington, D. C., Nativist societies were formed in 1837, while in Louisiana the movement was organized in 1839 and a State convention was held two years later.. It was at this convention that the Native American party, under the name of the American Republican party, was established.

The chief demands of this convention were a repeal of the naturalization laws and the appointment of only native Americans to office. While these societies were stronger in local than in national politics, and were organized chiefly to aid in controlling local affairs, their few representatives in Congress attempted to make Nativism a national question.

As a result of their efforts, the United States Senate in 1836 agreed to a resolution directing the Secretary of State to collect certain information respecting the immigration of foreign paupers and criminals. In the House of Representatives, on February 19, 1838, a resolution was agreed to which provided that the Committee on the Judiciary be instructed to consider the expediency of revising the naturalization laws so as to require a longer term of residence in the United States, and also provide greater security against frauds in the process of obtaining naturalization.

The committee was further instructed to consider the propriety and expediency of providing by law against the introduction into the United States of vagabonds and paupers deported from foreign countries. This resolution was referred to a select com-mittee of seven members, and its report was the first resulting from a congressional investigation of any question bearing upon immigration.

Four members of the committee were from New York and Massachusetts, which States were then the chief centers of the anti-foreign movement. Its majority report recommended immediate legislative action, not only by Congress, but also by many of the States, so that the alleged evils could be remedied and impending calamities averted.

Two southern members of the committee and the member from Ohio did not concur in the report. A recommendation to this committee by the Native American Association of Washington urged that a system of consular inspection be instituted, a plan that in recent years has been repeatedly recommended to Congress. The plan was to make the immigrant, upon receiving his passport from the consul, pay a tax of $20.

The bill as presented upon recommendation of the committee provided that any master taking on board his vessel with the intention of transporting to the United States any alien passenger who was an idiot, lunatic, maniac, or one afflicted with any incurable disease, or anyone convicted of an infamous crime, should be fined $1,000, or be imprisoned not less than one year nor more than three.

It was further proposed that the master should forfeit $1,000 for any alien brought in who had not the ability to maintain himself. Congress did not even consider this bill, and during the next ten years little attempt was made to secure legislation against the foreigner.

As a consequence of the sudden and great increase of immigration from Europe between 1848 and 1850, the old dread of the foreigner was revived, and in the early fifties the native American movement again became active. The new, like the earlier, agitation, was closely associated with the anti-Catholic propaganda.

The new organization assumed the form of a secret society. Its meetings were secret, its endorsements were never made openly, and even its name and purpose were said to be known only to those who reached the highest degree. Consequently, the rank and file, when questioned about their party, were obliged to answer, "I don't know"; so they came to be called "Know Nothings."

By 1854 much of the organization's secrecy had been discarded. Its name, "Order of the Star Spangled Banner," and its meeting places, were known; and it openly endorsed candidates for office and put forward candidates of its own. It is recorded that in 1855, in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, California, and Kentucky, the Governors and legislatures were "Know Nothings"; while the party had secured the choice of land commissioner of Texas, and the legislature and comptroller of Maryland.

Encouraged by this success in local affairs, the party in 1855 began to make plans for the presidential election. In that year a national council was held at Philadelphia. A platform was adopted which called for a change in the existing naturalization laws, the repeal by the legislatures of several States of laws allowing foreigners not naturalized to vote, and also for a repeal by Congress of all acts making grants of land to unnaturalized foreigners and allowing them to vote in the Territories.

In the following year a national convention of the party was held in Philadelphia, and 27 States were represented by 227 delegates. Almost all the delegates from New England, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Iowa withdrew from the convention when a motion was made to nominate a candidate for President. The withdrawing minority wanted an anti-slavery plank.

Those remaining nominated Millard Fillmore for President. The principles of the platform adopted at this convention were that Americans must rule America, and to this end native-born citizens should be selected for all State, Federal, and municipal government employment in preference to all others. A change in the laws of naturalization, making continued residence of twenty-one years an indispensable requisite for citizenship, and a law excluding all paupers or persons convicted of crime from landing in the United States, were also demanded.

Millard Fillmore was also nominated for the presidency by the Whig party in a convention held the following September, but the Whigs did not, however, adopt the platform of the "Know Nothings," and even referred to "the peculiar doctrines of the party which has already selected Mr. Fillmore as a candidate." At the November election in 1855, Mr. Fillmore received only 874.534 votes, carrying but one State, Maryland. It is impossible to say how many of these votes were due to the fact that he was a candidate of the "Know-Nothing" party.

The "Know Nothing" strength in Congress was greatest in the Thirty-fourth Congress, 1854 to 1856. They had no openly avowed representatives in the Thirty-third Congress, while in the Thirty-fourth they claimed 43 Representatives and 5 Senators, aside from 70 Republicans who were said to be members of "Know Nothing" councils. In the Thirty-fifth Congress the "Know Nothings" claimed 5 Senators and 14 Representatives, and about the same number were in the Thirty-sixth and Thirty-seventh; but in the Thirty-eighth Congress the party was not represented in either branch.

Being in a minority in Congress, the "Know Nothings" had but little influence on national legislation. In naturalization bills introduced they proposed to lengthen the period of residence, usually demanding that it be made twenty-one years, but their proposed laws affecting immigration were, as a rule, only directed against the exclusion of foreign paupers and criminals.

The "Know Nothings" disappeared without having accomplished anything against immigration, adopted citizens, or Catholics. As a matter of fact, some national legislation favorable to foreigners was passed during this period of agitation. In 1847, and again in 1848, the passenger law of 1819 was amended in order to improve conditions in the steerage of immigrant ships.

Jeremiah W. Jenks, Ph.D., LL.D. and W. Jett Lauck, A.B., "The 'Native American' and 'Know-Nothing' Movements" In The Immigration Problem, New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1912, P. 295-300.

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