Knownothingism

Term used to designate a lawless and unconstitutional movement in American politics that lasted from 1843 to 1858. It was an outgrowth of the Native American movement and aimed to deprive foreigners and all Catholics, particularly Irish Catholics, of private and civil rights. The property and persons of its innocent victims were subjected to revolting examples of mob violence. The adherents of the movement, mostly lawless bigots, and later called “Know-Nothings” from their habit of answering “I don’t know,” to all questions relating to their affairs. They were united in New York City in 1852, under the title National Council of the United States of North America. They swore an oath of secrecy in regard to their order, its membership, aim, etc., and promised to vote into public office only native-born Americans who were neither Catholic, nor married to Catholics. Groups that melded into the movement included the Native American Party and the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner. Their political prestige in the beginning was extraordinary. By 1855 they had seventy-five avowed Know-Nothings in Congress, and had carried the elections in nine states, but bitterly split over the issue of slavery, they declined after their defeat in the presidential election of 1856.