According to the CQ Press Encyclopedia of American Government, “The Know Nothing (American Party) of the 1850’s was the most formidable nativist political organization in American history; for two years in mid-decade it was the nation’s largest party.” As part of the Anti-Catholic Documents Collection, the Burns Library holds a record book of a local branch of the American Party also known as the “Know-Nothing Party.” When asked questions about the party, members of this secretive group would declare, “I know nothing.” The record book for Stoneham, Massachusetts contains the signatures of over 300 members and brief minutes of meetings, dating from 1854-1856. Glued to the front binding of the book is the Constitution.
The Preamble states, “We whose names are here annexed, desirous of supporting and protecting the rights of American citizens, by birth against every form of foreign influence upon our free government, do hereby pledge ourselves to be governed by the following Constitution and Laws.” Article I numbers the local association, otherwise known as no. 165 of the State of Massachusetts. Article II discusses qualifications for membership: “The qualifications for membership shall be, male persons not under twenty-one years of age, of good character, protestant in religious belief, birth within the United States of America, and one or both parents, and one or both grandparents, or if foreign born grandparents one must have taken an active part in the American Revolutionary War, on the Republican side, and both parents protestant in their religious belief.” The qualifications stated in Article II justify the labeling of the American Party as nativist and anti-Catholic.
This “Know-Nothing” organization in Stoneham was just one chapter of a large organization with other chapters across the United States. But in the mid-nineteenth century, the “Know-Nothing” power was centered in the Northeast. Indeed, the outcome of the Massachusetts state elections in 1854 reveals that the Bay State proved to be the greatest center of “Know-Nothing” power. Another item in the Burns Library’s Anti-Catholic Documents Collection is an American Party ticket listing candidates for state office in 1854, including Henry J. Gardner for governor. In 1854, the governor, all the state officers, all members of the State Senate and all but two members of the State House of Representatives were members of the American or “Know-Nothing” Party.
Another related item of interest in the Anti-Catholic Documents Collection is a brochure published by the Carriers of the Salem Register on January 1, 1856. This brochure appears to be a satirical poem about Gardner, entitled, “The Political Trip of Sam Know-Nothing in the Ship of the State of Massachusetts.” The prevalence of affiliation among Massachusetts politicians with the American Party in 1854 is outlined in this article from the Massachusetts Historical Society.
- Kathleen Williams, Irish Studies Librarian, firstname.lastname@example.org
Anti-Catholic Documents Collection, MS.2006.059, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.
Krusche, Earl R., Ph.D. Encyclopedia of Third Parties in the United States. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1991.
Moore, J.L. Know-Nothing American Party (1856). Elections A to Z (2nd Ed.) Washington D.C.: CQ Press, 2003.