late as 1850, the two party system was, to all
outward appearances, still healthy. Both the Democrats and Whigs were able to
attract support in every section and neither party was able to win more than
53 percent of the popular vote. Then, in the space of just five years, the
two-party system disintegrated in response to two issues: foreign immigration
and the reemergence of the issues of slavery expansion.
A massive wave of immigration from Ireland and Germany after 1845 led to an
outburst of anti-foreign and anti-Catholic sentiment. Between 1846 and 1855,
three million foreigners arrived in America. Nativists, ardent opponents of
immigration, capitalized on deep-seated Protestant antagonism toward
Catholics and working-class fear of economic competition from cheaper
Nativists charged that Catholics were responsible for a sharp increase in
poverty, crime, and drunkenness, and were subservient to a foreign leader,
In 1849, native-born Protestant workingmen formed a secret fraternal
organization, "The Order of the Star-Spangled Banner," which became
the nucleus of a new political party known as the Known-Nothing or American
The party received its name from the fact that, when members were asked about
the party's workings, they were supposed to reply, "I know
The Know Nothings attracted support not only from nativists, but from large
numbers of northern free soilers and southern
Whigs. By 1855, the party had captured control of all New England except
Vermont and Maine and was the dominant opposition party to the Democrats in
New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama,
Mississippi, and Louisiana.
The party platform included a 21-year residency period before immigrants
could become citizens and vote, limitations on office-holding to native-born
Americans, and restrictions on the sale of liquor.
One Northerner who spoke out against the Know Nothings was Abraham Lincoln,
who eloquently argued that the party's nativist platform was a violation of
the country's republican principles."
From US Digital History.
Abraham Lincoln, Letter to Joshua
"I am not a Know-Nothing. How could I be? How
can any one who abhors the oppression of Negroes be
in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy
appears to me pretty rapid. As a nation we began by declaring "all men
are created equal."
We now practically read it, "all men are created equal, except
Negroes." When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read "all men
are created equal, except Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics."
When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they
make no pretense of loving liberty--to Russia, for example, where despotism
can be taken pure and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."