Tag Archives: American Party

“I Know Nothing”

American Party broadside (Kentucky Library Research Collections)

American Party broadside (Kentucky Library Research Collections)

Streaking across the political firmament in the 1850s, the American Party rose in response to a wave of immigrants, many of them Catholics, to the United States.  The party saw the newcomers as a threat to American values and economic security, and feared that their allegiance to the Pope would compromise their loyalty to the country.

Collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections tell us of the interest the American Party attracted throughout the country.  It was originally more of a secret society, with a formal admission ceremony described by Robert Hale, and a command to members to say “I know nothing” when pressed for their beliefs.  The “Know Nothing Party,” as it came to be called, stood for restricting immigration, limiting eligibility for political office to native-born Protestants, and imposing a lengthy residence requirement for U.S. citizenship.

American Party broadside

Although the Know Nothings were most prominent in the Northeast, they drew comment from every region.  Writing from California to his father in Dry Fork, Kentucky, George Young observed that “the Know Nothings are increasing very fast” and “I am inclined to believe that it will do this state much good.”  A more skeptical letter-writer in Texas told the Goodnight family of Warren County, Kentucky that party supporters “talk a great deal about true Americans but I don’t believe there is a true Republican amongst them.”

In a speech delivered in Virginia, Georgia native Michael Cluskey, later a newspaper editor in Louisville, offered a lengthy and increasingly passionate criticism of the Know Nothings.  He debunked the “bugbear of immigration,” which was “made to appear frightful by the unfounded statements of certain Know Nothing orators.”  Contrary to the claim that “there were 1000 000 million of emigrants into this country during the last year,” he pointed to actual native-born-to-immigrant ratios of 38 to 1 in Virginia and 8 to 1 in the U.S.  A recent decrease in immigration, in fact, was threatening to cause a labor shortage, especially for public works like roads and canals, to which “native born Americans generally don’t choose to expose themselves.”  As for the party’s anti-Catholic platform, Cluskey observed that “nothing is so easily stirred up in the breast of man as the serpent of Religious prejudice,” a “cry of wolf” through which politicians could achieve darker objectives.  “Small temporary shocks like these,” he argued, were more dangerous to the republic than “direct blows at its stability.”

The 1856 presidential election, in which their candidate finished last, spelled the end of the Know Nothings.  In a letter written from Madisonville, Kentucky, Charles Cook understood why.  “I still cherish the leading principles of the American party as the only efficient guarantee against the dangerous influences and corrupting tendencies of foreign emigration,” he admitted, “but these are questions of minor importance.”  The issue now roiling the country, and the one to which “the earnest efforts of every patriotic Union loving man should be turned,” was slavery.

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections.  For more collections relating to immigrants and the Know Nothings, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Politics. . . As Usual

American Party of Kentucky documents

American Party of Kentucky documents

Since existing political parties do not offer valid choices to the voters, a new party is urgently needed.  The two existing parties, Democrat and Republican,. . . have deserted the principles and traditions of our nation’s Founding Fathers.

A clip from last night’s cable news?  Au contraire, as we look back almost 50 years to the policy declaration of the American Party of Kentucky, a copy of which is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.

First convened in 1968 to “provide the vehicle through which responsible conservative candidates can be offered to the voters,” the American Party stood for allegiance to God, limited government, free enterprise, private property, and traditional morality.  It stood against totalitarianism of all stripes, foreign aid, the United Nations, and government-sponsored charity.  By early 1969, the Party was incorporated and tutoring prospective candidates on how to file for local, state and national offices.

For its presidential candidate, the American Party selected former Alabama governor George C. Wallace, who, despite his segregationist resume, electrified supporters with his fiery rhetoric.  “Yes, they’ve looked down their nose at you and me a long time,” he said on the campaign trail.  “They’ve called us rednecks — the Republicans and the Democrats.  Well, we’re going to show, there sure are a lot of rednecks in this country.”

After the 1968 election, the Kentucky American Party’s Richard H. Treitz wrote to the faithful on letterhead of the Wallace campaign to thank them for their efforts.  The best was yet to come, he declared, asking for support in turning a grassroots movement into a truly national political party.  While not victorious in ’68, the soldiers of God and country had “scared the two-alike parties like never before and . . . THEY HAVEN’T SEEN ANYTHING YET!”

Click here to download a finding aid for the American Party collection.  For more of our political collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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