“Unprecedented!” We hear the word almost daily, alongside a steady stream of precedents. The 1918 flu. Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson. Protests in the 1960s. Polio vaccine development. Charlottesville’s Unite the Right. The disputed 2000 presidential election. And week after week, the Know-Nothings of the 1850s.
Conspiracy theories heightened the Know-Nothings’ zeal to protect the American way of life (native-born, English-speaking, Protestant) from Irish and German Catholic immigrants. Their nickname referred to members’ secrecy: “I know nothing.” They resented outsiders, elites, and expertise. To defeat a supposed plot to bring the U.S. under papal rule, they won local elections and used intimidation to keep Catholics from voting.
Violence by Know-Nothings erupted in at least seven major cities between 1854 and 1858. In Louisville’s election day riots of 1855, attacks on immigrant Catholic neighborhoods by Protestant mobs left 22 dead. Dozens were injured. Fire destroyed homes and businesses. Of the five participants later indicted, none were convicted.
From hyper-nationalism to conspiracy theories to deadly violence—what next? The Know-Nothings quickly passed into history with the rise of the new Republican Party. Within a few years of their demise, the nation was engulfed by civil war.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.