Stupidity never dies: The Know Nothings and their 21st century brethren

Stupidity never dies: The Know Nothings and their 21st century brethren

J BROOKS SPECTOR thinks about the current anti-immigrant fervour in the rhetoric of some presidential candidates and thinks back to its origins in American political thought.

Two hundred and sixty four years ago, Ben Franklin published what was probably the first xenophobic broadside of the New World. The same man who helped create the first free library in America, established the postal system between the 13 colonies, went on to prove lightning was actually electricity, helped write the Declaration of Independence, and who served with distinction as a diplomat in France as part of the 13 colonies’ revolt against the UK, also seemed to have a dark side that could easily have been embraced by Donald Trump in one of his more florid speeches.

In Franklin’s words in his pamphlet “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc”, he argued: “[W]hy should the Palatine Boors [farmers] be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.

Which leads me to add one Remark: That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? Why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red? But perhaps I am partial to the Complexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind.”

Whew – there is more than just a whiff or two of some touching-pretty-much-all-the-bases xenophobic rhetoric in that commentary. Fortunately for the new country that emerged from the Revolutionary War, there were no real restrictions on immigration built into the Constitution or national laws, save for the question of slavery that was put off for resolution until a later – much more difficult – moment. (Immigration quotas only became law after World War I.)

The promise of the new country and its seemingly limitless possibilities attracted growing numbers of new residents, eager to be a part of this new experiment that was supposed to shuck off the feuds and fights of the Old World. By the middle of the 19th century, rapidly rising numbers of largely Catholic Germans and Irish families, fleeing the turmoil of the 1848 revolutions on the Continent and massive potato crop failures in Ireland, became a major surge of immigration.

A hundred years after Franklin’s outburst, and largely in response to this sudden arrival of all those Germans and Irish, numerous Americans joined political movements opposed to these new waves of immigrants, their mysterious foreign ways and their presumed secret allegiance to that exotic eastern religious potentate, the pope. Part of this, of course, was rooted in the usual and universal circumstances that because these new immigrants were largely poor and desperate for work, virtually any work, they were prepared to take the hard, dirty jobs – and do them for less than other longer-established residents. This, of course, should have a particularly familiar ring for South Africans, every bit as much as it did back in 19th century America – and as it is doing right now for many of The Donald’s more vociferous supporters.

Moreover, for many more established residents, these new immigrants were viewed as a drag on the 19th century’s version of social services, such as schooling and more policing – and thus increasing the costs to taxpayers. One can easily imagine the pub conversations with people telling each other “Why should we have to pay for the problems of those poor people?”, with the inevitable “Why don’t they go back to where they come from, before they take all our jobs (and women)?”

Or, as Civil War historian James A McPherson described this period: “Immigration during the first five years of the 1850s reached a level five times greater than a decade earlier. Most of the new arrivals were poor Catholic peasants or labourers from Ireland and Germany who crowded into the tenements of large cities. Crime and welfare costs soared. Cincinnati’s crime rate, for example, tripled between 1846 and 1853 and its murder rate increased sevenfold. Boston’s expenditures for poor relief rose threefold during the same period.”

In response, some among the longer-settled population moved beyond happy hour grumbling and muttering and on into the creation of an actual political party expressly designed to resist such untrammelled immigration. Eventually called The American Party, but first and popularly termed “The Know Nothings”, this new party began to capture local and state-level offices across the Northeast and in the growing cities of the Midwest in the early 1850s. By the 1854 election, the party had gained nearly a fifth of the total membership of the nation’s House of Representatives. And in the 1856 election, they captured five out of 66 members of the Senate. The party drew its strength from the conjoined strains of anti-Catholicism, anti-immigration and “nativism”, and profited too from the gathering collapse of the old Whig Party that was wilting in the face of the increasingly acrimonious national debate over any expansion of slavery into western states and territories.

The origin of the term “The Know Nothings” derived from the semi-secret nature of the organisation of the party. When a member was asked about its activities, such a member was supposed to reply: “I know nothing.” Not surprisingly, those same outsiders began calling the party’s supporters “Know Nothings” – and the name quickly caught on with both the press and the people. (Irony was apparently not a major political commodity in the mid-19th century.) By 1855, the Know Nothings carried out an early version of a total rebranding exercise, henceforth calling themselves The American Party (presumably in opposition to all those other less patriotic sorts who supported any other political formations).

Then in February 1856, in Philadelphia, this avowedly anti-immigration political gathering held a nominating convention for the upcoming presidential election and settled on former president Millard Fillmore as their chosen candidate. Fillmore had succeeded Zachary Taylor who died in office in 1850 (until the term ended in early 1853), and Fillmore became the new party’s standard-bearer, even though he was not formally a member and had actually been out of the country when he was nominated. Nevertheless, he ran on the party’s platform and collected nearly a quarter of the national popular vote – and even won the electoral votes of one state, Maryland.

But the party’s coherence did not outlast the times as it split into pro- and anti-slavery factions. By the next presidential election in 1860, supporters of the anti-slavery faction of the party had largely joined with the new Republican Party, while the pro-slavery remnant became an element of the Constitutional Union Party, along with former Whig supporters who hoped to postpone the great reckoning over slavery well off into the distant future.

In 1855, Abraham Lincoln, the successful presidential candidate for the Republicans in 1860, had privately written to a friend: “I am not a Know Nothing — that is certain. 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 to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘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 that I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.” He never publicly attacked the Know Nothings, however, as it was assumed that its previous supporters would still be a key voting constituency in the 1860 election his party hoped to gain.

While the Know Nothings as a discrete party did not survive the Civil War, those nativist, anti-immigrant impulses have continued to crop up repeatedly in a variety of circumstances, both among conservative political movements as well as among some leftist radical ones who feared new immigrant groups would undermine worker solidarity or union gains on wages and conditions. In the 1920s, the revived version of the Ku Klux Klan tapped into this vein, along with the racial segregationist political ideology of then Alabama governor George Wallace in his repeated unsuccessful runs for the presidency under the banner of the American Independent Party in the 1960s and 70s.

And, of course, in the present moment, in America, candidates like Trump have been working overtime in order to tap into this same virulent anti-immigrant bias in their respective runs for the Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency. This anti-immigrant flavour has become one of the core elements of real estate developer Trump’s message to prospective voters with his language about all those Mexicans who are rapists and killers stealing jobs and those Asians deliberately giving birth to anchor babies. These are the rationales for his promise to round up all 11-million illegal aliens/undocumented immigrants with a legally sanctioned form of the forcible ethnic cleansing of America’s streets, restaurants, and sweatshops. Without making too fine a point of it, the anti-immigration trope has become part of the language of many politicians in Europe these days, as well as being an integral part of South Africa’s own political rhetoric.

In the case of Trump, his language is such that he would not have been out of place rhetorically on the stump for the American Party’s candidate for the presidency in the early 1850s. The irony of this is that The Donald’s grandfather (armed with his original very Germanic surname, Drumpf) had immigrated to the US from Germany in 1885. He would have been the object of old Ben Franklin’s fiery ire, had he arrived a century or so earlier, or he would have been the object of bitter disdain by the Know Nothings, had his parents been on a vessel that arrived 20 years earlier than the one they actually did board. And he would not have fared much better in the heyday of the Klu Klux Klan in the 1920s.

Inevitably, it seems, in a time of economic or political stress, the immigrant becomes the easiest target for ginning up some good old-fashioned, populist political anger. The point of such anger is to convert the anger into votes, even as it belies the language and spirit of the words at the base of the Statue of Liberty. There the words that greeted many millions of political or economic refugees or the victims of religious or ethnic persecution as they sailed into New York City’s harbour read: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” DM

Photo: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures during the second US GOP Presidential candidates debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, USA, 16 September 2015. EPA/MAX WHITTAKER / POOL


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