A major force in American politics in the 1850s, the Know-Nothing Party was at one and the same time a secret society and a political party – a complicated mix, but entirely believable in nineteenth-century America, where secret societies of all kinds were in their heyday. Its formal name was the American Party; the term “Know-Nothings” came from the requirement that members answer all questions about the party and its activities with the words “I don’t know.”

The party’s history began in 1849 when Charles B. Allen organized a secret society, the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, in New York City. The order had two degrees of initiation and the usual lodge equipment of passwords, grips, and symbols. Its purposes, though, were strictly political; it sought to unite white Protestant Americans against the Roman Catholic Church, keep Catholics out of political office, and ban immigration from Catholic countries. The role of Catholicism in American society was a heated issue at the time, as many Americans of other religions were convinced that Catholics placed their loyalty to the Pope over their duty to their country. See Roman Catholic Church.

In 1852 a political party, the American Party, was founded in New York City with a platform very similar to that of the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, and the two soon merged, absorbing several other nativist political groups in the process and drawing members and ideas from the Society of St Tammany, a descendant of the old Sons of Liberty society from the Revolutionary War era. By 1854 a new ritual of three degrees had been established, and local, district, and state Councils (local lodges) began to spring up across the United States. See Society of St Tammany; Sons of Liberty.

The Know-Nothings emerged when the Federalist (Whig) Party, until then one of the two dominant forces in American politics, was in the process of breaking apart over disputes concerning slavery. Many Whigs, especially in the southern half of the country, joined the Know-Nothing Party or supported its candidates. In 1854, the party’s candidate for Governor of Maryland won election, and 1855 saw a Know-Nothing governor take office in Tennessee; there and elsewhere Know-Nothings won election to the Senate and House of Representatives, state legislatures, and a wide range of state and local offices.

In 1856 the Know-Nothing Party seemed to have a chance at the US presidency as well. Its national convention in Philadelphia that year nominated Millard Fillmore for president, and a special meeting of the National Council abolished the rituals, oaths, and other secret society aspects of the party to enable it to carry out a national political campaign. In a bitter three-way campaign against Democrat James Buchanan and John Fremont, the candidate of the recently founded Republican Party, Fillmore came in third place, with a quarter of the vote. Within a year of its defeat, the party had fallen apart as the slavery issue came to dominate the political landscape of the US and armed clashes between pro- and antislavery forces lit the fuse of the American Civil War.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006