Earlier in the year, a group calling themselves the American Party, met in Philadelphia in order to codify their political views and to organize for the upcoming presidential election. Those who attended this convention were formerly members of other existing political parties, but had come to believe that neither the opposition Republicans nor the incumbent Democrats would address their main concerns. With a presidential election looming on the horizon, they felt compelled to meet and approve a multi-part political platform. Some of the main issues addressed were:
- The belief that following the Constitution was the best way to ensure the civil and religious liberties of American citizens
- “Americans must rule America” meaning that only native-born citizens should be eligible for election or public office
- That anyone (native-born or otherwise) who “recognizes any allegiance or obligation” to a foreign authority or “who refuses to recognize the Federal and State Constitutions” shall be excluded from public office
- The call for “the non-interference by Congress with questions appertaining solely to the individual States, and non-intervention by each State with the affairs of any other State.”
- The assertion that no United States state or territory can give the right to vote to non-citizens
- A change in naturalization laws to require legal immigrants (with the exclusion of criminals and those receiving public support) to reside in the United States 21 years before they can become citizens.
- The demand that the United States government not interfere with religious faith and worship
- “Opposition to the reckless and unwise policy of the present Administration in the general management of our national affairs, and more especially as shown in removing ‘Americans’ (by designation) and Conservatives in principle, from office, and placing foreigners and Ultraists in their places; as shown in a truckling subserviency to the stronger, and an insolent and cowardly bravado toward the weaker powers; as shown in reopening sectional agitation… as shown in the corruptions which pervade some of the Departments of the Government… and as shown in the blundering mismanagement of our foreign relations.”
At the end of the convention, the American Party voted on who they would support for President. The main contenders were a man with political experience in Washington and at the state level and a wealthy businessman from New York. In the end, it was the politician who was selected.
You may now be scratching your heads and wondering why you did not see a story about this group and their provocative platform on any news website (all the way from Foxnews on the Right to MSNBC on the Left). If you have paid attention to American politics this year, then the parts of the party platform should seem familiar – whether or not you agree with them.
The reason why you saw nothing about this meeting, this party, and its platform, is because the American Party convention was held on February 18, 1856. The party’s selected candidate was former President Millard Fillmore (the New York businessman was George Law) and the party was better known by its unofficial name – the “Know-Nothings.”
Prior to the most recent presidential election season, the relevance of the views of the secretive Know-Nothings (who would say that they knew nothing about the party if pressed for information) might have been seen as limited to a study of the antebellum period. Their fears of waves of new types of immigrants (mainly Irish fleeing the famines of the 1840s) coming and changing their culture would have seemed excessive in our more multi-cultural times. Also, their fears that the Catholic Pope would have undue influence on America because of the arrival of so many of his churchmen would have seemed odd. Yet, as recent events have shown, concerns about foreign immigrants and their religious affiliations are not as “old-fashioned” as we might have hoped.
With a slew of controversial comments, several about Mexican immigrants, Republican front-runner Donald Trump has risen to the top of the polls and his antics have actually helped to make fears of immigrants a primary concern for the GOP electorate. Considering Trump’s theatrical nature tendency towards bombast, it may not be surprising that he has become a focal point of a campaign that would have aligned well with the Know-Nothings. However, it was perhaps the least outrageous candidate in the Republican field, Dr. Ben Carson, who has this History Rhymer seeing greater relevance in the 1856 American Party platform.
During a September 20, 2015 edition of the NBC news show Meet the Press, Dr. Carson asserted that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.” The reason for his opposition was that he felt that Islam was “inconsistent with the values and principles of America.” While Carson’s comments were renounced by many, Carson has remained a strong contender for the nomination. Also, after the results of a late September 2015 USA Today/Suffolk University poll were released, it appears that his views are not as uncommon as some might have hoped. In that poll, it was revealed that 53% thought that a Muslim could not be elected president (and 40% said that they would not vote for a Muslim). Considering the continuing fears of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and the vehement assertions by people like Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz of the dangers of allowing Syrian refugees to come to America, perhaps it should not have been surprising that resistance to a Muslim president is so strong.
Although it is impossible to know with certainty how future Americans will feel about a Muslim president, another result of the aforementioned USA Today poll along with our look at the views of the Know-Nothings may give us a glimpse of how fears and prejudices can change over time. In the poll, it was revealed that 93% said that they would vote for a qualified Catholic candidate. This is a remarkable change from the strongly anti-Catholic view many Americans held through the nation’s history.
During the revolutionary period, every colony besides Pennsylvania had anti-Catholic laws and founding father and future first Chief Justice, John Jay, asserted that his home state of New York should tolerate every religious group “except the professor of the religion of the Church of Rome, who out not to hold lands, in, or be admitted to a participation of the civil rights enjoyed by the members of this state.” After the Civil War, fears of Catholics and the influence of the Pope continued to be a main issues of presidential campaigns. For example, in 1884, the Republican presidential nominee James G. Blaine labeled the Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” This label, in a modified form, was still useful in the 1928 election when the Democrats were called the party of “rum, Romanism, and ruin.” It was not until the 1960 election when John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic president.
Now, five Catholics are seeking the presidency – Republicans Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and Bobby Jindal and Democrat Martin O’Malley – and there is not great outcry about the potential power Pope Francis might have over America. Time will tell whether the current sentiments against immigrants and a Muslim president will remain strong or will decline as past fears about Irish immigrants and Catholics have. As the United States continues on its path to becoming a much less caucasian nation, it seems certain that a change in perspective is likely.