Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Know-Nothings and the Tea Party

This is my first American History post in some time.  I hope you like it.
Know-Nothing Flag
It's easy to say that the Tea Party are ignorant.  It's easy to say that the Tea Party are clueless.  It's easy to say that the Tea Party are insufferable.  But it should be remembered that they represent a strain of American political thought that has been subject to the same ebb and flow of political thought of more mainstream movement (including Progressivism).

A direct line can be traced back from the modern Tea Party to the political philosophy of the short-lived 19th century American Party, also known as the Know-Nothings (though not for reasons you might think!).  Who were the Know-Nothings and what did they believe?

Background: The American Party

William Poole, aka Bill the Butcher
A Founder of The American Party
in New York (as played by
Daniel Day Lews in
Gangs of New York)
Founded in 1845, the American Party (or, as they became known as, the Know-Nothings), this initially secretive group was organized in opposition to Catholic immigration from Ireland and Spain.  There was significant fear among the native Protestant population in America that these new immigrants would be more beholden to the Pope than to America.  There was no evidence that this was the case, but the fear was stoked and perpetuated.

Conspiracy theories about the control Pope Piux IX was exerting over the immigrants let to the founding of this secret organization.  The term Know-Nothing supposedly comes from the answer members were instructed to give when questioned about the organization, "I know nothing."

The party thrived on the dissintigration of the Whig party.  The Whigs began self-destructing in the 1850s over the issue of slavery.  The Know-Nothings emerged onto the public stage in the 1854 elections when they carried numerous elections in Massachusetts.  Electoral successes were also had in California, Pennsylvania and Maine.  On the backs of these successes the party coalesced around the name The American Party.

One of the more interesting stories to emerge from these electoral victories was that of Robert T. Conrad, Whig candidate for mayor of Philadelphia.  He ran as a run-of-the-mill Whig, but upon taking office, he declared his allegience to the Know-Nothings and promptly enacted a series of measures which were not part of his candidacy (if this sounds familiar to my fellow 'Sconies, it should as Scott Walker did precisely this when elected governor).

The pinacle of the Know-Nothing movement was the nomination of former president Millard Filmore as The American Party candidate for President.  The ticket ultimately failed.  The American Party quickly faded from the scene as the Democrats and the newly formed Republican Party took the lead.

Like the modern Tea Party, The Know-Nothings were known more for what they stood against than what they stood for.  The American Party flamed out after only 10 years of real electoral success.  They were relegated to the dustbin of history by the overwhelming success of the two major parties which still dominate the political landscape of the 21st century.
    The American Party Platform and Tea Party Platform Similarities
    Let's take a look at what The American Party stood for and what made up the key elements of their presidential platform of 1854/5 and how those platform positions closely mirror the platform of the modern Tea Party movement.

    The American Party Platform
    The American Party Platform for the Presidential Election of 1854 reads as follows:
    (1) Repeal of all Naturalization Laws.
    (2) None but Americans for office.
    (3) A pure American Common School system.
    (4) War to the hilt, on political Romanism.
    (5) Opposition to the formation of Military Companies, composed of Foreigners.
    (6) The advocacy of a sound, healthy and safe Nationality.
    (7) Hostility to all Papal influences, when brought to bear against the Republic.
    (8) American Constitutions & American sentiments.
    (9) More stringent & effective Emigration Laws.
    (10) The amplest protection to Protestant Interests.
    (11) The doctrines of the revered Washington.
    (12) The sending back of all foreign paupers.
    (13) Formation of societies to protect American interests.
    (14) Eternal enmity to all those who attempt to carry out the principles of a foreign Church or State.
    (15) Our Country, our whole Country, and nothing but our Country.
    (16) Finally,-American Laws, and American Legislation, and Death to all foreign influences, whether in high places or low
    Another version was carried in The New York Times.
    I transcribed the image to make it easier to highlight and compare.  Any transcription errors are my own. Key passages are highlighted in bold.  My own notes are in bold italics.
    Platform of the American Party

    At a State Convention of the American Party of Connecticut, held at Hartford on the 28th let., N.D. SPERRY, Esq., of New-Haven, President, HEZEKIAH GRISWOLD, of Hartford, and ENOS HOPKINS of Naugatuck, Vice-Presidents, and GEO. W. ROGERS, of Meriden, Secretary. After approving of the action of the Connecticut delegates at the National Convention in Philadelphia and declaring the necessity of making uniform the principles upon which the American Party take issue, they promulgate the following as their Platform:

    1. The maintenance of the Union of the General Compact, as the paramount political good; hence the full recognit. on the rights of the several States as reserved in the Constitution, and a careful avoidance by the General Government, of all interference with their rights by legislative or executive action.  This is very much in keeping with the modern Tea Party who view states rights as paramount to the rights of the Federal Government.

    2. Obedience to the Constitution of the United States as the supreme law of the land. Although it's hard to draw a direct comparison from one line, this enshrinement of the Constitution as "supreme" without reference to what the Constitution means in the context of our governmental and legal framework smacks of naiveté.  The same naiveté that the Tea Party demonstrates in their Constitutional fetishism.

    3. A revision of the laws regulating emigration, and the settlement of emigrants, and unqualified opposition to the transmission to our shores of criminals and paupers.

    4. A radical change in our naturalization laws.  The American Party was opposed to the naturalization process for the most part because they believed that the influx of Irish and German citizens would put the nation at risk of a Papal takeover.  This same anti-Catholic paranoia extended beyond the civil war through the work of the Ku Klux Klan and other southern racist organizations.

    5. The support of those only for political stations, whether executive, legislative, judicial, or diplomatic, who do not hold civil or ecclesiastical allegiance, directly or indirectly, to any foreign power, and who are American's by birth, or by thorough education and training. The protection of all persons in the legal and proper exercise of their religious and civil rights - the unrestrained enjoyment of all in their religious opinions and worship.  Interesting double-fake on this one.  The American Party only supports white Protestants for public office, but everyone else is free to worship as they chose.  Just don't try and run for office.  This is very much like the political litmus test the Tea Party imposes on it's candidates through the kinds of questions that ensure the candidate is an Evangelical Christian.

    6. The common schools of the State free to all, without distinction of creed or party - to strictly guard them from all influences that would give them a denomination or partizan character, the use of the Bible in common schools, and opposition to all attempts for its exclusion.  While the American Party supported Public Schools (called Common Schools at the time), the Tea Party does not.  However, both groups insist that the Bible must be part of the curriculum.

    7. Protection of American industry and genius, and the improvement of rivers and harbors.  The American party didn't hate infrastructure spending the way the Tea Party does.

    8. The unconditional restoration of the Missouri Compromise and the admission of Kansas and Nebraska into the Union as free States.

    9. Opposition to the extension of Slavery to now free territory, and the exclusion of Slavery therefrom.

    10. Protection on the part of the General Government by armed intervention if necessary, to the people of the territories in the free exercise of the right of suffrage.  Planks 8,9 and 10 are directly related to the Compromise of 1850.  A fascinating political minefield of 19th century American politics.

    11. The perpetuity of the Union by strict adherence to the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence, and confined by the Constitution.  Constitutional fetishism again.

    12. All the principles of the Order to be henceforth everywhere openly avowed, and every member to be at liberty to admit his connection with it.

    It was also resolved to hold a mass meeting of the party,a nd that all persons friendly to the principles be invited to attend.

    The New York Times
    Published: July 7, 1855
    Copyright © The New York Times

    In both versions of the platform, the strain of ultra-nativism, religious bigotry and Constitutional fetishism come through.  These are identical to the platform of the modern Tea Party.  Let's summarize.

    Severe limits on immigration, especially from Catholic countries: The Tea Party stance on immigration is pretty clear, they want to limit immigration, legal and especially illegal.  They favor locking the country up in a box.  Their Islamophobia is well documented.

    Restricting political office to native-born Americans of English and/or Scottish lineage and Protestant persuasion: The Tea Party demonstrate an implicit conservative evangelical Christian litmus test for all their candidates.  Athiests, Muslims, Buddhists or other religions need not apply.  Their Islamophobia is well established.  According to research by the Pew Charitable Trust
    [The Tea Party] are much more likely than registered voters as a whole to say that their religion is the most important factor in determining their opinions on these social issues.2 And they draw disproportionate support from the ranks of white evangelical Protestants.
    Restricting public school teacher positions to Protestants: The Tea Party object to public education in general, especially when it deviates from their warped notions of history and science.  But basically, they hate public education.

    Mandating daily Bible readings in public schools: Putting Evangelical Christianity at the center of public education is part-and-parcel to the Tea Party educational agenda.

    Restricting the sale of liquor: Tea Party are very much in favor of the war on drugs and oppose marijuana legalization.  Their Immigration Plank specifically mentions the "flow of drugs."

    Restricting the use of languages other than English"What has made us strong is that despite all those different cultures that came to our nation, immigrants came with the knowledge they must learn the English language to survive and then to thrive."  From their own platform site.

    Other Similarities Between the American Party and the Tea Party
    A few additional observations that make the Tea Party the modern-day Know-Nothings
    • Stealth Candidates: 2008 Gubinatorial candidate Scott Walker for instance
    • Parasitic Relationship to a Major Party: The American Party attached themselves to the Whigs, the Tea Party is attached to the Republicans
    • Violence or threat of violence: The American Party was the source of much political violence during their time.  Today, gun fetishism and 2nd amendment fervor are key building blocks of the Tea Party platform, the episode with Gabby Giffords and other victims of right-wing violence speak to the violence inherent in the Tea Party
    • Bigotry and Prejudice: The Tea Party is 98% white, they support voter disenfranchisement of minority voters
    • Demographics: White Protestants are the primary members
    • Quick Victories followed by Rapid Decline: We can only hope the Tea Party goes the way of the American Party and quickly joins them in the historical record as another right wing political aberration.

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