It's amazing what I have managed to forget in the process of something like 18 years of education. I can't even remember, this child of a professor of American intellectual history, taking that subject in college.
But out of some musty crevice of memory emerged, like a crocodile out of a Delta swamp, the phrase "know-nothing party."
And once I remembered it, of course, I was on the hunt. For if the climate of political discourse today isn't identical, then it has many similarities.
For the party, if the secretive groups could be called a party, emerged out of the anti-immigrant movements of that turbulent pre-Civil War period of United States history.
Here's what a blogger named Daphne (hat tip to her for figuring this out before me) has to say about the nativist party:
But I digress -- this isn't a ghost story. Not in that sense, anyhow. My aim is to suggest that what we are undergoing, in terms of the anti-immigrant (and anti-Muslim) sentiment threaded through America right now, isn't anything particularly new. The Know-Nothings, as the Infoplease.com site reminds us, were kind of hard to pin down.
Many secret orders grew up, of which the Order of United Americans and the Order of the Star-spangled Banner came to be the most important. These organizations baffled political managers of the older parties, since efforts to learn something of the leaders or designs of the movement were futile; all their inquiries of supposed members were met with a statement to the effect that they knew nothing.
Guess what they wanted? Some nativists argued that only those who had lived in the U.S. for two and a half decades should have the vote. It may not be too surprising that the parties that emerged out of the original nativist movement endorsed slavery. Abraham Lincoln, for one, was a voice against the movement.
But they had many successes -- and in the North, including Delaware and Massachusetts. It's a rebuke to any who believe that, when it came to slavery and anti-immigrant fervor, the North had no blood in its hands.
Yet the parallels, while evocative, should not be taken too far. The Know-Nothings of the 1850s's aren't the Tea Party of today, with its focus on returning to an arguably more originalist perspective on the Constitution and on economic problems.
Anti-immigrant sentiment seems to come, in large measure, from outside the bounds of those political parties who have the microphone today -- although that doesn't prevent politicans within from using it for their own gain. And it may be no surprise that anti-immigrant sentiment surges when unemployment goes up.
Which doesn't mean that we shouldn't fight it -- but perhaps we might not act, again and again, as though it was something new.
Picture thanks to Wikimedia Commons.