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Lincoln’s ‘Know-Nothing’ strategy a lesson for Trump

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White nationalist bigots and crazies are convening in Washington this weekend to mark the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville, Virginia, riot that led to the deaths of a woman and two police officers — and, once again, President Trump will be confronted with the thorny issue of how to deal with them. His challenge seems unprecedented, yet the issue of dealing with a bigoted group that professes to be in one’s camp was faced by America’s first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln.

The Native American Party, later renamed the American Party, was a powerful political organization in the 1850s. It was colloquially known as the “Know-Nothings,” a term self-appropriated from critics who described its members as ignorant buffoons.  

{mosads}The Know-Nothings were both a reform movement and a bigoted anti-immigrant movement. Know-Nothings supported antislavery, missionary projects at home and abroad, charitable aid for orphans and the poor, and temperance. They despised new immigrants, especially the Irish, whom they reviled as Catholic “papists” and drunks. The Know-Nothing platform called for restricting slavery in new states, alcohol prohibition, a halt to immigration and a law banning immigrants from benefiting from the Homestead Act that made cheap land available to settlers moving west.


By 1860, the Know-Nothing Party dissolved but the underlying movement still counted upwards of a million supporters. Given the association of the Irish and other immigrants with the Democratic Party, the Know-Nothings were naturally disposed to vote for the opposing party. This made them potential Republican voters who, in a close election, could make the difference. Lincoln knew he needed the votes of these Know-Nothings.

Throughout the 1850s, Democratic stalwart Stephen Douglas repeatedly castigated the Know-Nothings, branding them a bunch of ignorant xenophobes. Lincoln, by contrast, made no such condemnations; he recognized that the nativist movement, despite its malevolent elements, was part of the antislavery movement, and he had no intention of dividing those antislavery forces.

During the 1860 campaign, Democrats circulated a rumor that Lincoln had made a secret stop at a Know-Nothing lodge in Quincy, Massachusetts. The issue was all over the papers, and Abraham Jonas, a Jewish Republican attorney in Quincy, who detested the Know-Nothings, wrote to ask Lincoln if it were true. Lincoln responded that it was not true, but then added this: “And now a word of caution. Our adversaries think they can gain a point if they could force me to openly deny the charge, but which some degree of offense would be given to the Americans. For this reason, it must not publicly appear that I am paying any attention to the charge.”

In private, Lincoln made his position clear in an 1855 letter to his friend, Joshua Speed: “I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people? 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 this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

It should be said that the Republican platform in 1860 contained no repudiation of immigrants, no call for restricted immigration, and no support for excluding immigrants from the provisions of the Homestead Act. While not excluding the Know-Nothings, the platform excluded the Know-Nothing agenda.  

Even so, Lincoln’s only denunciation of anti-foreign and anti-Catholic prejudice appears in a private letter. Lincoln never publicly repudiated the Know-Nothings; for this he was assailed by Democratic newspapers, just as Trump was assailed in the progressive media for not sufficiently repudiating the white nationalists in Charlottesville. And Lincoln probably got the Know-Nothing vote in 1860, just as we can surmise Trump got the white nationalist vote in 2016.

Lincoln never expressed guilt or qualms over this; from his point of view, the Know-Nothings came to him; he didn’t go over to them. Moreover, in rejecting the bad elements of the Know-Nothings, such as their hatred of immigrants and determination to shut America’s door to them, he did not hesitate to identify with the good things they stood for, such as social reform groups, temperance groups and antislavery.

In this episode, if we think about it, there is a valuable lesson for Donald Trump and today’s Republican Party. Trump need not fret that the white nationalists agree with him about blocking illegal immigration or stemming the security threat of radical Islam, nor should he be concerned that some of them are flag-waving patriots, as he is. He can recognize this limited common ground between them and him, while flatly, fully rejecting their bigotry.

Dinesh D’Souza is a conservative political commentator, author and filmmaker, and former president of King’s College, New York. His book, “Death of a Nation,” is #8 on the New York Times bestseller list. His movie of the same title is in 1,000 theaters nationwide.

Tags Anti-Catholicism in the United States Donald Trump Know Nothing Nativism political parties xenophobia

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