Anti-immigrant feelings have boiled over many times in U.S. history. And the Tea Party is not the first political movement to take the position that new immigrants are bringing the country to ruin.
In the 1840s and 50s a party sprang up called the Know Nothings, which looked and smelled pretty much like the Tea Party of today. It wanted to limit immigration, especially from Ireland and Germany, and it wanted English to be the official language. Like the Tea Party, it sought to relax the separation of church and state so religious observances such as prayer and Bible readings could take place in the schools. The Know Nothings hated government and taxes and wanted to impose their particular social and cultural views on everyone else.
Though the name may seem fitting in both the original case and for today’s Tea Party, Know Nothings got their label because they began as a secret organization whose members were instructed to feign ignorance if asked about what they were up to.
Perhaps it’s no surprise to learn that Know Nothings were either in favor of slavery or lukewarm in opposition. This outlook helped make it possible for the party to win seats in Congress and to gain some important local offices. Do the good liberal people of San Francisco know that in 1854 a Know Nothing candidate became mayor of their city and that California elected a Know Nothing governor?
Being anti-immigrant and indifferent to slavery was a vile mix, which drew the disdain of Abraham Lincoln in 1855. At the time, Lincoln was trying to put his career aright after losing a close fight to become U.S. senator from Illinois. His remarkable comments on the Know Nothings were quoted in “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin:
“…Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. 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.”
With the coming of the Civil War the Know Nothings faded away. But their instincts have resurfaced from time to time in the form of anti-Irish riots, anti-Chinese riots, and boisterous demonstrations in favor of federal, state, and local laws targeting immigration and immigrants. With exception of the riots, the Tea Party is right in the historical mainstream.