Trump and the Know-Nothing Platform of 1856


Several historians have compared the Trump candidacy to the American Party (commonly referred to as the Know-Nothing Party) of the 1850s.

Anyone who reads this blog or has read my Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past knows that historical analogies can be dangerous, but when historian Gordon Belt posted the 1856 American Party platform on my Twitter feed today I was once again taken by some of the similarities between this nativist political platform from the 19th-century and the rhetoric of Trump’s campaign.

I will let you decide.

Here is the 1856 platform with some of my very limited, off-the-cuff, commentary:

(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.  (Replace “Romanism” with Muslims)
(5) Opposition to the formation of Military Companies, composed of Foreigners. (Read ISIS)
(6) The advocacy of a sound, healthy and safe Nationality. (In his speech today in New York Trump said “we are going to make America safe again”)
(7) Hostility to all Papal influences, when brought to bear against the Republic. (Replace “Papal influences” with Muslims)
(8) American Constitutions & American sentiments.  
(9) More stringent & effective Emigration Laws. (Interesting that Trump did not mention the “Wall” in his speech.  Does he still want to build it?)
(10) The amplest protection to Protestant Interests.  (See Trump’s recent meeting with evangelicals in which he said he would protect their interests).
(11) The doctrines of the revered Washington.  (Today in his speech Trump said, “One of the first major bills signed by George Washington called for the ‘encouragement and protection of manufacturing’ in America”  I realize this is a bit of stretch, but he DID appeal to Washington for something!)
(12) The sending back of all foreign paupers.  (Round-up undocumented immigrants and send them back).
(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.  (Again, read Muslims).
(15) Our Country, our whole Country, and nothing but our Country.  (Today in his NYC speech Trump said “We are going to put America first and we are going to make America Great Again.”)
(16) Finally,-American Laws, and American legislation; and death to all foreign influences, whether in high places or low!  (Kill ISIS).

Again, I realize some of the comparisons I have made are not perfect (feel free to call me out), but they are still interesting and worth noting.  Consider this an exercise in “continuity” rather than “change over time.”

3 thoughts on “Trump and the Know-Nothing Platform of 1856

  1. “Nativist” seems to be the current loaded term du jour–but it is an ideological weapon, not one of ideologically neutral social science.

    The current “native populism” is no more or less than Theodore Roosevelt’s.

    “In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the person’s becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American…There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag… We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language… and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.”

    True, it is vehemently opposed to the multi-culturalism that is wracking Europe, and for valid reasons.


  2. Even if the connections aren’t always exact, there are many similarities between the two. Even if the Republican Party hasn’t become an officially nativist party, many of Trumps supporters within the Party have nativist sentiment, and the current populism is clearly nativist. We see this less on the left, but it’s there as well.


  3. John–Thanks to you and Gordon for putting this link together. Linking Trump to the Know-Nothings is a far more useful comparison than to, say, Trump and Jacksonian populism. Can I ask, though? I interpret #5 to say that these military companies serving on behalf of the US should not be composed of foreigners. Is ISIS the right kind of parallel here? I’m trying to think of another one, though. ~Erin Adams


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