Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin 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 pretence of loving liberty-to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.
—Abraham Lincoln to Joshua F. Speed, August 24, 1855
HT: John Craig Hammond
We discussed this in my Pennsylvania History class today. This kind of nativism was very strong in Philadelphia in the 1840s and 1850s. We did our best to stay in the 19th century.
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.”
Michael Holt of the University of Virginia, the author of several books on antebellum American politics, including The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party, is the latest historian to play the historical analogy game. Over at Larry Sabato‘s blog at University of Virginia Center for Politics, Holt shows the limits of comparing the present Republican Party with the 19th-century Whig Party.
Here is a taste:
Far more parallel to the contemporary situation was the rise of notorious Know-Nothing Party, which in fact did far more to gut the Whig Party before 1856 than did Republicans’ exploitation of anti-southern hostility. Economic dislocation that destroyed blue-collar jobs, unemployment during a severe recession in 1854 and 1855, and the palpable growth of both the foreign-born population and the Catholic Church, which in precisely those years demanded that local governments divide local tax revenues between public and Catholic parochial schools, allowed Know-Nothings to exploit burgeoning religious and anti-immigrant prejudices. “How people do hate Catholics,” future Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes wrote in his diary after watching Know-Nothings sweep Cincinnati’s fall elections in 1854, “and what happiness it was to thousands to have a chance to show [that hatred] in what seemed like a lawful and patriotic manner” by voting Know-Nothing. But Know-Nothings allowed angry voters to vent more than religious and ethnic prejudices. They also allowed them to smite established Whig and Democratic leaders who had betrayed them by groveling so overtly for Catholic and immigrant support. A genuinely spontaneous, populist grassroots revolt of angry working- and lower middle-class dissidents, Know-Nothings initially pledged that they would never support any candidate who had ever held or previously sought public office. All professional politicians, they ranted, were the enemy. In their oft-repeated phrase, they exclusively sought candidates “fresh from the ranks of the people.” In its causes and expression, in sum, the Know-Nothing uprising of the 1850s comes as close to previewing today’s Trump phenomenon as one can imagine. Yet it took a different form than the Trump crusade, and that is the all-important difference between then and now.
Read the entire piece here.