Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Origin of the Term "Know-Nothing"

Researching the origins of the term “Know Nothing” turns up the same tired explanation virtually every time. Here, for example, is Wikipedia:
The origin of the "Know Nothing" term was in the semi-secret organization of the party. When a member was asked about its activities, he or she was supposed to reply, "I know nothing."


Fear of Catholic immigration led to a dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party whose leadership in many areas included Irish American Catholics. Activists formed secret groups, coordinating their votes and throwing their weight behind candidates sympathetic to their cause. When asked about these secret organizations, members were to reply "I know nothing," which led to their popularly being called Know Nothings.

Wikipedia, in turn, cites to the Encyclopedia Britannica online, which reports that “[m]embers, when asked about their nativist organizations, were supposed to reply that they knew nothing, hence the name.”

Unfortunately, this universally accepted story is probably wrong.

In his meticulous Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s, Tyler Anbinder examined the evidence more closely and debunked the myth:
The precise origin of this term [“Know Nothings”] is a mystery, but it apparently made its public debut in November 1853. At that time, the New York Tribune reported that the Whig candidate for New York district attorney had lost “through the instrumentality of a mongrel ticket termed the 'Know-Nothing.' . . . This ticket,” continued the Tribune, “is the work of the managers of a secret organization growing out of the Order of United Americans, but ostensibly disconnected therefrom.” A few days later the Tribune again mentioned “the Know-Nothing organization,” calling it “but a new dodge of protean nativism.”

Andbinder points out that
[n]either reference mentions the now universal belief that the term “Know Nothing” derived from members' practice of feigning ignorance when queried about the organization. Nor does it appear that Tribune editor Horace Greeley coined the term. The Tribune's use of the phrase suggests that rather than having concocted the term itself, the newspaper was simply reporting what had been relayed by some outside source.

What, then, was the origin of the term? Anbinder suggests several possibilities:
Perhaps the ticket mentioned by the Tribune had been nicknamed the “Know-Nothing” ticket by its organizers. Local electoral tickets often assumed strange labels . . . [or] adopted names used as slurs by their enemies. Perhaps poll watchers coined the term during the November 1853 New York City election, because they could not discover the source of the OSSB [Order of the Star Spangled Banner] ballots. However the appellation originated, the influence of the Tribune, the most widely read newspaper in the nation, made it stick. From this point onward, the OSSB was referred to as the “Know-Nothings,” and the members initially did little to discourage the term's use.

About the illustration:
Sheet music cover for a schottisch (a dance similar to the polka), composed by Francis H. Brown and dedicated to "Miss Mary Leeds of New York." The illustration features the standing figure of "Young America," a young man in coat, waistcoat, and plaid trousers, holding an American flag. Virtually the same idealized, youthful male figure appears as "Citizen Know Nothing" and "Uncle Sam" in other nativist contexts. (See for instance "Uncle Sam's Youngest Son" and "Sam's Coming," nos. 1854-4 and 1855-6.) Behind him on the left a train moves along a track out of a tunnel, and on the right are two ships. These allude to the progressive (or "Young America") Democrats' emphasis on internal improvements, commerce, and trade.

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