The rise, and fall, of a fervid third party

In the 1850s, a burgeoning coalition of self- proclaimed nativists, or Know-Nothings, swept into office and called out for radical change

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Writer Robert Wernick illuminates a little-known corner of American history in his exploration of 19th-century America's enigmatic and contradictory Know-Nothings. That odd assortment of political bedfellows, constituting the most successful third party -- outside of the pre-Civil War Republicans -- in the nation's history, makes for a strange chapter in our political annals.

The nativist movement, championing the so-called rights of Protestant, American-born male voters, grew out of fear about new waves of immigration, and about the future. From 1820 to 1845, the arrival of newcomers to our shores had been steady — 10,000 to 100,000 a year. Then immigration surged: from 1845 through 1854, some 2.9 million immigrants, including 1.2 million Irish and more than a million Germans, poured into seaboard cities like Boston and New York.

These strangers were impoverished and disease-ridden, easy fodder for the burgeoning coalition of nativists. Membership in the new third party soared: by 1854, when the Know-Nothings formed the American Party and won offices nationwide in that year's election, they had scored an impressive coup.

Once they took on the hard work of enacting legislation, though, the Know-Nothings too became mired in political reality. Although they had transcended their own xenophobic rhetoric and tried to achieve desirable reforms, their accomplishments were transitory.

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