The Know-Nothings have long been treated as a historical curiosity: a political party that flared onto the scene in the mid-1850s – even running a former president as their nominee in the 1856 presidential election – before flaming out even more spectacularly by the end of the decade. Yet given their proximity to perhaps the most heavily-studied event in American history surprisingly little has been written about them, in no small part due to the secretive origins which led to their nickname. As a result, they remain an under-examined organization, one usually dismissed as secondary or irrelevant to the much larger tumult that was taking place nationally over slavery.
It is this absence which makes John Mulkern’s book so worthwhile. It is a study of the Know-Nothing movement in Massachusetts, the state where they enjoyed their greatest success. There in the elections of 1854 the Know-Nothing Party won an overwhelming victory, taking over not just the governorship but sweeping both houses of the state legislature as well. To explain how they accomplished this feat, Mulkern begins by explaining the context of Massachusetts politics in the 1850s, where the Brahmin-dominated Whig Party long enjoyed control. Catering as they did to the old-line business interests, the Whig leadership did little to address the growing issues of working-class voters, particularly migrants from other parts of New England who had moved to the state seeking work in the rapidly growing factories Though these voters were hostile to the increasing numbers of Irish immigrants congregating in Boston and the other coastal towns, Mulkern makes a convincing argument that immigration was just one of many concerns determining their vote.
It was the lack of attention to the broad range of their concerns which Mulkern sees as driving the rise of the Know-Nothing movement. Their lodges drew disaffected voters form both the Whig and Democratic parties, with the secretive nature of the movement concealing the coming upheaval from the complacent party leaderships. Once in office, the Know-Nothings enacted a wide-ranging legislative agenda, one that Mulkern sees as anticipating those of the Progressive movement two generations later. Yet their success soon drew to the party the very same ambitious politicos against whom the party’s early leaders railed against, and their capture of the Know-Nothing leadership Mulkern sees as proof of Michels’s iron law of oligarchy. Henry Gardner personified this takeover; elected governor on the Know-Nothing ticket, he soon subordinated the party’s efforts to his own personal ambition, alienating the voters who had initially supported it. As a result, and with slavery overtaking immigration as the defining issue in even state politics, by 1858 the Know-Nothings were supplanted in state politics by the Republicans and quickly dwindled into nonexistence.
By detailing the rise and fall of the Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts, Mulkern has made an extremely useful contribution to our historical understanding. Though frustrated by the lack of information about its origins, his use of personal archives and contemporary accounts provides the best account available of how Know-Nothingism came to exert such dominance in the state in such a short period of time. Yet his book is worthwhile reading as more than just a regional study of a 160-year-old political movement, as it offers insights into the dynamics of nativist populism in American politics that are relevant even today. For this reason it deserves a far wider readership than its narrow focus might suggest.