The early 1850s saw the rise of a political party known as the “American Party.” They were an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic party that called for “the exclusion of Catholics and other ‘foreigners’ from public office.” They were known popularly as the “Know-Nothing party” because party members were told to tell those who questioned them, “I know nothing.” They would eventually fizzle out, due in part to their association with slavery proponents in the South.
Lincoln was strongly opposed to the beliefs of the “Know-Nothing” party. So much so that he hinted that if their ideas should gain the ascendancy, he would consider becoming an immigrant himself—to Russia! In an 1855 letter to his friend, Louisvillian Joshua Speed, Lincoln declared, “I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be?” He went on to say,
Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring “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—Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, without the base alloy of hypocrisy.
It is interesting to consider that Lincoln’s commitment to America’s founding idea that “all men are created equal” animated him a full eight years before he would deliver the immortal opening words of the Gettysburg Address “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Thomas H. Johnson, “Know-Nothing party,” in The Oxford Companion to American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966).
Abraham Lincoln to Joshua Speed, August 24, 1855, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 2:323. [Complete text of letter online.]