Know-Nothing politicos long gone, right?

In the midst of all the political blah-blah-blah that's going on these days, I was amused to see that Oregon's political beginnings included three parties: Democrats, Whigs and the Know-Nothings. So who were the Know-Nothings and what did they stand for (sounds like truth in advertising to me!)?

— Lewis H., Medford

Now, Lewis, we assume your "truth in advertising" comment was strictly a reference to the yahoos in politics back in the 1800s and not to any of today's noble public servants, right?

At any rate, yes, you're right. As Oregon worked toward eventual statehood in 1859, one of the political forces in the state was the Know-Nothing Party. While the name suggests that the party members were, ahem, somewhat less than intellectual giants, its reference was really to their penchant for secrecy. They declined to identify party members, met in secret groups and, if asked about the party or its meetings, were said to have replied, "I know nothing."

The Oregon State Archives includes the following description of the Know Nothings: "... an anti-immigrant movement rose to prominence nationally and in Oregon in the mid-1850s. Feeling threatened by the influx of Irish and other Catholic immigrants, the Know-Nothing or American Party called for strict limits on immigration to stem what was seen as the excessive allegiance to the Pope in Rome instead of the government of the United States. The party briefly benefitted by drawing large numbers of members from the collapsing Whig Party, but soon fell apart itself over the issue of slavery."

The Know Nothings' day in the sun was short-lived. Despite sweeping to some astonishing political victories in 1854 in New England, the party was largely defunct by 1857.

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