Attempting to maximize their leverage, Nativist advocates kept low profiles, often denying their machinations. Asked what they were up to by reporters, these activists often replied, “I know nothing.”
It may have seemed a clever dodge, but newspapermen at the time couldn’t resist this target any more than today’s media could. By 1854, when the activists allied with a rump faction of the Whig Party to run a slate of candidates on an anti-immigration platform, they were labeled the “Know-Nothing Party.”
The following year, the Know-Nothings officially dubbed themselves the American Party. In 1856 they met in Philadelphia to pick a future president. That process didn’t go well. Millard Fillmore was chosen as the party standard-bearer (he would carry just one state in November: Maryland), but the seeds for the Know-Nothing’s demise were planted at their own convention.
A wing of Southerners moved to pass a platform plank calling for the preservation of slavery. This alarmed many Northern and Midwestern Know-Nothings, who bolted to another newly formed political entity: The Republican Party.
Echoes of conflicting cross-currents still exist in our politics today, and not only within the GOP.