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In the past few days,  I've read a few too many pronouncements of offence and threats of obstruction from The Imminent Corpse Formerly Known as the Republican Party--like Prince in his unnamed period, delineated only by a symbol.

I have searched my soul for some shred of outrage over the bellowings of these expiring elephants, but find myself unable to give a rat's patoot.  The once-proud party of Lincoln and Eisenhower is no longer a living embodiment of any part of the American electorate.  

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The fundies and paleos can't really get behind them, as the party, despite years in power, hasn't delivered on any of their promises.  Roe v. Wade is still and will remain the law of the land.  The national debt seems to double whenever Rs are in power.

The Republican Party is, it is time to admit, an anachronism, the political equivalent of a dead language, "a shining artifact of the past," past due to be put up on the shelf with its predecessors the Whigs and the Know Nothings.  They'll make a lovely set.

Dusting and re-arranging the shelf, I took a closer look at the Know Nothings, and couldn't help but admire their fierce ideological purity and the remarkable continuity they represent between the Whigs that came before them and the GOP into which they assimilated.  Take a quick trip down memory lane and tell me if you see anything that looks familiar.

In the mid-19th century, the Whig Party was reaching the end of the line.  The Compromise of 1850 had split the party along pro-slavery/anti-slavery lines, their  greatest public advocates, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, had passed on to greater rewards and Millard Fillmore, the last Whig president, had proven a disappointment.

Meanwhile, the growing number of German and Irish immigrants in Eastern cities gave birth to violent, organized anti-immigrant gangs, the best-known in New York (see Scocese's 2002 film) and Baltimore.  

Not all anti-immigrant activists were street thugs, though.  As early as 1835, a group of New Yorkers organized a state party, the Native American Democratic Association, aligned with the Whigs, with the central platform of opposition to immigrants and Catholics.  The party got 40% of the vote in elections that fall.

In 1849, a group of "nativists" in New York founded the secret Order of the Star Spangled Banner.  Seeking to conceal their alignment with violent nativist gangs, members of the Order, when questioned about their group's aims, would claim to "know nothing."  Chapters opened in other cities:

Secretive at first, the organization soon found support for proposals that included stringent restrictions on immigration, exclusion of foreign-born persons from voting or holding political office and a residency requirement of more than 20 years for U.S. citizenship. Because many Know-Nothing supporters felt that liquor had a pernicious effect on immigrants, they sought to limit alcohol sales. They also supported daily Bible readings in schools and tried to ensure that only Protestants could teach in the public schools.

As it shed its clandestine beginnings, the Know-Nothing movement spread rapidly. By 1852 supporters of the Know-Nothing movement had achieved significant results with many of their candidates winning seats in local and state elections. With the passage of the KANSAS-NEBRASKA ACT of 1854, the movement gained more supporters. Although originally allied with the Whigs, the phenomenal success of the Know-Nothings as well as growing debate over SLAVERY helped cause the decline and demise of the WHIG PARTY. The Know-Nothings elected the governor and all but two members of the Massachusetts state legislature as well as 40 members of the New York state legislature. By 1855 Know-Nothing adherents had elected thousands of local government officials as well as eight governors. Forty-three Know-Nothing candidates were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and there were five Know-Nothing senators.

source

Despite the popularity of their anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic rhetoric, the Know Nothings were remarkably inept in actually getting laws enacted.  Laws forbidding immigration of convicts and paupers failed in Congress, though there was some success at the state level with laws requiring English literacy to vote.

By 1856, when the Know Nothings nominated Millard Fillmore as their presidential candidate, they were already little more than a fringe group.  Party members split along pro-and-anti-slavery lines, the predominantly Northern anti-slavery Know Nothings joining the nascent Republican party in the election of 1860.


Charming bunch, eh?  A group of virulent foreigner-haters, cloaking their bile behind red, white and blue bunting and patriotic slogans while working for the disenfranchisement of any who didn't look, speak and believe as they did.  Bible readings in public schools.  Literacy tests for voters.  An agenda so vile it couldn't be spoken of except in secret.

Sound familiar?

Americans, despite their fractiousness and appalling lack of education are, by and large, an open-minded people.  While quick to react to emotional appeals, they are inclined to err on the side of inclusion and a grudging willingness to live and let live.

This inherent openness on the part of the American people doomed the Know Nothings, whose core agenda was exclusion and hate.  If today's Republican Party continues its Know Nothing ways, it can be expected to meet the same fate.

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Originally posted to Crashing Vor on Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 07:09 AM PST.

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