Know Nothing

"I am not a Know-Nothing—that is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that "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 equals, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics." When it comes to that I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty —- to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."
- Abraham Lincoln

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Basic Information

The Political Party commonly remembered as the Know Nothing Party went by a variety of other names over the years in the rough middle of the 19th Century: it started as a secret society called the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, and as it grew it cycled through names in rapid succession: the American Republican Watch Association,the American Republican Party, the Native American Party (which means something very different in today's parlance), and finally the American Party. Regardless of the name-of-the-week, they were in all incarnations, a hot mess.

The Know Nothings had a repugnant platform that discriminated based on both race and religion. They believed strongly that America belonged to white protestants whose grandparents were born on American soil. If you were a person of color, or a catholic, they were against you. If you white and protestant but also happened to be Irish, Italian, French, or even German, they were against you. If you or one of your parents were an immigrant, they were against you. Given that there were no white men on the American continent just a few hundred years prior to this political movement, it's hard to see them as any but hypocritical and bigoted. Despite being openly racist and hateful, the Know Nothings they were very influential from the 1830s to the 1860s, especially in New England. All of this was happening during the run-up to the American Civil War, and all the tension that came with that. Weirdly, a lot of these racist know-nothings were also anti-slavery. This contradiction apparently existed because they felt that slave labor undercut the wages of working white people.

The term "Know Nothings" came from their organization - the party was set up much like a secret society and if questioned about their activities, the stock response was "I know nothing". The first rule of being part of the racist secret society with plans to rule the country via political manipulation, was that you do not talk about said racist secret society with plans to rule the country via political manipulation. A fact which no doubt raised the difficulty level for their attempts to achieve their goals. Not having a public face to the political party, meant not having an official candidate. So they'd effectively infiltrate other political parties to run candidates with hidden agendas, and then quietly distribute information about those candidates at secret society meetings. It's also likely that they also secretly endorsed candidates whose politics came close to their own, possibly with those candidates knowing nothing about having been preferred or chosen by the Know Nothings. It's hard to be certain about that last point, since Knowing Nothing gave them a lot of cover for claiming ignorance. They publicly nominated former President Millard Fillmore to run against Lincoln, but did it possibly without Fillmore's knowledge (if you believe him), and either way they definitely made the announcement while he was out of the country.

That said, for being a bunch of folks sworn "not to talk about fight club", they sure talked about it a lot. "Know Nothing" quickly became the term they were mockingly called (and eventually that got shortened to Knism). People started calling brand names for them ("drink Know-Nothing Tea"), and at least one 700-ton ship got the "The Know Nothing" painted on the bow. This must have gotten real confusing for consumers, in the way that it's hard to distinguish excellent satire from the real thing. If I buy Know Nothing candy, am I making fun of them, or am I providing financial support? Despite all the secrecy and confusion, they actually got a lot of candidates in office, including a near-total capture of the state legislature of Massachusetts.

Once in power, they passed a confusing mix of strange laws: some extremely conservative and strict, others surprisingly progressive. Here's a few examples:

  • Temperance bill with such strict penalties (sell 1 beer: get 6 months in jail) that it fell victim to jury nullification.
  • Legally mandating that people with Chinese ancestry were not allowed to testify as witnesses.
  • A (failed) attempt to increase the length of the naturalization process for immigrants up to 21 years.
  • Increased the legal rights of women going through divorce proceedings.
  • Added additional regulation and oversight to workplaces and industry.
  • Funded libraries, provided free textbooks for public schools, and built a school for the blind.

Populism combined with xenophobia, a decentralized power structure and uneven secrecy about who your candidates were lead to a lot of contradictions and poor planning. Very few of their candidates had relevant experience, and their out of control spending threatened to bankrupt the local governments. They were tied to criminal activities of the Bowery Boys gang in New York. The Know-Nothings participated in a lot of riots in New York City, Baltimore, Maryland, Louisville, Kentucky and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and assorted acts of violence (assault and arson) in many more American cities. Once in power in Massachusetts they launched an investigation into the sexual impropriety of their opponents, which backfired when news broke that the supposed reformer who started it all was using state money to pay for prostitutes. Equal parts incompetence, corruption and hypocrisy.

After a couple decades of inconsistent success at the polls and disasters in office, the public had enough, and the Know-Nothing brand went belly-up.



Game and Story Use

  • Could be the basis for a conspiracy or secret society, especially in a game set in the Old West, the American Civil War, or the Gilded Age.
    • Given the recent return of fairly thorny brands of populism to modern politics, you'd have lots of fuel and plot-ideas to pull from the headlines.
      • For a comedy game, you'd play up their incompetence and contradictions, casting them as ineffective conspiratorial buffoons. You could steal events, headlines, and quotes from whichever side of the political isle you and your players distrust, and put those words in the mouths of the Know Nothings. Riff a bit on Fight Club, and dial the hypocrisy up to a 11.
      • For a horror game, they might be more frighteningly effective. The incompetence could be a facade, or the GM might choose to ignore that aspect entirely. They're everywhere. No one in a position of authority can be trusted, but neither can anyone who's actively speaking out against the establishment, either.
  • While not as broadly murderous as the Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan, you can still make a pretty good case for Know Nothings being the sort generic evil that heroes get to kick the asses of without feeling the least bit bad for doing so. I'm sure it was more nuanced than that back in the day, but the passage of time means no one reasonable is on their side any more. So they'd make pretty good mooks.
  • A store, ship, or company with "Know-Nothing" in the name can be a cute injection of flavor into your history game. As mentioned above, the players won't know if it's meant to mock or endorse the party, and there could be some fun to be had in that ambiguity.
    • The PCs also won't know whether the Know Nothings are (in the context of your campaign) irrelevant and incompetent, or a scheming group about to seize power. That could be a useful uncertainty for a campaign with lots of mystery and detective plotlines.
  • The general outline of the Know Nothing timeline and goals could be transplanted to another Era or world.
    • What if there was a "Know Nothing" computer virus that could infect Robots and Artificial Intelligence so that they'd unknowingly work towards some sinister conspiratorial goal. "My memory is not encoded with data about that subject" becomes the "no code" or "no data" party. If you try to read or download the affected memory, it wipes the entire personality and records for that robot.
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