Know-Nothings

The Party of Abraham Lincoln

republican_presidential_ticket_1864b

United States Republican presidential ticket, 1864. Print shows a campaign banner for 1864 Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln and running mate Andrew Johnson. (Credit: Currier and Ives)

I don’t understand the modern Republican Party. Why conjure the ghost of Ronald Reagan rather than the living presence of Abraham Lincoln? Unless you have moved so far away from the spirit of Lincoln that his biblical language is no longer an inspiration, but rather an embarrassment.

In the mid-1850s, the appearance of the Know-Nothings in the US political scene threatened the integrity of the two-party electoral system. The Know-Nothings, according to James McPherson, “generally favored temperance and always opposed tax support for parochial schools. Their main goal was to reduce the power of foreign-born voters in politics.” In a letter to his friend Joshua Speed, Lincoln countered the threat of the Know-Nothings:

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 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—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.[i]

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