Lincoln’s Opinion of Xenophobia – A ‘Know Nothing’ Commentary

Most of today’s xenophobic controversies were all issues supported by a controversial political party during Abraham Lincoln’s time.

This party’s opinions were very similar to the people who ironically and ignorantly clashed in Charlottesville, VA, killing a young woman, and demonstrated/defaced the Lincoln Memorial recently. Because of this modern group’s ignorance of history, they chose the site of a statue of a president who harbored VERY strong feelings against everything they espoused.

The “White Nationalists,” “Alt Right,” “KKK” or “White Supremacists” of today were the ‘Know Nothings’ in Lincoln’s time. [History is covered with ironies like this!]

Let’s take a look at a letter Lincoln wrote in 1855:

…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.”[1]

[The respectful term for African-Americans in 1855 was different from it is today. No disrespect intended by this passage – quite the contrary!]

The “Know Nothings” were an American political party (circa 1855) that was anti-immigrant [they wanted travel bans] especially against Irish and German Catholic families.

The Bottom of a Know Nothing Ballot – circa 1854. (Courtesy Ohio History Central @

They also stood for a “conditional equality” for Americans based on a person’s skin-color, and/or place of birth, and/or religion. Any one of those factors was a reason for refusing a person admittance to the country or refusing him voting/property rights.

Their name, comically, came from their thirst for secrecy [see the ballot on the right]. When a non-party member asked about the party, a member replied: “I know nothing.”

Pop-culture trivia: In a bit of purposeful, twisted, comedic irony, that phrase became a pop-culture hit by an actor who played a German soldier on the Hogan’s Heroes TV series in the 1960s – ‘I know NOTHING, Colonel Hogan. I know NOTHING!’

Today, America is battered by xenophobia. White Nationalists, Nazis, KKK – all yelling about ending respect for all people, the “America First” rallies, travel bans based on religion, campaign to round up “bad immigrants,” revisionist and/or nonsensical history – even an administration bent on keeping meetings and deals secret, alleged Russian connections…and on and on and on.

This is Lincoln’s opinion of the people who are doing all the above, and who defiled his monument with their protest:

When the Know Nothings get control…I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance…“[1]

ARE the ‘Know Nothings’ in control?

Food for thought.



[1]”Letter to Joshua F. Speed, August 24, 1855.” Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. v.II:p.323.

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