Commentary – Remembering the Know Nothings

Chris Clegg

Media like to tease politicians for not giving a straight answer. Let’s face it, most of the time they don’t.

Politicians like to spin issues into something positive, wishing they could be like Rumpelstiltskin, spinning straw into gold. The fact is, Rumpelstiltskin had a better chance of achieving his goal.

Last week, SportsNet’s Bob McCown was asked why he never interviewed athletes on his national radio/RV show.

“They have nothing to offer,” he said, or something similar.

He’s right. Athletes are conditioned to say, “We gave it 110 per cent” or “They’re a great team” or “We have to get the puck down low”.


It is the single reason why much of the public loves Don Cherry, Charles Barkley, Stephen A Smith, and – yes – even Donald Trump. They are a breath of fresh air in this programmed world of politicians and athletes who give kissy kissy responses. Many times, Rome is burning and Nero is fiddling like nothing bad is happening.

But it wasn’t always that way. Did you ever hear of the Native American Party, renamed the American Party in 1855? They were commonly known as the “Know Nothing” movement, given the nickname because supporters were programmed to reply, “I know nothing!” when asked about its policies.

The group was completely unlike the Rhinoceros Party, which tended to ridicule everything. They wanted to move the Canadian capital to Ottawa, Kansas, so it would be cheaper to operate. Move the Rocky Mountains to improve the view of British Columbia, they said, and use the rocks to build a railway to Japan. There were other countless ridiculous stories which made for good humour but little substance.

The Know Nothings were exactly that. Know nothings! Say nothing, hear nothing, do nothing, like Sgt. Schultz of Hogan’s Heroes fame.

The party operated in the USA in the mid-1850s. It was primarily anti-Catholic and hostile to immigration, starting originally as a secret society. The movement briefly emerged as a major political party. In most places, “Know Nothingism” lasted only a year or two before disintegrating because of weak local leaders, few publicly-declared national leaders, and a deep split over the issue of slavery.

Like most fringe parties, they did enjoy a moment in the sun. They elected Congressman Nathaniel P. Banks of Massachusetts and others in the 1854 elections. They welcomed politicians opposed to the Democratic Party and nominated former President Millard Fillmore in the 1856 presidential election. Fillmore received 21 1/2 per cent of the popular vote in the election, finishing behind the Democratic and Republican nominees.

It was their moment of glory. The party declined rapidly after the 1856 election.

Their typical response of “I know nothing” had grown old. No one cared. The joke was over.

What should be remembered is the response to questions was triggered by the fact the party’s politicians wanted to keep their secret party agenda behind closed doors. Sound familiar?

As much as the Know Nothings were different from mainstream politics, you can argue they were very much the same. What the public doesn’t know won’t hurt them!

Given the situation, aren’t we all a “Know Nothing” at heart?

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