In the 1850s, Whig politicians, such as Abraham Lincoln, were put in a tough spot. Nativist sentiment led to the formation of secret societies and new political alliances that challenged the old order. Anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic policies formed the core of the new Know-Nothing (“American”) Party. David Herbert Donald described the situation in Lincoln.
A rising tide of immigration fed the endemic American nativist sentiment. In Illinois the large number of foreign-born who came to build the railroad network aroused fear of foreign tongues and behavior and of the Catholic Church, to which many immigrants belonged. Fear became resentment when the sharp recession of 1854-1855 put a temporary halt to railroad construction and threw immigrant laborers into competition with local blue collar workers. Native-born Protestants began to join secret societies, like the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, which advocated lengthening the term for naturalization and restricting the rights of the Catholic Church.
David Herbert Donald, Lincoln 169-70 (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks 1995).
The Know Nothings were especially fearful of foreign (Catholic) influence in government. This fear is reflected in the American Party platform of 1856, which states that:
- Americans must rule America, and to this end native-born citizens should be selected for all State, Federal, and municipal offices of government employment, in preference to all others.
No person should be selected for political station (whether of native or foreign birth), who recognizes any allegiance or obligation of any description to any foreign prince, potentate or power, or who refuses to recognize the Federal and State Constitution (each within its sphere) as paramount to all other laws, as rules of political action.
American Platform of Principles | The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition (source).
In many ways, Abraham Lincoln was successful politically because he cast himself as the moderate among radicals. However, when asked about his rumored sympathies for the Know Nothings by an old friend, Lincoln responded with conviction and clarity.
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 equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence [sic] of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].
Following Lincoln’s example, my answer is clear.