The Know-Nothing party of the 1850s was the first nativist party in American politics to gain importance and serves as an exemplar of how cultural nativism may be captured and turned toward political goals. The resurgence of nativist sentiment in the Know-Nothing era provides an excellent example of a rhetorical situation which seriously constrains the form of the accompanying rhetoric. To overcome the failings of nativist rhetoric, the Know-Nothings linked nativism to common American values in such a manner that audiences were convinced that nativism was consistent with American tradition. The Know-Nothing party created their conspiracy theory along traditional lines and by appealing to three basic concepts that were strong in the American mind at that time: secrecy, patriotism, and Protestantism. The use of these three basic American values enabled the party to construct a drama consistent with the values of the natives, thus easily incorporating it into the traditional American mythology. The failure of the Know-Nothing party was that it did not adjust its story to respond to the demands of the changing rhetorical situation, which include the party's refusal to acknowledge a strong competing counter-explanation of the country's problems and the party's ignorance of a dramatic change that had taken place in the American audience, that is the division of a country on the brink of civil war. (Fifty-three notes are included.) (MS)
Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Eastern Communication Association (79th, Baltimore, MD, April 27-May 1, 1988).
Audience Awareness; Conspiracy; Know Nothing Party; Nativism; Nineteenth Century History; Nineteenth Century Rhetoric; Political Parties; Political Rhetoric; Rhetorical Effectiveness; Rhetorical Stance; Rhetorical Strategies