Anti-immigrant politics could spark violence in Kentucky. It has happened before.

Republished from Kentucky Lantern

Donald J. Trump, meet Charles S. Morehead, the guy who was elected governor of Kentucky in 1855 on the anti-immigrant “Know-Nothing” ticket.

Charles S. Morehead, Kentucky’s No-Nothing governor. (Kentucky Historical Society)

“Americans should rule America” was the Know-Nothings’ credo. Translation: white, native-born Protestants like them. 

Officially, the American Party, it was dubbed the “Know-Nothing” party because members were supposed to reply — like Sgt. Schultz on “Hogan’s Heroes” — “I know nothing” to an inquiry about the party from a possibly hostile journalist or suspicious stranger.

The party faithful shrieked that foreigners loyal to an “inflated … despot” were threatening to take over the country. Translation: German and Irish-born Catholics.  

According to the Know-Nothings, these “papist” foreigners were hellbent on foisting their “false religion” and its “anti-Christian” law on America. German and Irish Catholics were “a foe to the very principles we embody in our laws, a foe to all we hold most dear.” 

Too, the party claimed immigrants were “the chief source of crime in this country.” They weren’t. Trump says “illegal immigrants” are boosting the violent crime rate in the U.S. They aren’t.

Multiple “studies by academics and think tanks have shown that immigrants do not commit crime at a higher rate than native-born Americans,” Reuters reported. Other “studies specifically examine criminality among immigrants [who are] in the U.S. illegally and also find that they do not commit crimes at a higher rate.”

Former President Donald Trump (Photo by Chet Strange/Getty Images)

Trump has been demagoguing against “illegal immigrants” since he announced his presidential candidacy in 2015. He’s called them “animals.” He said migrants from Haiti and from African nations came from “shithole countries.” He charged that “illegals” are “poisoning the blood” of the U.S., meaning the blood of white folks. (“The remarks ‘poisoning the blood of our country’ are straight out of Hitler’s 1925 autobiographical manifesto “Mein Kampf” — his blueprint for a ‘pure Aryan’ Germany and the removal of Jews,” wrote Russell Contrearas in Axios.

Trump denies he’s parroting Germany’s Nazi dictator who ordered the murder of six million European Jews. 

If he’s reelected, Trump promises he’ll promptly order “the largest domestic deportation operation in American history.” The “illegals” he wants to kick out are black and brown.

While Trump’s appeal to nativism and xenophobia is rooted in racism, the American Party downplayed white supremacy and elevated anti-Catholic and anti-foreign bigotry over race-baiting. “You didn’t have a substantial enough free Black voting population to make any difference in electoral politics,” said Murray State University historian Brian Clardy.  

Demographically, Trump’s MAGA movement is strikingly similar to the Know-Nothings. Overwhelmingly, it’s composed of conservative whites of American birth, most of whom are evangelical Protestants. In the Trump-tilting Bluegrass State, almost 87% of the population is white. Nearly half  of Kentuckians who say they are religious identify themselves as Protestant evangelicals, a big chunk of the Trump base.    

Like the Know-Nothings, Trump “appeals to the baser instincts of people who subscribe to nativism and seeks electoral gain at the expense of marginalized populations,” Clardy said. 

In the 1855 spring municipal elections, Know-Nothings took control of city governments in Louisville, Lexington and Covington. In the Aug. 6 state elections, Morehead won the governorship, plus his party notched majorities in both houses of the General Assembly and claimed six of the state’s 10 U.S. House seats, according to the Kentucky Encyclopedia

The party’s violently anti-Catholic and anti-foreign rhetoric led to bloodshed in Louisville on Aug. 6. Many blamed the anti-foreign hysteria, at least in part, on editor George D. Prentice of The Louisville Daily Journal. He endorsed the Know-Nothing ticket and authored vicious editorials against “the Pope of Rome, an inflated Italian despot who keeps people kissing his toes all day.”

Know-Nothing mobs rampaged through German and Irish immigrant neighborhoods, murdering, beating, burning and looting. At least 19 men died in the violence which went down in history as “Bloody Monday,” the encyclopedia says. 

A statue of President Abraham Lincoln stands in the Kentucky Capitol Rotunda. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

Most Know-Nothings had been Whigs before the party collapsed in 1854. Kentucky-born Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, was an ex-Whig. He denounced Know-Nothing nativist bilge in no uncertain terms.

“I am not a Know-Nothing,” he declared in an Aug. 24, 1855, letter to his friend, Joshua F. Speed of Louisville. “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.” 

Ultimately, the  Know-Nothings faded away and ended up on the trash heap of history, where they belong. There’s plenty of room for Trump in history’s landfill, too.

Clardy fears violence if Trump wins and enacts his mass deportation programs aimed at “illegals” of color. He worries that white supremacist groups and individuals, taking their cue from the White House, will “attack immigrants, native-born African Americans, Hispanic Americans and others. Trump is going to embolden racists to do their worst.” 


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