By Amy Bridges

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The whig and democratic parties dominated electoral debate in the Age of Jackson, but the coalitions they assembled were fragile and their hold on the electorate was tenuous. Organized labor, for example, consistently voiced positions critical of both parties. Immigrants were publicly courted by both parties and genuinely welcome in neither. The nativists' situation was the mirror image of this: There was real sympathy for them in both parties, but both parties resisted public endorsement of nativist goals. Small wonder, then, that adamant nativists felt they might have some success with a party of their own.

The first effort, Samuel Morse's foray from anti-Catholic demagoguery into electoral politics in the mid-1830s, was not well rewarded at the polls. A decade later and in the mid-1850s nativist politicians were more successful. In 1844, the American Republican Party won control of city government as 50,345 voters – a turnout 5,430 voters larger than the preceding year, and which would not be matched until 1852 – went to the polls. Whigs had endorsed this effort, and when Whig support was withdrawn in 1845 the American Republicans quickly lost strength. By 1847, the party was gone. The events of the 1850s were similar. When the Know-Nothing Order (as the American Party) fielded its own candidates in 1854, nearly 5,800 more votes were cast than had been cast in the previous mayoral election. In 1854 and 1856, Know-Nothings were supported by about a third of the electorate.