Immigration and the Know-Nothing Party

Blythe's Justice

David Gilmour Blythe, Justice, c. 1860, oil on canvas, 51.1 x 61.3 cm (Fine Art Museums of San Francisco). Speakers: Emily Jennings, Director of School and Family Programs, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Dr. Beth Harris

Hanson, Executive

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Key Points

  • The rise of immigration in the mid-nineteenth century led to an anti-immigration backlash and the political party, the Know-Nothings. This group engaged in violent acts of intimidation and suppression and their membership included prominent politicians and community leaders.
  • Although the artist, David Gilmour Blythe, had anti-immigrant sympathies, he also distrusted the judiciary and the press. It is difficult to decipher his position in this painting. His courtroom is dark and shadowy, his immigrants are unidealized, his judge seems aloof and biased. There is a sense of uneasiness and vulnerability, but little indication that justice will prevail.

Go Deeper

This painting at the deYoung Museum of Art

Read about the American Party (The Know Nothing Party)

Learn more about the Know Nothing Party using primary sources

Read about anti-immigrant campaigns and voter suppression in the 19th century

Find additional reading suggestions about the history of immigration in America

More to think about

Blythe’s painting reminds us of the long history of racism and anti-immigration attitudes in the U.S., as well as skepticism among the public about the ability of the press and legal system to ensure social justice. If Blythe was addressing these issues today, how would he revise his painting?  

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