Rudolph Giuliani, the mayor of New York, borrowed that quote in a recent speech to dramatise his disgust at the petty-minded xenophobia gripping Washington these days.
Lincoln's "know-nothings" belonged to a movement of mid-19th century political agitators who succeeded in whipping up Americans into a frenzy of anti-foreigner, anti-immigrant sentiment. Giuliani's "know- nothings", as he explained on Thursday, are "people who try politically to take advantage" of those Americans "who have a very negative view of immigration in this country because they are very frightened of people who look different, people who talk different".
Such a view, the polls show, represents majority opinion in America today. "That is the prevailing view of new people," Mayor Giuliani acknowledged. "We go through these cycles when we're afraid for a while. That's been true of this country for 150 years."
The paranoia on the ground is stoked and fed in Washington, where President Bill Clinton signed a Republican-inspired "welfare reform law" in August whose provisions severely punish foreigners who seek residence - whether by legal or illegal means - in the United States. It is in a similar spirit that the Clinton administration is striving to look tough on the United Nations by making a scapegoat out of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and that both Republicans and Democrats have agreed to impose sanctions on countries like Britain and Canada that do business with Cuba.
Mayor Giuliani, a man with the looks and moral severity of a Vatican cardinal, has stood alone among high-profile American politicians to combat the predominant hysteria, making immigration his battleground to pit the cosmopolitan metropolis of New York - which he likes to describe as "the capital of the world" - against the narrow provincialism of Washington.
In so doing he has exposed Washington's best-known dirty little secret, that those who make the nation's laws in the White House and Congress are motivated primarily not by what is good for the nation, much less the world, but by their own desires for re-election.
In June, making a last-ditch effort to stop the anti-immigrant law from taking effect, Mayor Giuliani lashed out at his own party, calling on Bob Dole and other Republican leaders to refrain from election-year "political pandering". Mr Dole, he said, should demonstrate that he is "a leader and a statesman" and not "cave in to public opinion polls" showing that the majority of Americans favoured reduced levels of immigration.
Richard Schwartz, a senior adviser to Mayor Giuliani, expanded on his boss's unusually candid views. "In other parts of the country, elected officials think it's good politics to be anti-immigration. We say maybe it's good politics, but it's not good policy, because what we find is that immigrants are hard-working job creators whose presence tends to revive flagging city communities. And not only is it bad policy, it's immoral, because all of us are descended from immigrants, save for the Native Americans."
Mayor Giuliani is taking his battle against Washington to the courts. Without necessarily meaning to, the opening words of the legal complaint convey the imperious disdain New Yorkers notoriously feel towards their Little American cousins. "The City of New York, and Rudolph W Giuliani, as mayor of the City of New York, Plaintiffs - against - The United States of America, and Janet Reno, as Attorney-General of the United States, Defendants."
New York's case challenges the constitutionality of two provisions in the Welfare Reform Act. These impose a legal obligation on the police and all employees of New York city to report to the immigration authorities any illegal aliens who come to their attention. These provisions contradict a New York statute that specifically orders city employees not to transmit information regarding "any alien" to the immigration authorities unless exceptional circumstances apply. "New York is the only city that has these rules and it sticks in the craw of legislators in Washington that New York does this," Mr Schwartz said.
But does New York have any justification for sticking it to them in the first place, or is this just another example of Big Apple arrogance? Because as New York's legislative enemies in Washington see it, Mayor Giuliani, by seemingly encouraging illegal immigration, has taken the contrariness of America's wealthiest, most famous city to new heights.
Mr Schwartz said that the mayor was most definitely not in favour of illegal immigration. "But stemming the tide is unquestionably the federal government's problem. Our problems, once these individuals are in, are quite different and they will not evaporate into the ether because of this new legislation."
In the view of Mayor Giuliani the new legislation will pose grave dangers to a city whose illegal alien population is estimated at 400,000. It will make illegal aliens fearful of making contact with anyone employed by the city and, as a potentially "catastrophic consequence" (in the mayor's words), they will not come forward as witnesses or victims to a crime; they will not seek treatment if they are infected with contagious diseases; they will not send their 70,000 to 80,000 children to school, risking an epidemic of poverty and street crime.
No less counter-productive, Mayor Giuliani believes, are the provisions in the welfare reform law which cut off benefits to unemployed, disabled and elderly legal immigrants and deny them access to government health care for the first five years of their stay in the US. The New York Times, weighing in alongside the mayor against Washington, called these measures "morally repugnant".
Today a third of New York's tax-paying population is foreign-born - continuing evidence, in the eyes of Mr Giuliani, whose grandmother was an Italian immigrant, that the city's wealth, vitality and unique character is driven by immigration.
Herman Badillo, a highly successful New York lawyer who moved to the US from Puerto Rico when he was 11, knows Washington well and understands well the processes by which "bad and foolish laws" are passed. He served in Congress from 1970 to 1977 before quitting with a bad taste in his mouth to serve for two years in what he considers to have been the far more useful role of deputy mayor of New York.
"In Congress the issue is not 'What should be done?' but 'How does it benefit you?'" Mr Badillo said. "One way to secure elected office is to say you are against immigrants, which is a codeword for Hispanics and Chinese. By adopting this position, however unprincipled and impractical, you are translating the prejudices of the white American majority into votes."Reuse content