"I Know Nothing"
Native Americans Kick the Pope
A sense of a deadly foreign danger was floating over the United States a century and a half ago..
"Popery threatens." wrote Mary Ellen Carroll in her book The Great American Battle in the climacteric year 1853 , "to swallow up America, and springing its shuttle of death across her shore; it pants to be able to water its steed in her great Mississippi."
The great American public did not take her literally, no patrols were sent out to look for the Papal cavalry sweeping across Illinois. Still, her book was a best-seller, and there was no doubt that it had struck a sensitive nerve of the body politic.
For a specter was indeed haunting the body politic in those mid-century years. It was the specter of immigration.
The country had long been used to a steady flow of newcomers -- from ten to sixty thousand a year in the first four decades of the century -- and took only passing notice of them as long as they were practically all of the same British blood and the same Protestant religion as the founders of the republic. Now two great social upheavals in Europe, the potato famine in Ireland and the riots and revolutions of 1848 in Germany, had unleashed immense tides of a new, unfamiliar and disquieting kind of newcomer. The lives of the older inhabitants (those who a century later would call themselves with a touch of self-deprecation WASPS but were then proud to be known as Native Americans) were bound to be affected by the sheer size of the influx -- three million souls in the single decade beginning in 1845 -- but even more by its nature.
The mere sight and sound of the new arrivals were unsettling as they poured out of steerage after a month-long ocean crossing, dirty, disheveled, speaking little or no English (rural Ireland before the famine was still a predominately Gaelic-speaking country). They were rowdy and they drank, they filled the jails and the asylums and the poorhouses. And they were almost all Roman Catholics, owing allegiance to an alien potentate, the Pope, who behind the dark battlements of Rome was weaving the strands of what Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, described in another best-seller of the day as The Foreign Conspiracy against the United States.
It all added up, said one orator in what was coming to be called the Nativist movement, to "a moral sore on the body politic, a disease both moral and physical -- a leprosy."
(There was also a considerable illegal immigration during this period, but since it consisted of black Africans brought over by slave traders in defiance of laws and treaties, and since these immigrants were quickly swallowed up by plantations in the far reaches of the rural South where under the US Constitution they counted as three-fifths of a person each and would never see a ballot-box, it did not create so much concern.)
There was a general feeling of unease and distrust which could on occasion turn to violence. In 1836 a mob burned a convent in Boston, in 1844 another burned a Catholic church in Philadelphia in a riot which cost seventeen lives The "Broad Street Riot" which shook New York in 1837 was started when a volunteer fire company noisily returning from putting out a blaze ran into an equally noisy Irish funeral procession..
In 1853, when a Papal Nuncio named Gaetano Bedini landed in New York to sound out the possibilities of establishing diplomatic relations between the United States and the Papal States, it was clear to every Nativist that deep and devious plots were underway. There were demonstrations and disturbances in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Wheeling. Bedini was hanged in effigy in Baltimore, and he found it prudent to slip in the dead of night aboard a ship bound for Rome. As a kind of going-away present, a gang of men on a dark night invaded the construction site where the foundations of the Washington Monument were being laid, seized a stone from an ancient Roman temple which had been donated by Pope Pius IX and threw it into the Potomac.
Inevitably, the anti-immigrant fever worked its way into local and national politics. Nativists began to pass out pamphlets and manifestoes, to form groups, to make speeches, to run for public office.
They got little attention at first. America had a functioning two-party system, Whigs and Democrats had been contesting elections regularly since most people could remember, exchanging power with each other every few years. Every so often an outlandish single-issue third party would spring up, like the Anti-Masonic Party in the 1820's and it would shortly die in general indifference. The Nativists seemed no different. When S. F. B. Morse ran for mayor of New York in 1836 he got only 1500 votes out of more than 26,000 cast.
But then something happened which none of the experts either foresaw or understood. Nativist sentiment began to find a structure and a mass appeal. When the Secret Order of the Star-Spangled Banner was formed by an obscure scribbler named Charles Allen in 1849, it attracted only forty-three members in the next three years. Even after it was absorbed into the Order of United Americans in 1852, and began spreading a network of lodges on the model of the Freemasons over all the states of the Union, none of the prominent politicians or molders of public opinion took these people seriously. Ralph Waldo Emerson compared their thought processes to those of a man who puts his head into a bag.
Emerson and the other molders of public opinion were quite unprepared for what would actually happen. The lodges of the United Americans spread like wildfire over the land, 960 of them in New York State alone, each lodge firmly anchored in a local community. Local lodges elected delegates to State Councils, and these in turn sent seven men apiece to a Grand National Council, There are no reliable statistics, but membership may have soared in less than two years to well over a million, grouping men of different backgrounds and creeds and occupations in a common vigilance against the subversive forces from abroad which could be summed up by the popular catchword Pope and Paddy.
The lodges were open only to Native Americans, "Protestant, born of Protestant parents, reared under Protestant influence, and not united in marriage with a Roman Catholic." They had an elaborate ritual apparatus of oaths, grips, passwords. New members solemnly swore never to divulge to outsiders what went on inside the lodges. An old tradition which may or may not be correct says that they were instructed to reply to any prying questions with the words, "I do not know,." or "I know nothing." At all events, malicious outsiders took to calling them "Know-Nothings," the name stuck, and it is the name by which they are known to this day in the history books.
Almost no records of what went on in the Know-Nothing lodges have survived, and so no one knows what the members were really up to. Some historians have hastily concluded that the ordinary run-of-the-mill Americans who made up their membership were better at keeping a secret than all those famous elitist organizations of history - the Jesuits, the Freemasons, the Communist Party, the Mafia -- which in their day imposed tremendous oaths of omertà on their members but whose secrets soon became an open book. A simpler explanation might be that the Know-Nothings simply had nothing to say, outside of denouncing Paddy and the Pope and proclaiming that it was time to elect some honest men to office and kick the rascals out.
In an ordinary election year, this would not add up to a successful electoral program. But 1854, when the Know-Nothings formed what they called The American Party and put up several hundred candidates for office from Maine to California, was no ordinary year.
From the safe vantage of the future the America of the mid-nineteenth century looks like a vibrant and optimistic land, well embarked on a path of uninterrupted growth that would soon make it the most powerful nation the world had ever seen. But for the voters living in 1854 there was a powerful smell of approaching doom. There was an economic recession that year, there was runaway inflation, there was runaway crime in the streets of the cities. The newfangled railroads and cotton mills were destroying the social fabric built by sturdy yeomen. Politics, once directed by wise Founding Fathers, was now in the hands of confused and corrupt demagogues and ward-heelers.
This was one of those moments which occur periodically in all democratic countries, when there is a general feeling that the traditional political parties are hopelessly out of touch with what is going on,.when the eternal mistrust of the politician (a word which ranks below "lawyer" and barely above "bureaucrat" in the scale of popular values), turns to total disillusionment and disgust. People were tired, said a Know-Nothing newspaper editor, of seeing "politics made a profession, and public plunder an employment."
It was high time to throw the rascals out.
The two-party system had broken down. In the presidential election of 1852 the Whigs had made the mistake of running General Winfield Scott, who was notoriously soft on Catholicism (had he not ordered his troops to show respect to Catholic churches during his victorious campaign in Mexico?) and were so badly beaten that they shortly afterwards ceased to exist as an organized national party. (They would be reborn a little later as the Republican Party.) The Democrats were still a majority of the voting population, but they were hopelessly split between northern and southern wings over the issue of allowing slavery to expand into the new western territories, an issue which was threatening to break the country in two and lead to all the horrors of a civil war.
Into this void stepped the Know-Nothings, offering at least the possibility of change. In their capacious tent there was room for all the disoriented dissatisfied groups across the country who were groping for some form of effective political expression. These groups might not respond to the wilder extremes of Nativist rhetoric, they might not agree that the republic was in peril because the Democratic President Franklin Pierce had paid off electoral debts by appointing an Irish Catholic to the position of Postmaster-general, with power to staff all the thousands of U. S. Post offices with minions of the Pope. But they all had reason to feel uneasy about runaway immigration.
For the workers in the new factories which were springing up everywhere, unskilled Irish laborers willing to dig ditches for sixty cents a day were driving down wages at a time when the flood of gold from the California mines was driving up prices.
The abolitionists of the Free-Soil movement saw the same unskilled uneducated immigrants taking the menial jobs which offered freed slaves from the south their only chance to start up the economic ladder. And earlier in the year they had been traumatized to see Irishmen enrolled in militia units used to hunt down the fugitive slave Anthony Burns in Boston and return him to his owner in the South.
The prohibitionists, who were hoping to do for Old King Alcohol what their ancestors had done for King George the Third were horrified to see the new arrivals swarming into saloons and beer halls.
Finally, there was an important segment of the population which thought dissension over slavery was driving the country to ruin, and that anything that would take people's minds off it would be a blessing. If people had to be excited about something, better they should be excited over the plots of Monsignor Bedini or the taxpayer dollars being spent on foreign-born paupers, and give the passions over slavery time to cool down.
.Modern historians have sifted through the election returns of November 1854 and the subsequent months in an effort to determine which of these various strands of opinion contributed most to the Know-Nothing cause. Whatever their final verdict, the overwhelming fact remains that in those elections the Know-Nothings made a score that no other third party in American history has ever come close to matching. In their first organized campaign, with no charismatic leaders, no trained orators, no established political ,machine, they elected over a hundred Congressmen, eight governors, and more than a thousand local officials including the mayors of Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. They won control of state legislatures in half a dozen states from New Hampshire to California, and took a strong second place in a dozen more, from New York to Louisiana.
Their most spectacular and most unexpected triumph came in Massachusetts, traditionally regarded as the most staid and stable of states, but now the one where the rate of social and economic change was faster than anywhere else. This land of embattled puritanical highminded farmers was now the only sizeable political entity in the world of 1854 where more people were working in factories than on farms. The sturdy Yankees who had fired the shot heard round the world at Lexington and Concord were being driven off their rugged land by cheap grain from the prairies and herded into crime-ridden cities controlled by corrupt political bosses..A symbol of old republican virtue like the old fishing industry of Nantucket now found its ships (like Captain Ahab's Pequod) manned by dirty rowdy ruffians from the far dark corners of the world.
The wave of dissatisfaction that swept over Massachusetts allowed the Know-Nothing candidates, most of whom had not a day of experience in public service and had never previously run for public office, to get almost two thirds of the votes statewide, 85 percent in the great new industrial city of Lawrence. They were elected governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, mayors of doznes of cities and towns, all 12 of the representatives in the U. S. Congress, all 40 of the state senators, 376 out of 379 members of the house of representatives.
To supporters of the reliable old order which had reigned in Massachusetts for half a century it seemed like a portent of the end of the world. Rufus Choate, an eminent Boston Brahmin, summed it up in a memorable sound-bite: "Renown and grace are dead."
The General Court (Massachusettsese for state legislature) which gathered in the State House in Boston the January following the election to listen to the inaugural address by the new governor, Henry Gardner, which demanded among other things the suppression of the teaching of foreign languages in schools , was like none other in American history. The lawyers and professional politicians who usually made up the bulk of such bodies had been swept away with a giant broom-stroke, their seats were taken by preachers and teachers and doctors and more than a hundred ordinary workingmen, "fresh from the people," all ready to roll up their sleeves and make Massachusetts over. It was, said an enthusiastic newspaper, "a new Deal All Around."
These newcomers to politics went to work with a zeal that astonished everyone, producing in one year a record-breaking number of more than six hundred laws and resolutions..Many of these were quite worthy pieces of legislation, bills which had been bogged down in committee for months or for years because of partisan wrangling or lobbying by special interests. They included the first railway safety regulations (despite the plea by the railroad companies that train accidents were not caused by trains, they were caused by drunkards who got in the way of trains), a law forbidding imprisonment for debt, a law allowing married women for the first time to transact business, make a will, and to go to work without the consent of the husband, laws authorizing the building of gas and water mains, wharves, aqueducts, bridges and canals. To please their abolitionist voters, they passed the nation's first desegregation law, providing that public schools must be open to all races, colors and religions.
There was general approval of these measures. But then to please their prohibitionist voters the Know-Nothings (who were apt to be heavy drinkers themselves in the privacy of their lodges) passed a law providing for six months in jail for serving illegal grog, and it turned out to be a very unpopular law.
When they got to immigration which was the main, the identifying, issue on which they had campaigned, they found that there was not much they could do in practical terms on the state level. They started action on a constitutional amendment that would forbid Catholics and foreigners to hold public office, and would require a wait of 21 years before any immigrant could vote. Beyond that they could only make small symbolic gestures, and the symbolism sometimes took a wrong turn and created a violent backlash in public opinion. It would have been hard to dream up a more petty and mean-spirited gesture than dragging 295 foreign-born inmates out of poorhouses and asylums, and transporting them "with less ceremony and formality," said a Boston paper, "than goes to the sending of a tub of butter or a barrel of apples" on board ships which dumped them on the docks of Liverpool.
Governor Gardner claimed that getting rid of "these leeches upon our taxpayers" saved the state $100,000.
A major error in public relations was the creation of a Joint Special Committee on the Inspection of Nunneries and Convents, institutions -- "unclean and anti-republican cages," Anna Ella Carroll called them - which Nativists suspected of sequestering innocent young ladies against their will and of storing "arms and instruments of war" A cellar-to-attic search of a convent in Boston produced loud squeals from young ladies and bad publicity for the Committee. It was worse when they went to Lowell for a noisy day poking their noses into every corner of a nunnery and then spent a night in a local inn for which the committee Chairman, Joseph Hiss, a Grand Worshipful Instructor in the hierarchy of the lodges, put in an expense account charging the state for rooms, meals, gin, champagne and a lady of the evening.
The public soon discovered that in the words of the famous editor Horace Greeley, an anti-immigrant party was "as devoid of the element of persistence as an anti-cholera or anti-potato-rot party." Know-Nothings in the long run had little to offer but (in the words of their electoral platform of 1855) the assurance that they were "men of higher qualification, purer morals and more unselfish patriotism" than the political hacks who had gone before them.
That made good copy in the daily papers when they were still back home. But when all those pure and unselfish men were out on the public stage, they found that they had to take practical decisions, make difficult choices that would offend people, make plans and counterplans, make compromises, make deals.
In the harsh world of conflicting interests they learned that they could not save the Yankee farmers by taxing Illinois wheat because then Illinois would have no money to buy Yankee cotton goods and shoes and sperm oil; that they could not pass a ten-hour workday for the cotton-mill workers because factories in other states would undersell Massachusetts factories and drive them out of business. They might have their own clearcut opinions on slavery back home, but if they wanted to go on and win national elections, and get Governor Gardner for example elected president or vice-president, they would have to produce some kind of weasel language to placate Southern legislators who had very different opinions. If they wanted to give the public what it wanted in the way of new schools, new highways, new harbors, they had to increase state expenditures, and that meant they had to raise taxes by 50 percent, which was not at all what the voters of Massachusetts wanted. If they wanted to get things done smoothly, they found it was convenient to throw government contracts in the way of generous supporters, to pass out government jobs to old cronies from back in the lodges.
In short, they began to look and sound and act just like the old-fashioned political hacks whom the people had just booted out of office. The rascals were back at the old stand.
By the time the presidential elections of 1856 had come round, the Know-Nothings turned to an old-school politician, Millard Fillmore, to be their candidate for President. He had already been President once, he had signed the Compromise of 1850 which, it was fondly hoped, would put the slavery issue on the shelf for a couple of decades at least. But six years later the issue was more burning than ever, civil war was looming, blood was already being spilled in Kansas. Fillmore had no use for Nativist demagoguery, but he hoped against hope that it might hold the country together by providing one issue on which North and South could agree. Many grave conservative people agreed with him. Amos Lawrence, the cotton manufacturer who had named a city after himself, had a hundred-gun salute fired off on Boston Common when the news of Fillmore's nomination arrived.
It was too late. The people had had two years of watching Know-Nothings in office and was already thoroughly disillusioned, The new party, once the enthusiasm of its early days had burned out, had no new solutions to offer, no new ideas, no program at all except the one expressed in the North-of-Ireland anthem "Kick the Pope," or at least keep his horse away from the Mississippi. It was revealed as nothing but a coalition of too many dissimilar groups which, as the historian John Lothrop Motley wrote, were only held together by a rope of sand.
The rope dissolved rapidly. Voter turnout, very heavy in 1854, shrank to below forty percent and so did Know-Nothing votes. The membership rolls of the Worcester Mass. Lodge which have somehow survived are eloquent: of 1120 members in 1854 only 200 were still on hand in 1855. Lawyers had begun to seep back into the General Court.
The people of the North had by now lost their taste for Nativist propaganda, and were ready to listen to orators of the new Republican party like young Abe Lincoln who said he would "rather live under tyranny in Russia than in a nation which proclaimed that all men are created equal except negroes foreigners and catholics." Neither North nor deep South was in a mood any longer to vote for someone who stood for compromise on the slavery issue.
When election day came round in November 1856, the only state which Fillmore carried for the Know-Nothings was Maryland, He did reasonably well in other border states -- Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee -- perhaps because the people there had special reason to fear a war which would be fought, not in newspaper headlines and political speeches, but in their own back yards. In the nation as a whole, however, despite a smear campaign suggesting that his Republican opponent John C. Fremont, was a closet Catholic, Fillmore got only twenty-one percent of the vote.(in Massachusetts he got twelve).
That was enough to ensure the election of the colorless Democratic party hack James Buchanan. It was also the swan song of the American Party, which might still win a few local victories, might elect Sam Houston governor of Texas in 1859, but had already turned into one of those lunatic-fringe groups which periodically flicker at the dark edges of the political system.
By 1860 the die was cast in America, there was going to be a war, and the Know-Nothings were sinking into the past as a kind of bad joke that no one wanted to be reminded of..From then on there were more important things than immigration to fill the public stage: the first modern war with its endless casualty lists (including alien as well as Native American blood), the convulsions and contortions of reconstruction, the great lunge across the continent to the Pacific, the new age of steam, electricity, women's suffrage, labor unions, the income tax. Immigration ceased to be in the forefront of the nation's mind, although it provided a steady round of dialect jokes on the vaudeville stage. Except for some campaigns in California against Chinese cheap labor, politicians found little advantage in the issue, until almost half a century after the Know-Nothings, when the Irish and the Germans had more or less melded into the American norm, a new tidal wave came from southern and eastern Europe, new swarthy illiterate mobs speaking incomprehensible languages and misbehaving in the streets, to man the factories and mines and sweatshops and dig the ditches and build the skyscrapers and elevated railways of the new industrial age, and renown and grace died all over again.
©1996 Robert Wernick