How We Got Here: The Brief, Unhappy Reign of Citizen Know-Nothing

Part Five in a series; see Parts One, Two, Three and Four

The Nativist movement’s violence exploded exponentially at the same time it became most respectable. In the mid-1850s, decades of anti-Catholic nationalism, confined to the baying of mobs, the screeching of preachers and the machinations of secret societies, coalesced into a mainstream party. In its mixture of Whig platforms and xenophobia, the Native American Party offered Americans a brief, explosive respite from slavery.

There had been efforts to form a Nativist party before, notably in the American Republican Party, which scored victories in municipal elections in Pennsylvania and New York in the 1840s. Underground secret societies like the Order of United Americans (OUA) provided the foundation for a national movement. And the Whig Party pandered to nativist sentiments, a task made easier by the adherence of Irish immigrants to the Democratic Party.

Yet the Know-Nothing Party’s emergence stemmed from specific factors. Cardinal Bedini’s ill-fated  tour of the United States reheated anti-Catholic resentment as surely did the mass immigration from Ireland and Germany in the late 1840s. Reheated arguments over parochial education in the early 1850s played their role two. But the Whig Party’s collapse after the 1852 election, riven by sectional discord over slavery, left a vacuum that the Know-Nothings eagerly filled.

Citizen Know-Nothing

A new group, the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, began in 1850 under the guidance of Charles B. Allen. Initially managing a few dozen members in New York, the Order expanded exponentially in 1852 to over a thousand nationwide. Operating with Masonic secrecy, the Order identified members with secret handshakes, passwords and initiation rituals, a mascot called Uncle Sam and a youth group called the Wide-Awakes. Their nickname, coined by journalist Horace Greeley, stemmed from instructions to answer queries about their politics, “I know nothing.”

The Know-Nothings tested their strength in 1852, endorsing Daniel Webster as their candidate in a convention at Trenton, New Jersey. Webster declined the honor (in any case, he died before election day), and most Know-Nothings reluctantly supported General Winfield Scott, running as a Whig. Yet Scott proclaimed that “I love to hear the Irish brogue” in patronizing speeches to immigrants, while his ambivalence towards slavery offered a poor contrast to Democratic nominee Franklin Pierce.

The Whigs collapsed upon Scott’s defeat, leading New York Senator William Seward to remark that “the party is played out for this time and played out…perhaps forever.” Progressive Whigs organized what eventually became the Republican Party, taking an explicitly anti-slavery stance. In the short term, however, Republicans were overshadowed by the Native American Party, who vowed that “our only concern is attacking those who threaten…our American principles.” With the Whigs collapsing, the Democrats in thrall to foreigners and Republicans as yet a fringe party, only the Nativists could make America great again.

Robert T. Conrad

The Know-Nothings matched anti-immigrant sentiments to social reforms. The temperance movement became an ally, with candidates like Philadelphia Mayor Robert T. Conrad vowing to close saloons and restrict liquor traffic. The National Temperance Organ enthused that “if the Know-Nothing break down the demagogues who truckle for foreign votes… the power of the liquor traffic [will be] gone forever.” E.A. Penniman, chagrined with “being humbugged…by tavern keepers, and their groggeries, and naturalized citizens, ” switched from Democrat to Know-Nothing.

Other activists tied immigrants to political corruption, noting the Democratic Party’s exploitation of Irish immigrants as a voting bloc, and Pierce’s appointment of a Catholic, James Campbell, as Postmaster General. Henry J. Gardner, Governor of Massachusetts, vowed “a return to the pure and thoroughly American Policy of our early Presidents” under a system “governed EXCLUSIVELY by Americans.” Legislators proposed limiting franchise to Americans with 21 years’ citizenship (more moderate variations ranged from 5 to 7 years). If immigrants didn’t vote for the right party, they wouldn’t vote at all.

Many northerners even tied Catholicism to slavery. Theodore Parker, a Unitarian leader and abolitionist, accused Catholics of being “on the side of slavery,” while a Maine Know-Nothing wondered “when has the voice of an Irishman…been heard on the anti-slavery platform?” (Ignored were the German-Americans active in the abolition movement.) Thomas Spooner of Ohio assured voters that “Americanism and Freedom are synonymous” and that “foreignism and slavery are equally so.”

This didn’t sit well in the South, where the Know-Nothings struggled to supplant the Whigs as a moderating force. Where northerners conflated the Slave Power with the Catholic Church, Southerners, conversely, tied them to abolition. Henry A. Wise, the Democratic Governor of Virginia, blasted the Nativists in speeches and printed broadsides, asking “What Southern man can sympathize” with a group “whose whole basis for action… stands upon religious intolerance and antislavery fanaticism?”

Despite these schisms, 1854 saw remarkable victories by the Native Americans. They won governorships in California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, besides electing mayors, municipal candidates and fifty-two Congressmen across the country. “The Romish Harlot is on the defense,” gloated the Know-Nothing and American Crusader, “death to all foreign influences.” With the Republicans showing little national appeal, commentators braced themselves for the Nativist avalanche.

Victorious Know-Nothings wasted no time implementing their agenda. Massachusetts required students to read the King James Bible in public schools, evicting 1,000 homeless immigrants from poorhouses and expelled Irishmen from state militia units. As a prelude to disenfranchisement, they installed literacy tests for all prospective voters. Echoing memories of Maria Monk, the state even created a “nunnery committee” investigate Catholic convents. This committee collapsed after its leader, Joseph Hiss, used funds to house his mistress in a hotel.

Henry Gardner

Massachusetts balanced its bigotry with progressive reforms, many cribbed from Henry Clay’s National System. The state legislature passed bills to break monopolies and regulate corporations, provided free textbooks and increased funding for schools, and passed a personal liberty law to thwart the Fugitive Slave Act. For all Gardner’s positive achievements, however, his governorship denied these advancements to a significant portion of his state’s population.

And Nativist electoral success only encouraged anti-immigrant violence. Riots, church burnings and street violence erupted across the country. In Baltimore, the Plug-Uglies and Blood Tubs clashed with Irish gangs, while Bill “the Butcher” Poole led his Bowery Boys into brawls with the Irish Dead Rabbits. (Poole, who inspired Daniel Day-Lewis’s Bill Cutting in Gangs of New York, famously cried “I die a true American!” as his rivals assassinated him.) Nativists in Maine tarred and feathered priests and destroyed a church in Bath with gunpowder. Out west, San Francisco nativists organized vigilante committees who lynched Mexicans and Chinese.

Many ex-Whigs cautiously courted the Native Americans. William Seward mouthed anti-immigrant language to facilitate his reelection to the Senate. In Ohio, Salmon P. Chase, a Free Soiler, won the Governorship in 1855 with similar pandering. Yet Abraham Lincoln wondered, “How can any one who abhors the oppression of Negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people?” He commented that he’d rather immigrate to Russia, “where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy,” than embrace the Know-Nothings.

Bleeding Kansas

Indeed, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and opened Kansas, Nebraska and other western territories to slavery, accelerated the issue. As tension over slavery erupted into actual bloodshed in Kansas, the Know-Nothings’ noncommittal stance no longer seemed appealing, the threat from Rome and Ireland no longer so menacing. People rapidly chose sides between North and South, slave and free, leaving the anti-Catholic crusade in the dust.

1855’s off-year elections saw crippling setbacks. This year’s elections were marred by violence, such as Louisville’s “Bloody Monday” and Cincinnati’s pogroms against German-Americans. The Know-Nothings scored a handful of successes, adding Alabama and Ohio to their previous successes, but their failure to unseat Henry Wise in Virginia marked a major defeat. The Know-Nothings seemed primed to collapse as quickly as they’d come.

Undaunted, the Know-Nothings (now calling themselves the American Party) hoped for victory in 1856. Yet they were compromised almost instantly by a divided convention. Southerners attempted to block the seating of abolitionist New Englanders; Northerners, consequently, objected to the Louisiana delegation’s Catholic members. Debate raged over an abolitionist platform, with the convention adopting a compromise “to abide by and maintain the existing laws upon the subject of slavery, as a final and conclusive settlement of that subject, in spirit and in substance.”

Fillmore as Compromise Candidate

After a heated convention, the American Party nominated ex-President Millard Fillmore (with Tennessee Senator Andrew S. Donelson as his running mate). While Fillmore had joined the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, he had no stomach for promoting their cause. Nominated while vacationing in Paris, he complained about “this unsolicited, unrequested nomination” and only accepted it with great reluctance. Fillmore’s presidency, inherited from the deceased Zachary Taylor had been an unmitigated failure; his only accomplishment, overseeing the Compromise of 1850, quickly eroded before events beyond his control. He inspired no one, and his nomination failed to stop many ex-Whigs from supporting Republican John Fremont.

Even so, 1856 offered the most ominous election in decades, with threat of southern secession hanging overhead. James Buchanan, a Pennsylvania Democrat, won support from voters who considered Fremont to extreme and Fillmore a nonentity. Southern Know-Nothings abandoned Fillmore for Buchanan, preferring to “vote for Buchanan to save the Union” than continue the anti-Catholic campaign. Buchanan easily won, with Fremont faring well in northern states and legitimizing the Republican Party. Fillmore won only 875,000 votes and Maryland’s eight electoral votes.

The Know-Nothings clung to power in Maryland, Louisiana and several other states until the outbreak of Civil War, yet their national influence waned. Their sectional differences proved insurmountable: Henry Wilson, Massachusetts Senator, lamented that the American Party was “broken and splintered to atoms by its failure on the question of abolition.” Republicans harnessed their anti-immigrant rhetoric to a coherent antislavery platform. In 1860, die hard Nativists rallied around John Bell’s Constitutional Union Party, which finished third in the last antebellum election.

Ku Klux Klan vs. the Catholic Church, 1920s

Though submerged by the Civil War and Reconstruction, anti-Catholicism remained an embarrassing skeleton in America’s closet. It reemerged in the postwar American Protective Association, which blamed Lincoln’s assassination and the Panic of 1873 on Catholics; the Republican invocation of “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion” in 1884’s election; the mass lynching of Italian immigrants in 1891 New Orleans; the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, the allegations of disloyalty dogging presidential candidates Al Smith and John F. Kennedy.

Today, despite widespread criticism over sexual abuse and institutional cover-ups, old-fashioned Catholic bashing is mostly the province of evangelicals, hardcore progressives and Lyndon LaRouche. Yet other immigrant and religious groups have replaced them as American bogeymen: Mexicans bringing drugs and rape, Africans spreading AIDS and Ebola, Muslims introducing terrorism and halal turkeys to our glorious “Christian Nation.” In November 2016, a remarkable pig rooted his way to electoral success by pandering to America’s ancient fear of the Other; since then, he oinks his unvarnished bigotry every chance he gets, playing to large swaths of Americans who’d rather blame institutional failures on people weaker than themselves. Old habits and prejudices die hard, even (especially) in America.

Sources and Further Reading

Tyler Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know-Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s (1992); Carleton Beals, Brass-Knuckle Crusade: The Great Know-Nothing Conspiracy, 1820-1860 (1960); David Harry Bennett, The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History (1988); Ray A. Billington, The Protestant Crusade, 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism (1938).

Thanks everyone for reading another How We Got Here miniseries! Stay tuned for a special MLK Day entry on Monday; afterwards, we’ll begin an in-depth look at the Democratic Party’s long, troubled history with race and civil rights.