"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 published in the
climacteric year 1853 called The Great American Battle," 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
For a specter was 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 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
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 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
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)y 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
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 Kixk 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
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
Much of the above text was printed in Smithsonian Magazine November 1996
1996 was a time when the political-intellectual world was both enthralled and
disturbed by the presidential campaign of one Patrick Buchanan, a television
performer and an avowed Papist, who was running on a campaign to stop the
flooding of the United States with impure foreign blood. I believe that one of his
suggestions was digging a great well-fortified ditch along every mile of the
Mexican border. Backed up, I like to think, by towering bronze figures of Patrick
Buchanan poining a decisive finger southward while loud-speakers at regular
intervals bellow out the words, NO WAY JOSE. The campaign was reported to
be sweeping the country, and it did sweep into some unusual places. The
candidate reported with pleasure how he had been in the audience at a Christmas
play in a Louisiana church, and after it was over out came King Herod in his royal
robes to lead the audience in a chant of GO PAT GO. He was not offended by the
derivation of these words from the warcry of Elvis Presley. GO CAT GO: he
might have considered Elvis a bad influence on the youth of the land, but no one
could deny that his blood was pure enough to satisfy the most critical Native
American of 1856.
The presence of an avowed Papist on a presidential ticket in 1996 did not, as
far as I can recall, call forth any comment whatsoever in the press. But it was less
than two thirds of a century before that when I, as a youngster looking forward to
some day performing my civic duties by voting, came upon the first issue I had
ever seen of the Atlantic Monthly, and it had an article by of those Yankee sages
with a tripartite name expounding on a theme which has remained dear to the
heart of the Atlantic Monthly ever since, the hopeless decline and imminent fall
of what had once been a promising American republic.
The most striking premonitory sign of the decadence of the Roman Empire,
said this author, was the change in the names of the men who ruled it. Where
once you had good traditional Latin appellations like Caesar Augusts or Titus
Livius Plurabellus, you now see the rods of power in the hands of men with
grating barbarian names like Stilicho and Odoacer and Arbogast. The same thing,
he said, was happening in the America of the 1930s where the race for the
mayoralty of our greatest city was being run between two men named O'Brien and
La Guardia, "the mick and the wop." God knows to what depths of despair he
might have been reduced if he had survived to see the Odoacers and Stilichos of