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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Maureen Gill: Sometimes what is old is new again

Wednesday, June 13, 2012 11:58 AM EDT
The Know-Nothing movement of the mid-1800s would be very much at home in modern America. Know-Nothings were native-born, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant males – women could not yet vote; the movement was a xenophobic, anti-immigrant response to massive waves of Irish and German immigrants flooding America between 1830-60, most especially Irish Catholics; however, Know-Nothings also railed against Jews, and in California, they targeted Asians, primarily the Chinese.

The movement’s name was the result of its semi-secret organization; when asked about the movement’s activities, members were instructed to reply “I know nothing.” The Know-Nothing platform called for: Severe limits on immigration, especially from Catholic countries; restricting political office to native-born Americans of English and/or Scottish lineage and Protestant persuasion; mandating a wait of 21 years before an immigrant could gain citizenship; restricting public school teacher positions to Protestants; mandating daily Bible readings in public schools; restricting the sale of liquor; restricting the use of languages other than English.

To be fair, immigration between 1850-55 was five times greater than a decade earlier, and placed enormous stress on cities and states. Immigrants crowded into city tenements and crime and welfare costs soared. The stressors of relocation and poverty produced mental illness, alcoholism and runaway crime; Cincinnati’s crime rate tripled and the murder rate actually increased sevenfold. Boston experienced a 400 percent increase in violent crimes, and expenditures for poor relief rose threefold. Irish and German laborers gladly accepted work at the lowest possible wages, undercutting and inflaming American workers.

Similar to the Tea Party in 2010, Know-Nothings scored startling victories across the country. Know-Nothing Robert Conrad campaigned for mayor of Philadelphia on the promise he’d be tough on crime, close saloons on Sundays, and appoint only native-born Americans to office. He won by a landslide. Know-Nothings captured both the San Francisco mayor’s office and governor’s mansion in California, won control of the Massa-chusetts Legislature, and elected Know-Nothing Levi Boone mayor of Chicago. Boone, true to his word, immediately barred all immigrants from city jobs.

In 1855, a Know-Nothing mob torched Catholic homes in Louisville, Ky., and murdered 100 Catholics when they fled their burning homes. Know-Nothings burned convents and churches in Baltimore, Boston, New York and Philadelphia. In Boston, New York, Paterson, Philadelphia and Louisville, Irish neighborhoods were attacked by mobs; in Maine, a priest was tarred and feathered. Know-Nothings who gained control of state Legislatures passed laws against Catholics, including particularly offensive “nunnery inspection” laws allowing civic officials to invade the privacy of convents at awkward hours. Catholic schoolchildren were barred in many school districts or forced to read the Protestant Bible in the schools they were allowed to attend. This point compels me to say once again that Catholic bishops who allege the Obama Administration is warring on religious freedom are either lying or just plain bats.

Lincoln publicly repudiated the Know-Nothings, declaring, “I am not a Know Nothing; that is certain. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal,’ now we practically read it, ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes.’ When the Know Nothings get control, it will read, ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia for instance – where despotism can be taken pure and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

Eventually, many Know-Nothings shifted support to a new party that had a westward-looking, expansionist, free-soil policy. This was the new Republican Party, founded in 1854. After the Supreme Court’s controversial Dred Scott ruling in 1857, most abolitionists joined the Republican Party, proving the startling truth in the adage that “politics makes strange bedfellows.” The pro-slavery Know-Nothings remained strong on the local and state levels in the south. The nativist spirit of the original Know-Nothings can be seen in later political movements such as the Ku Klux Klan and the American Protective Association. Some historians see shades of Know-Nothing ideology in Alabama governor George Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign.

Political parties in America emerge out of strange, sometimes toxic times. The important thing to remember is that the elasticity of democracy allows for these expansions, contractions and vent holes. The Know-Nothings and the Tea Party are interesting reminders that political parties are not static; they blend together and then spin off again into separate trajectories that may continue to share overlapping concerns or morph into polar opposites – only to one day share much in common again. The one thing that doesn’t seem to change, however, is human nature.

— Maureen Gill is a historian, educator, public speaker, blogger and novelist; a native Chicagoan, she now resides in southern Maine. Feel free to email Gill at

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