Getting to know the Know-Nothings

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It was the fall of 1854.

From this period of political upheaval, the country came to know the Know-Nothings, a group whose name is still used as short-hand for xenophobic nativism. But the story of the Know-Nothings is far more complex. Yes, they were militantly anti-immigration, but they were also quite progressive on issues of labor rights, opposition to slavery, and the need for more government spending. Given our current age of anxiety, it's worth dwelling on a few lessons of an earlier period, which has such obvious echoes.

During the turbulent decade of the 1850s, a populist political movement arose in America that would shatter the existing party system. Equal parts nativist demagoguery and populist progressive optimism, the party vanished as suddenly as it had appeared when the country's political forces re-aligned and sent the republic into a life and death struggle. Though it was a national movement, the Know-Nothings attained power only here in Massachusetts.

Since the country's founding, the ideal of farmers, independent craftsmen, and merchants standing on equal footing formed America's image of itself. But by the 1840s, the reality was far from the dream. The Northeast, and particularly Massachusetts, was industrializing rapidly. Mills had sprouted up on the Charles and the Merrimack rivers. The old cottage industries and small workshops were driven under by large-scale manufacturing enterprises. The new factory system, with its division of labor and mass production, was rendering the old skills valueless. Artisans were turned into drudges, doing repetitive tasks and tending machines for long hours for low pay in unsafe conditions. A gulf yawned between the rich and the poor, and each year it grew wider.

Adding to this volatile situation was the presence of large numbers of immigrants from Germany and Ireland. The Germans mainly headed for upstate New York and the Midwest. But the Irish, fleeing the frightful effects of the potato famine of 1847-51, crowded into the cities where they landed. They did not receive a warm welcome. Some communities tried to turn away the Irish, many of whom had arrived on these shores with nothing, clad in rags, too weak to work, and ill with typhus contracted on the "coffin ships" that had sailed from Cork and Liverpool crammed with the desperate and the starving. Local charities and what social services there were were overwhelmed by the needy Irish. In order to circumvent barriers to their entry, some Irish sailed to Montreal and Quebec and then traveled overland, secretly crossing the border into the United States.

In the popular press, the Irish were depicted as subhuman. They were carriers of disease. They were drawn as lazy, clannish, unclean, drunken brawlers who wallowed in crime and bred like rats. Most disturbingly, the Irish were Roman Catholics coming to an overwhelmingly Protestant nation and their devotion to the pope made their allegiance to the United States suspect. By 1855, 20 percent of the population of Massachusetts was foreign-born, mainly Irish.

In response, a nativist movement was brewing to take the country back and make it great again. In 1849 the secret Order of the Star Spangled Banner was founded in New York to resist Catholic immigration. The order was organized in local lodges whose activities were secret, à la the Freemasons. Members had to be native-born, Protestant men. If asked about the order, the initiated were to reply that they "knew nothing."

Politics of the 1840s was shaped by the "second party system." In this system the two parties — the Democrats and the Whigs — each represented different coalitions and competing economic interests. The Democrats' ideal was a direct democracy of sturdy yeoman farmers. They hearkened to Jefferson and Jackson and ran stronger in small towns, especially in the South. In Massachusetts, their strongholds were in the agrarian western districts of the state. While Democrats presented themselves as champions of the common man, they were as pro-business as the Whigs, notes John Mulkern in his book: "The Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts: The Rise and Fall of a People's Movement."

The Whigs, by contrast, were strongest in the industrial cities of the East, above all Boston. In the Commonwealth, they were dominated by Brahmins who kept a tight grasp on government jobs and the Legislature. Their leaders were mill owners, wealthy merchants, and businessmen. Their vision of America was of a dynamic society, making rapid progress, in which all segments of society advanced together. A rising tide of industry, they said, powered progress and lifted up all portions of society. Their ideology was the "trickle-down" theory of its day. The leaders of both parties enjoyed the perks that went with sitting on the boards of companies. Both believed implicitly in laissez-faire.

Since there was no secret ballot, it was easy for employers to intimidate workers into voting for the very Whigs who stymied legislation that would protect the working class. The Whigs also discouraged the underclasses from voting by charging $1.50 poll tax at a time when Irish railroad workers, for instance, earned 60 cents per day; elections were (and still are) on working days, and the polls closed at dusk, just as the factory hands were leaving work. All of this added to the widely held perception that the game was rigged.

In the lodges of the Know-Nothings, rancorous discontent with the failure of the Democrats and Whigs led to the formation of a new party — the American Party, the public face of the Know-Nothing movement. It rapidly became a national phenomenon, but nowhere did it enjoy the success that it achieved in Massachusetts. Though it was a flash in the pan, it permanently changed the political landscape of the country.

The American Party was more than just a one-issue movement. It attracted antislavery Free-Soilers, Temperance campaigners, and urban factory workers who wanted a 10-hour workday and the secret ballot. But, as Mulkern's definitive account of the party shows, most of the Know-Nothings were disaffected former supporters of one or the other of the two main parties.

Under the noses of the two main parties, the Know-Nothings recruited candidates from the lodges to run in state and local elections. Hardly any of these were professional politicians or lawyers. They were young teachers, clergymen, farmers, doctors, and laborers determined to sweep out the rotten old pros who had failed the citizenry. In the election of 1854 the Know-Nothings won virtually every elective office in the state and washed Whigs down the drain of history.

That election broke the Whig Party at the state and national level. In Massachusetts, Whigs, the Boston elite who had for so long controlled the government, sneered at the new amateur legislators, and they despaired at being governed by their social inferiors.

The Know-Nothings' time at the helm was brief. Many historians have cast their rule as a period of bigotry and incompetence, echoing the Brahmin perspective. Mulkern is more nuanced. The Know-Nothings broke the business stranglehold on legislation. They initiated large infrastructural works, laid in gas lines and sewage systems, and passed ordinances to increase the safety of the railways. They enforced standard weights and measures in markets in order to eliminate fraud. They set up commissions to regulate banks and insurance companies, measures that the businessmen abhorred. They abolished imprisonment for debt, and, at the urging of the Free-Soilers, they forbade state officers to comply with the Fugitive Slave Act. They also built a state hospital for the insane and a state school for mentally disabled children, and raised by a third the state subsidy for the Perkins School for the Blind. In other words, they addressed many of the social problems that had been ignored by the other parties.

They also waged a war on foreigners. They tried to raise the residency requirement for naturalization to 21 years. They banned the teaching of foreign languages in public schools and enforced the reading of the King James Bible in schools, a matter that particularly irked the Catholics. They prohibited Catholics from holding state offices and dismissed Irish state workers. In the name of saving public money, they shipped 300 Irish-born wards of the state, all of them destitute or insane, back to Liverpool where they landed on the quay with no one to meet them.

According to Mulkern, their greatest mistake was making self-serving and weasel-like demagogue, Henry Gardner, the governor. Gardner, an old Whig, had seen before others how the political wind was blowing and had skillfully insinuated himself into a leadership position trumpeting that he would "Americanize America." In power, Gardner and his people used public office to enrich themselves. The lodges, those hotbeds of political energy and ferment, grew disillusioned and withered.

For all their sound and fury, the party failed to pass the 10-hour workday or the secret ballot, which caused its support among the laboring class to melt away. Meanwhile, restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol — serving someone a glass of beer could result in a six-month jail sentence — proved bitterly unpopular with Bay Staters of all religions, who rallied in their thousands to protest. When the party muted its criticism of slavery to placate its Southern chapters, the Free-Soilers fled to the upstart Republican Party. In 1860, it elected to the presidency a lanky rail splitter from Illinois. The issue of slavery would be settled on the battlefield; immigrants would continue to arrive, and the political map of the nation would be permanently redrawn.

Douglas Kierdorf is a historian who has taught at Boston University and Bentley University.

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