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The Coming Of The Green
The Irish built America’s roads and canals, fought in its wars, and triumphed over poverty and discrimination: it was a grand battle indeed
August 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 5
The appeal to the Irish gangs as an instrument of political persuasion was, in the end, a mistake on the part of Tammany leaders. The gang leaders took counsel with themselves and decided that if the gangs could be used to influence an election, they could also be used to influence Tammany. Thereupon they took control of Tammany and paved the way for the rule of Tammany Hall by the worst elements in the city.
Nominations for office were hawked about by both Whigs and Democrats. The nation was becoming money-mad and all things were for sale, including what passed for political honor. There arose among the Irish and other immigrants a new profession—that of politician. Politics paid and paid handsomely. It paid all the way from a job on the police force to a job as United States marshal or member of Congress. It was a pork-barrel era, and a man was a fool who would not exchange fifteen hours of hard labor a day for membership in a ward heeler’s gang.
The shoulder hitter, or gang member, didn’t work. He just beat up his rivals. He had huge power, to the extent that in the 1840’s political gangs controlled the New York police, and gutter government was the order of the day in the greatest of America’s cities. The antidote was to enlist the Irish as policemen, and from the 1840’s on, the police of New York, Boston, and other cities became more and more Irish.
The reaction to all this was inevitable but for a long time ineffective. The better elements of the Irish community, led by Archbishop Hughes of New York, denounced the widespread corruption and pleaded with the Irish to vote independently and become respectable citizens. The better elements could provide guidance but no groceries, and the Irish were still starvation-poor. They ignored morality in favor of meal tickets.
All the growing Irish influence in city, state, and even national politics did nothing to raise the average Irishman’s standard of living or provide him with employment worth more than seventy-five cents a day. In the mid-nineteenth century there was no effective move to build public housing, to clean up slums, to enact effective labor laws.
But the reaction against the bloc vote finally made itself felt as a general abhorrence of the Irish.
Riots and fights and burnings involving Irish Catholics and American Protestants broke out in every major city of America. In Charlestown, Massachusetts, the Ursuline convent was burned down by a Protestant rabble from Boston. A Catholic church was blown up in Dorchester. When Bishop Kenrick raised the issue of the reading of the Protestant Bible in public schools, the reaction touched off one of the bloodiest riots in the history of Philadelphia. Protestants, with cries of “God, Country, and Bible,” stormed Catholic sections in the city and burned and damaged Catholic houses and churches.
The country was getting fed up with Irishmen, and earlier immigrants of Irish stock began to call themselves Scotch-Irish to divorce themselves from their unloved fellow countrymen.∗
∗ Many of these earlier immigrants were from Scottish Presbyterian families which had migrated to the North of Ireland. In America they settled chiefly in Pennsylvania, Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, and Georgia. Among them were Calhouns, Jacksons, Polks, Houstons, and McKinleys—families which would later make significant contributions to American life.
Editors pleaded with their readers to go to the polls and vote. They pointed out that the native American still outnumbered the Irish. The Irishman voted but the American didn’t, and here lay the trouble.
But the native American was doing handsomely in his business and had no desire to get knocked on the head in an effort to outvote the Irish. Plainly, if he were to achieve anything, he must form a counter-organization to the Irish. He must form a society or a number of societies aimed at stripping the Irish of their political power. He must, in short, find his strength in the same place as the Irish—in unity.
Unity came fast as the Irish political power grew. First there sprang up in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Boston, Buffalo, San Francisco, and other cities a number of secret societies dedicated to the emasculation of the political power of the Irish and other immierants. These societies had no real contact with each other initially, but they soon merged to form a powerful political party with the enigmatic name, Know-Nothing.
The Know-Nothing party grew with mushroom speed and almost overnight achieved astounding political success. Old-time politicians did not know what to make of it. They could only look on in amazement. By 1852 Know-Nothing candidates were getting elected to Congress by big majorities and by 1854 there were an estimated 100 congressmen and senators who were either admitted members of the party, and its official nominees, or were secret adherents of Know-Nothingism. In the same year, the Know-Nothing party elected governors, legislatures, or both, in four New England states and carried local elections in points as far apart as California and Kentucky.
And then, as quickly as it had bloomed, the Know-Nothing party withered and died.