The Know-Nothing Uproar

The congressional and state elections of 1854 and 1855 witnessed one of the most remarkable political upheavals in the nation’s history. Candidates whose names were not even on ballots were thrust into office; others who had been given no chance to win triumphed over long-established favorites; and a political party that had operated in such secrecy that few knew its name and still fewer its true purposes was catapulted into control in a half-dozen states, won a strong minority place in several others, and seemed destined to capture the White House in 1856. More remarkable still, the political infant that accomplished these miracles was dedicated to principles that were basically unAmerican, for its sole claim to popular favor rested on its pledge to check the growth of the Catholic Church and foreign immigration. As befitted such a party, its history was mercifully brief. Yet the racial and religious hatreds that found expression in its short-lived triumphs reached deep into the American past and were rooted in a surprisingly large number of people. The two incidents that started their spread a generation before they found political manifestation during the 1850’s were surprisingly trivial, yet they were of the sort that often alters the lives of men or nations. One concerned a hat, the other a slate pencil.

The hat belonged to Samuel F. B. Morse, and was clapped firmly on his head on a bright June day in 1830 as he watched a papal procession wend its way through the streets of Rome. As a New England Puritan Morse had little love for Catholicism, but as an artist he admired its pomp and pageantry—until that day, that is. For, as he watched, his hat was suddenly struck from his head by a soldier, or rather (as he recorded in his diary that night) “by a poltroon in a soldier’s costume, and this courteous manoeuvre was accompanied with curses and taunts and the expression of a demon in his countenance.” That this illmannered gesture should be blamed on the soldier never occurred to Morse. “The blame,” he wrote, “lies after all not so much with the pitiful wretch who perpetrates this outrage, as it does with those who gave him such base and indiscriminate orders.” From that day the artist-inventor was a sworn enemy of Romanism, and he carried that enmity back to America.

“Returning to New York at the end of his grand tour, Morse hurried into print to warn his countrymen of the insidious papal designs on the United States. His essays were later published in two volumes: Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States and Imminent Dangers to the Free Institutions of the United Stales through Foreign Immigration . European despots, he told his thousands of readers, were trembling lest the democratic institutions of America inspire revolts on the part of their own peoples. These institutions could not be overthrown by arms, for the United States was too powerful; hence inonarchs had allied with the Catholic Church, which Morse considered a giant religious despotism, to dispatch its servile minions across the Atlantic, disguised as immigrants, until they were numerous enough to seize control. “You,” he thundered to his fellow Americans, “are marked for their prey, not by foreign bayonets, but by weapons surer of effecting the conquest of liberty than all the munitions of physical combat in the military or naval storehouses of Europe.” Only by closing the gates to those immigrants, Morse believed, could America be saved.

The slate pencil that reshaped the course of history was accidentally rammed into the head of a young girl named Maria Monk as she played near her childhood home on the outskirts of Montreal. From that day on, her mother later testified, Maria was unable to distinguish right from wrong; she became a wayward Jezebel whose sexual precocity finally led to her confinement in a Catholic asylum for magdalens in Montreal. Erom there she escaped with the aid of her current lover and, large with his child, made her way to New York, where she fell into the hands of a group of fanatical anti-Catholics who saw in her an opportunity to turn prejudice into profit. The result was the publication in 1836 of Afaria’s so-called autobiography, Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk … in the Hotel Dieu Nunnery at Montreal , from that day to this a bestselling tribute to the gullibility of book-buying nativists. The enduring popularity of the Awful Disclosures is easy to understand; its frankly pornographic “revelations” of the “criminal intercourse” between priests and nuns were enough to titillate a generation accustomed to the more restricted standards of Victorian morality. And hundreds of thousands who read its lurid pages—and those of her Further Disclosures , published the following year—were convinced that Catholicism was a monstrous evil that must no longer be endured.