The Know-Nothing Uproar

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That books of such unsavory origins and unpalatable contents could command nationwide attention was due less to their own merits than to the spirit of the times. Since the beginning of the 1830’s nativistic prejudices had been slowly, almost imperceptibly, but steadily mounting as immigrants from the Catholic nations of Europe flooded into the seaboard states in ever-increasing numbers to create the first sizable non-Protestant group in the nation’s history. Resentment against these newcomers whose religious practices seemed so alien to traditionally American ways might have remained vague and undefined had not their coming coincided with the importation of a considerable body of anti-Catholic literature from England. There, anti-Catholics were making attacks on Parliament for adopting the tolerant Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829; and as Americans eagerly purchased English books, pamphlets, and magazines that heaped calumny on the Roman Church, native writers awakened to the realization that here was an unexploited market lor their talents. In New York a band of zealots launched a weekly newspaper, The Protestant , in 1830 and a year later organized the New York Protestant Association. Books with such flaming titles as A Master Key to Popery and Female Convents: Secrets of Nunneries Disclosed began to appear. In 1834 a mob burned down a convent in Charlestown, near Boston. Clearly, by the mid-1830’s the time was ripe for a concentrated assault on Romanism, which nativists saw as a growing menace to American liberty and Protestantism.

So they reasoned as they stirred themselves into action—and thus inadvertently set in motion the forces that within two decades would be setting their sights on the White House. Some used the press to preach the No-Popery message; The Downfall of Babylon , a weekly published in Philadelphia, and the American Protestant Vindicator , a biweekly printed in New York, both appeared as if by magic to carry word of the “Jesuitical abomination” of popery across the land in every edition. Individual nativists, capitalizing on the newly discovered American passion lor joining, reorganized the New York Protestant Association along national lines as the Protestant Reformation Society and began flooding the country with propagandist literature and lecturing agents. Still others seized their pens to unleash a torrent of books and pamphlets, all preaching the evils of Romanism, that swept a surprisingly large number of men and women into the nativist fold.

One group of propagandists, expanding on the theme first developed by Morse, capitalized on the nationalist impulses of a generation that was soon to espouse the cause of Manifest Destiny. The Pope, they insisted, was anxious to move the Vatican out of decadent Italy, and what was more natural than his selection of the Mississippi Valley, the veritable garden of the world, for its new site? To this end he was cooperating with despotic European monarchs who were anxious to protect their own thrones by stemming the flow of liberal ideas from the democratic United States; together they would flood the land with papal minions disguised as immigrants, then seize control and establish those twins of oppression, despotism and Romanism, as the nation’s new order. This was the warning voiced by such sober religious leaders as the Reverend Lyman Beecher in his Plea for the West (1835) and re-echoed in every Protestant religious journal as well as in the numerous publications of the influential American Home Missionary Society. To many ethnocentric Americans of that self-assured generation this was an argument that made sense.

Other persons were won by the plea that Catholics were seeking to undermine the American school system. Nativists began developing this theme shortly alter 1839, when the American Bible Society, a Protestant group, announced a plan to place a copy of the Scriptures in every classroom of the nation. Catholics, both the hierarchy and the laity, protested when teachers began daily readings of this Protestant version of the Scriptures, and many Protestants interpreted the opposition to mean that Catholics disapproved of both the Bible and education. The issue was most violently joined in New York City, where the schools were under the control of the Protestant-dominated Public School Society, a private agency that distributed public funds. Led by the vigorous Bishop John Hughes, Catholics carried their fight to the state legislature, where, in 1842, they helped push through a bill abolishing the Public School Society and placing the city’s schools under state administration. Protestants retaliated by electing a solidly No-Popery school board that continued Bible reading in the schools. But the harm was done. Protestant America was convinced that this attempt to inflict the minority will on the majority had shown that Catholicism was truly despotic and that Catholics were sworn enemies of the Holy Word.