The Know-Nothing Uproar


While the propaganda inspired by the Bible-reading controversy appealed especially to middleclass churchgoers, another brand of calumny was aimed at the semiliterate masses who wanted sensationalism in unadulterated doses. Brazenly paraded before the public in such books as Open Convents, Priests’ Prisons for Women and Auricular Concession and Popish Nunneries , this type of literature capitalized upon the demand for pornography proven by the popularity of Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures . Some authors of this school specialized in tales of convent immorality; others fastened upon the confessional to prove that popery stripped the last vestiges of morality from its victims. How, these writers asked, can Catholics be expected to obey the laws of God or man when all sin can be forgiven by a few muttered words from a confessor? How can a maiden remain pure when locked for hours in a confessional booth with a lecherous priest who is more interested in making advances than in saving souls?


In that day, when action spoke louder than words, such lurid sensationalism could not be peddled without inflaming men to violence, Trouble began in Philadelphia during the spring of 1844 when a group of nativists, wrought up by a Bible-reading controversy similar to that in New York, attempted to hold a mass meeting in one of the city’s Irish-Catholic sections. In the inevitable clash that followed, a few shots were fired and one of the nativists was fatally wounded. With this, the editor of the leading anti-Catholic newspaper, the Native American , completely lost his head. “Another St. Bartholomew’s Day is begun on the streets of Philadelphia,” he proclaimed. “The bloody hand of the Pope has stretched itself forth to our destruction. We now call on our fellow-citizens, who regard free institutions whether they be native or adopted, to arm.” That afternoon rioting began as bands of Protestant workmen marched through Catholic sections, burning and pillaging as they went. Hundreds of homes and two Catholic churches were put to the torch before troops arrived to quell the rioters. A few weeks later the July Fourth celebration touched off another period of carnage in the City of Brotherly Love; it lasted for three days, during which thirteen were killed and fifty wounded.

The Philadelphia riots sent organized nativism into a period of temporary decline. The fruits of antiCatholicism were church-burning and bloodshed, and the majority of sensible Americans felt a natural revulsion that they took no pains to hide. Amidst their torrents of censure, the Protestant Reformation Society died unmourned, to be replaced at once by the American Protestant Society. This new national organization pledged itself to illuminate the “spiritual darkness” of popery with “Light and Love” rather than violence, and to “awaken Christian feeling and Christian action for the salvation of Romanists,” but the time was not ripe for even such a mild form of prejudice. The people, heatedly debating the slavery issue during and after the Mexican War, clearly felt little fear of a mythical papal invasion while the Union stood in reaf peril. Not until the Compromise of 1850 settled the sectional crisis, apparently for all time to come, could they rekindle their enthusiasm for the No-Popery crusade.

Times were auspicious for a revival of the assault, for by the end of the 1840’s a number of tolerant, middle-class people were coming to the belief that the nativists’ charges were not without some basis of truth. The Catholic Church, they were well aware, was no temporal-minded despotism bent on the political subjugation of the United States, but they nevertheless felt that the arrogantly uncompromising attitude of some of its clergy, if unchallenged, threatened the traditional values and institutions of their homeland. Immigrants, they knew, were not Jesuit minions in disguise, but they did believe that the newcomers were threatening to corrupt the political parties, disrupt the time-honored tradition of isolation from Europe’s storms, lower the living standard of native workers, and cost the nation heavily in pauperism and crime. As they soberly contemplated the results of a generation of Catholic growth and unrestrained immigration, thousands upon thousands of previously unworried Americans began to reconsider the arguments of the nativists.

Certainly there was little to reassure them in the attitude of many overzealous Catholic clergymen who, misled by the rapid increase of their flocks into believing that Catholicism would soon become dominant in the United States, seemed in Protestant eyes to be behaving as though that day were already at hand. When Archbishop Hughes of New York could declare, as he did in his widely circulated address on “The Decline of Protestantism and Its Cause,” that Catholics did intend to convert the entire population of the Mississippi Valley, and that the avowed mission of Catholicism was “to convert the world—including the inhabitants of the United States—the people of the cities, and the people of the country … the Senate, the Cabinet, the President, and all!” the time had apparently come to pay attention to the warnings of antipapists. When Catholics could demand, as they did in a dozen states after 1852, that a share of the tax-raised school funds be diverted for the use of their parochial schools, even tolerant citizens felt they must rally to the defense of their most venerated institutions.