- Historic Sites
The Know-Nothing Uproar
Maria Monk’s lurid “disclosures” and Samuel Morse’s dire warnings launched a crusade of bigotry that almost won the White House
February 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 2
Even more fear was engendered among non-nativists by the rising tide of immigration. They might agree that newcomers bolstered the economic and military strength of the United States, but they were brought up short by the results of a generation of uncontrolled migration. Sober facts told the story: In 1850 only 6.5 per cent of the foreign born attended schools, as compared to 20 per cent of the native born. Among aliens, one person in every 32 was a pauper receiving public support, while among natives the ratio was only one in every 260. Nearly half of the 27,000 persons convicted of crimes were aliens, although foreigners constituted only 11 per cent of the population. As sobering as these figures was the less tangible evidence that was there for all to see: quiet city streets transformed into unsightly slums, corrupt political machines truckling to foreign-born voters, American workers displaced by new arrivals accustomed to lower living standards, the decline of national isolation from Europe’s stormy politics as Irish and Germans loudly demanded support for the revolutionary movements of their homelands. To men and women who witnessed these changes, there seemed more truth than wit in the tale of the schoolboy called upon to parse “America”; “‘America,’” said he, “is a very common noun, singular number, masculine gender, critical case, and governed by the Irish.” Nor did there seem any end to these alterations in the pattern of American life. Boston’s foreign-born voting population increased by 195 per cent in the first five years of the 1850’s, while the number of its native-born voters mounted by only 15 per cent, indicating a not-too-distant future when the whole United States would be dominated by Catholic aliens.
Doubts such as these haunted Protestant Americans who had scorned organized nativism in the past; to them the time was clearly at hand for an all-out assault on Catholic and immigrant alike. To command their support, a society must be formed that would be free of the taints that had marred earlier nativistic organizations. This emerged when the American Protestant Society joined with two tiny groups dedicated to the herculean task of winning Europe to Protestantism—the Foreign Evangelical Society and the Christian Alliance—to form the American and Foreign Christian Union. Governed by a constitution that did not even mention “popery” or “Romanism,” the new society was pledged to “diffuse and promote the principles of Religious Liberty, and a pure and Evangelical Christianity, both at home and abroad, wherever a corrupted Christianity exists.” Organized nativism had moved far from the days when Maria Monk and the Protestant Reformation Society spread their crude invective throughout the land.
The new society’s relative moderation attracted an unprecedented number of followers from among middle-class, churchgoing Protestants. By 1854 the contributions it received were large enough to support 120 traveling agents, all of them roaming constantly, speaking against Catholicism wherever they could find an audience, and laboring zealously to “save” Catholic souls. More important was the support now attracted from the nation’s churches. Almost without exception, the 125 Protestant religious magazines and newspapers published in the United States converted themselves into champions of the crusade, while virtually every Protestant church body opened its doors to agents of the American and Foreign Christian Union, collected funds in the Union’s behalf, and encouraged ministers to speak out for the salvation of misguided Romanists. In the same way the powerful interdenominational societies—the American Bible Society, the American Tract Society, and the American Home Missionary Society—all swung into line and became effective organs for disseminating anti-Catholic propaganda. By 1854 American Protestants were caught up in a No-Popery campaign of unprecedented proportions: thousands upon thousands were ready to translate their prejudices into votes whenever the opportunity offered.
Nor did the American and Foreign Christian Union completely ignore the more turbulent working classes in its campaign to save the country from Rome—although its appeal to this group was inadvertent rather than planned. This was inspired by the American visit of a papal nuncio, Archbishop Gaetano Bedini, who had already alarmed Italian nationalists by his alliance with monarchists in the brutal suppression of northern Italy’s abortive struggle for independence from Austria in 1848. The American and Foreign Christian Union, eager to parade the Nuncio’s unenviable record before the American people, imported an Italian ex-priest, Alessandro Gavazzi, to denounce Bedini in each city the Nuncio was scheduled to visit.
Gavazzi lived up to his assignment too well when he began his tour in 1853. Garbed in somber monk’s robes emblazoned with a fiery cross, he shouted to his audiences: “Popery cannot be reformed. Destruction to Popery! No Protestantism; no protestations. Nothing but annihilation!” Here was a message that appealed to sensation-loving Americans in a day when tensions bred of the slavery conflict made violence synonymous with adherence to any cause. Wherever Bedini went Gavazzi had been there before him to whip the people into a frenzy against what he called this “Bloody Butcher of Bologna”; mobs in several cities burned the Nuncio in effigy, shouted insults, or threatened bodily harm.