The Know-Nothing Uproar


The Bedini rioting touched off a new era of inflammatory attacks on Catholics and Catholicism. In a dozen cities self-appointed rabble rousers mounted their soapboxes, summoned their street-corner audiences, and unleashed their unrestrained invective; aroused by such tactics, the nativists burned churches and convents, molested immigrants, insulted Catholics, and on one occasion tarred and feathered a priest. These disorders bred a near-hysteria in areas where immigrants were most numerous, notably in the Northeast. There housekeepers refused to employ Irish servant girls lest the family food be poisoned on papal orders; placards everywhere warned the people to be on guard against the Pope’s legions; and even the paper used by merchants to wrap parcels admonished buyers against the evils of Rome. In Maine mysterious symbols found on the homes in one community caused a near-panic among those who feared they had been marked for destruction by the Inquisition—until an itinerant hairdresser explained that he had thus chalked the houses he had already canvassed. In the nation’s capital a block of marble contributed by the Pope to the Washington Monument was dumped into the Potomac by a raging mob. Clearly a surprisingly large portion of the American people had been swept so far along the No-Popery road that a political party reflecting their views would command support. The stage was set for that remarkable exhibit of political nativism that reached a climax in the elections of 1854 and 1855.


Of the dozens of semipolitical nativist groups organized about the beginning of the decade, the one destined to emerge on a national scale was the Order of the Star Spangled Banner. Secretly formed in New York in 1849—probably by Charles B. Allen, a politically ambitious anti-Catholic—it remained so small at first that its influence was scarcely felt beyond the city’s borders. But in the spring of 1854 its members, having put their own house in order by healing local schisms, worked out a plan for national expansion on a federal pattern and devised a secret ritual with handshakes, passwords, oaths of membership, and all the other hocus-pocus so dear to Americans to this day. The result was phenomenal. So eager were nativists to express themselves politically that within months the Order, known now as the American party or the Know-Nothing party (from its members’ practice of parrying all questions with “I know nothing about it”), had spread over most of the nation and was a political force to be reckoned with.

Its growth was demonstrated in the fall elections of 1854. In the northern and border states the KnowNothings showed surprising strength, carrying Massachusetts and Delaware solidly and winning a balance of power in Pennsylvania. A year later three more New England states, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, succumbed; along the middle border Maryland and Kentucky swung into line, with Tennessee almost following; and in the South the party’s total vote was only 16,000 less than that of its opponents. Even in the Old Northwest, where the heavy percentage of foreign born doomed any nativist party, the Know-Nothings scored some near-misses, especially in Wisconsin. Little wonder that the party leaders confidently anticipated electing a President in 1856, or that such hostile newspapers as the New York Herald were willing to concede them victory.

What was responsible for this amazing political phenomenon? Three factors played an essential role. One was the nativistic propaganda that reached a crescendo just as the party was entering the national scene; hundreds of thousands of Americans voted for the party’s candidates because they were sincerely convinced that Catholicism and foreign immigration seriously threatened their institutions. Another was the breakdown of traditional political patterns following the Compromise of 1850; voters during the next years had to decide among Democratic, Whig, Anti-Nebraska, Free Soil, Hard Democratic, Soft Democratic, Conscience Whig, Union Maine Law, and a variety of other candidates. Any well-knit party with a well-defined purpose stood to profit by this disarray. Thirdly, the dramatic reopening of the slavery controversy with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 temporarily played into Know-Nothing hands. In the furious debate that followed, thousands deserted the older parties. Many of them joined the Know-Nothings, attracted by the party’s neutrality on the slavery issue and its loud promises to preserve the Union.