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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
That these forces were operating in 1854 and 1855 was shown by the Know-Nothings’ victory pattern. In the South, where they were only partially successful, their strength was centered in the rich-soil areas, suggesting that they attracted ex-Whig planters who were seeking compromise on the slavery issue rather than expressing dislike of Rome. Yet thousands of poorer southerners also supported the party, probably because their evangelical religions stimulated their hatred of Catholicism just as sectional loyalties sharpened their hostility toward immigrants, who were increasing the population strength of the North. In the border states the party’s sweeping victories were traceable more to a desire to compromise the troublesome slavery question than to entrenched nativistic beliefs; men whose homes occupied the probable battlegrounds of a civil war naturally hesitated to support either of the sectional parties that emerged after the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Only in the Northeast did the Know-Nothings match their victories in the border states, and only there was hatred of the Catholic and the immigrant primarily responsible for the party’s growth. Yankees and New Yorkers, with no desire to avoid a showdown on slavery, could have rushed into the newly formed Republican party had not their nativistic prejudices taken precedence. Instead they cast their lot with the Know-Nothings because three decades of propaganda had convinced them that Romanism and aliens threatened the institutions of their forefathers.
Whatever their causes, the thumping victories of 1854 and 1855 placed nativists in a position to translate prejudice into action. Yet they failed utterly to do so, and this failure not only revealed the party’s weakness but contributed to its decline. Know-Nothings never commanded a majority in Congress, but they did hold a balance of power on several occasions. Despite this favorable position, their crusade against Catholicism could produce nothing more than a few bombastic speeches directed against the alleged temporal designs of the Pope, while their anti-alien program degenerated into a single bill that would have extended the period before naturalization to 21 years.
Even this measure failed to reach a vote. Within the states Know-Nothings proved just as impotent. In Massachusetts a bumbling governor and an inept legislature allowed several bills limiting aliens’ voting to die in committee, although they did adopt a law requiring Bible reading in the schools and created a “Nunnery Committee” to report on Catholic schools, seminaries, and convents within the state. After frightening a few nuns and lay teachers by poking about parochial schools in search of firearms and other evidence of conspiracy, the committee disbanded amidst the derisive hoots of most of the sensible people of the nation. Nor was the record of the Know-Nothings more impressive in Maryland or other states under their control. Having no tangible program acceptable in a democratic land, the party, as Horace Greeley remarked, was “as devoid of the elements of persistence as an anti-Cholera or anti-Potato-Rot party would be.”
These manifestations of Know-Nothing weakness encouraged spokesmen for human decency who had been cowed into silence by the hysteria of the past few years to raise their voices, feebly at first, and then with growing assurance. Some leveled their verbal lances against the party’s secrecy; “one might as well study optics in the pyramids of Egypt or the subterranean tombs of Rome,” warned Henry Ward Beecher, “as liberty in secret conclaves controlled by hoary knaves versed in political intrigue.”
Others poked fun at the Know-Nothings’ fantastic fears of a papal invasion or the transfer of the Vatican to the Mississippi Valley. Still more condemned the party for the rioting and bloodshed it inspired, a charge that gained meaning as each new election brought further clashes between nativists and immigrants. This combination of censure and ridicule proved effective; by the end of 1855 Know-Nothingism was on the wane.
The party’s end was hurried by the very force that had stimulated its early growth: the reopened slavery controversy. As battle lines formed following the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and as each dispatch from “bleeding Kansas” inflamed the public mind, nativists found themselves catapulted into the conflict, no matter how loudly they protested their neutrality. Northerners, rallying beneath the antislavery banner, began to view the whole Know-Nothing movement as a southern conspiracy to distract attention from the vital issue of the day. Southerners, forming ranks behind their “peculiar institution,” began to look upon nativists as enemies of the solidarity needed to protect slavery from Black Republicans. Thus discredited in North and South, the Know-Nothing party lost its followers in droves, but worse was yet to come. Its 1855 national convention was unable to avoid a debate on slavery and broke up in disorder, with northern and southern Know-Nothings arrayed against each other on this allprevailing issue.