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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
The congressional and state elections of 1854 and 1855 witnessed one of the most remarkable political upheavals in the nation’s history. Candidates whose names were not even on ballots were thrust into office; others who had been given no chance to win triumphed over long-established favorites; and a political party that had operated in such secrecy that few knew its name and still fewer its true purposes was catapulted into control in a half-dozen states, won a strong minority place in several others, and seemed destined to capture the White House in 1856. More remarkable still, the political infant that accomplished these miracles was dedicated to principles that were basically unAmerican, for its sole claim to popular favor rested on its pledge to check the growth of the Catholic Church and foreign immigration. As befitted such a party, its history was mercifully brief. Yet the racial and religious hatreds that found expression in its short-lived triumphs reached deep into the American past and were rooted in a surprisingly large number of people. The two incidents that started their spread a generation before they found political manifestation during the 1850’s were surprisingly trivial, yet they were of the sort that often alters the lives of men or nations. One concerned a hat, the other a slate pencil.
The hat belonged to Samuel F. B. Morse, and was clapped firmly on his head on a bright June day in 1830 as he watched a papal procession wend its way through the streets of Rome. As a New England Puritan Morse had little love for Catholicism, but as an artist he admired its pomp and pageantry—until that day, that is. For, as he watched, his hat was suddenly struck from his head by a soldier, or rather (as he recorded in his diary that night) “by a poltroon in a soldier’s costume, and this courteous manoeuvre was accompanied with curses and taunts and the expression of a demon in his countenance.” That this illmannered gesture should be blamed on the soldier never occurred to Morse. “The blame,” he wrote, “lies after all not so much with the pitiful wretch who perpetrates this outrage, as it does with those who gave him such base and indiscriminate orders.” From that day the artist-inventor was a sworn enemy of Romanism, and he carried that enmity back to America.
“Returning to New York at the end of his grand tour, Morse hurried into print to warn his countrymen of the insidious papal designs on the United States. His essays were later published in two volumes: Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States and Imminent Dangers to the Free Institutions of the United Stales through Foreign Immigration . European despots, he told his thousands of readers, were trembling lest the democratic institutions of America inspire revolts on the part of their own peoples. These institutions could not be overthrown by arms, for the United States was too powerful; hence inonarchs had allied with the Catholic Church, which Morse considered a giant religious despotism, to dispatch its servile minions across the Atlantic, disguised as immigrants, until they were numerous enough to seize control. “You,” he thundered to his fellow Americans, “are marked for their prey, not by foreign bayonets, but by weapons surer of effecting the conquest of liberty than all the munitions of physical combat in the military or naval storehouses of Europe.” Only by closing the gates to those immigrants, Morse believed, could America be saved.
The slate pencil that reshaped the course of history was accidentally rammed into the head of a young girl named Maria Monk as she played near her childhood home on the outskirts of Montreal. From that day on, her mother later testified, Maria was unable to distinguish right from wrong; she became a wayward Jezebel whose sexual precocity finally led to her confinement in a Catholic asylum for magdalens in Montreal. Erom there she escaped with the aid of her current lover and, large with his child, made her way to New York, where she fell into the hands of a group of fanatical anti-Catholics who saw in her an opportunity to turn prejudice into profit. The result was the publication in 1836 of Afaria’s so-called autobiography, Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk … in the Hotel Dieu Nunnery at Montreal , from that day to this a bestselling tribute to the gullibility of book-buying nativists. The enduring popularity of the Awful Disclosures is easy to understand; its frankly pornographic “revelations” of the “criminal intercourse” between priests and nuns were enough to titillate a generation accustomed to the more restricted standards of Victorian morality. And hundreds of thousands who read its lurid pages—and those of her Further Disclosures , published the following year—were convinced that Catholicism was a monstrous evil that must no longer be endured.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thus divided, the party approached the presidential election of 1856 with no chance of victory. Yet its leaders clung to a last hope: if the major sectional parties fought to a standstill, they believed, the final decision might be made in the House of Representatives, where they had a strategic position. Thus inspired, they sought unsuccessfully to patch up their internal differences, then nominated former President Millard Fillmore of New York as their candidate.
A more unfortunate choice would have been hard to find. Already hated by northerners for having signed the unpopular Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Fillmore had not only proven himself inept in the Presidency but had exhibited none of the fiery zeal needed to attract nativists to his standard. Actually he scarcely mentioned Catholicism during his campaign, devoting himself instead to vague plans for saving the Union. When the ballots were counted he had received over 800,000 popular votes—almost a fourth of the total—but received the electoral vote of Maryland alone. The Know-Nothing party was as dead as the dodo.
The defeat of Know-Nothingism was also a setback for intolerance. When put to the test, the bigots who had fomented against Romanists and aliens for a generation had nothing to offer save the timeworn clichés of bigotry and a political ineptitude that revealed their own inferiority. Prophets of hatred were to thrust themselves onto the national scene in the future, as the careers of the American Protective Association of the iSgo’s and the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920’s amply demonstrated, yet never was their threat to basic American values so serious as in the 1850’s. By discrediting the cause for which they stood, the Know-Nothings, ironically, made a contribution to the principles of human decency that they opposed so violently.