The Know-Nothings

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2017), Letters, Volume 25

Sir,—Your ‘Bite-sized History’ column (HI 25.3, May/June 2017) correctly notes that ‘echoes of the Know-Nothing Party’ of the mid-nineteenth century are heard again today in the United States. This sad recurring chapter is due primarily to the villainy of the man named Trump, whose executive orders and tweets resonate with the coded language of the anti-immigrant American Nativist party: ‘America for Americans’. President Donald Trump’s directives employ similar rhetoric directed towards Muslims and Mexicans.

Over a century ago, the Know-Nothing anti-immigrant rage was aimed primarily at the Irish Catholics. When Irish Catholics began to arrive in great numbers, a movement of anti-Catholicism swept the nation. The Irish began flooding into the cities as they fled the Great Famine in the mid-nineteenth century. By the end of 1854 nearly two million Irish people—a quarter of Ireland’s population—had emigrated to the United States in ten years. The Irish immigrants got work in low-paying, heavy-labour jobs and helped to build the railroads from New York to Chicago, as did my great-grandparents, Jeremiah and Ellen Lyons from County Waterford.

In 1834, a Boston mob, inflamed with suspicion and intense dislike of Irish Catholics, burned down the Ursuline convent in Charlestown. The Protestant ‘Yankees’ elected a Know-Nothing mayor in Boston and took control of the Massachusetts legislature, as well as local Boards of Selectmen and School Committees. Similar victories were achieved in many other states and cities from New York to California. The majority Protestants believed that only native-born or long-established citizens should have a voice in public affairs.

During the Philadelphia Nativist Riots in 1844, several Catholic churches were burned. In New York, Archbishop John Hughes, born in County Tyrone, warned the Know-Nothing mayor, James Harper, that ‘if a single Catholic church were burned, the city would become a second Moscow’ (burned by Napoleon in 1812). Hughes had organised the Catholic parishes so that at a minute’s notice a thousand, mostly Irish, men would surround a threatened church or school. None were burned in New York city.

In response to this hostile climate, Roman Catholic Bishop Benedict Fenwick of Boston established an Irish agrarian colony in Aroostook County, northern Maine, as a refuge to escape the threat of the Protestant mobs. That distinctly Irish community, Benedicta, led by dynamic Irish priests and laymen, would thrive. Fenwick also founded Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, after deciding that northern Maine was too distant.
In 1851, John Bapst, a Jesuit priest, was tarred and feathered in Ellsworth, Maine, and ridden on a rail to the woods outside the town. He later became the first president of Boston College. In 1854, Know-Nothing activists burned down the Catholic church in Bath, Maine. A Universalist neighbour gave his home to the Catholics for Sunday Mass.
A change in attitudes towards ethnic and religious minorities would begin to happen only with the rise of a young man from Illinois who eventually became the standard-bearer for the infant Republican Party and would become president of the United States. That man wrote to his friend in Springfield:

‘Dear [Joshua] Speed: I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal” … When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics”.

A. Lincoln, 24 August 1855.’

The Know-Nothing movement was a virulent anti-immigrant political party which would resurface as the KKK in the 1920s and 1950s. It currently has raised its tentacles on the United States’ political landscape. Republicans—and citizens, all—should take heed and memorise Mr Lincoln’s prophetic words if they wish to save their party, and our nation, which says that it believes that all men are created equal.—Yours etc.,


Kennebunkport, Maine


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