The bloodstained Order of United Americans first appeared in New York City in 1844 and soon spread to Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Catholic churches had been torched now and then since the mid-1830s (actually black churches too, but not on account of religion). In 1834 a nativist mob had burned the Convent of the Ursuline nuns in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Now arson became endemic, climaxing in Philadelphia in 1844, when a mob of six hundred self-proclaimed American Republicans burned down St. Micheal’s and St. Augustine’s Catholic churches and torched many Irish residences. The rioting lasted three days, killing thirteen and wounding fifty. In Pittsburgh in 1850 a candidate running on the “People’s and Anti-Catholic” ticket won the mayoral race. During the 1850s Massachusetts and Connecticut enacted voter literacy tests in an attempt to curtail immigrant Democratic voting power. By the mid-1850s clubs of the Order of United Americans flourished in sixteen states.
Much early anti-Catholic violence was more or less spontaneous and poorly organized, driven by fear that the Irish would lower wages or increase crime. But nativism gained an important institutional basis with the founding in New York City, in about 1850, of the secret Supreme Order of the Star-Spangled Banner. Members soon became labeled “know-nothings” because they customarily responded to queries about their order with “I know nothing”. Members had to be born men in the United States of native-born parents. Natives married to Catholics could not join. Know-Nothings had a broad agenda that differed according to their class and region.They especially hated Catholics, but they also opposed liquor and political corruption. In New England, they challenged the mass voting of immigrants for the proslavery Democratic Party.
In terms of their tactics, Know-Nothing clubs like the Order of United Americans and the Supreme Order of the Star-Spangled Banner traded on patriotism. Most local chapters took the names of founding fathers or heroes and battles of the American Revolution. A political party spun out of the Supreme Order of the Star-Spangled Banner was actually named the American Party. So patriotic a title encouraged members to brand opponents “anti-American”. In the Midwest, for instance, where Germans had settled and voted in large numbers, refugees from the European revolutions of 1848 almost automatically seemed anti-American on account of their suspected radicalism.
Such frequent mob violence made riot the signature Know-Nothing activity: against Irish people, against Catholic churches, and against other parties’ voters. Matters grew worse with the 1853 visit of a papal envoy dispatched to arbitrate disputed church property claims, which riled up anti-Catholic secret orders and societies. At every stop along the envoy’s itinerary, the American and Foreign Christian Union incited mobs. In Cincinnati a crowd attempted to lynch him. Back east, in a decidedly bizarre event, a Know-Nothing mob assaulted a block of marble. The offending stone, taken from the Temple of Concord in Rome, was a gift from Pope Pius IX to be placed in the Washington Monument, still under construction. When the stone proved resistant to destruction, the mob dumped it into the Potomac River.
In 1854 a mob in Ellsworth, Maine, tarred and feathered a Catholic priest before nearly burning him to death. In Newark, New Jersey, Know-Nothings and Orangemen (Protestant Irishmen) from New York City broke the windows and statuary of St. Mary’s Catholic Church and killed an Irish Catholic bystander. Elections particularly excited passions. Know-Nothing mobs beat up opposition voters in several cities, including Washington and Baltimore. After the election riots of 1855 in Louisville, a priest reported “a reign of terror surpassed only by the Philadelphia riots [of 1844]. Nearly one hundred poor Irish have been butchered or burned and some twenty houses have been consumed in the flames.” Here was a war of religion, deadly while it raged.
Catholic-hating fervor swept Know-Nothings into office during the fall elections of 1854, as over a million followers in ten thousand local councils seized control of entire state governments. Massachusetts, New York, and six or seven other states elected Know-Nothing governors, and between seventy-five and a hundred congressmen as well as a host of state and local officials, including mayors in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. (Numbers vary, owing to the difficulty of determining just who should be counted as a Know-Nothing. The movement went by an abundance of organizational names.) The future president Rutherford B. Hayes was moved to exclaim, “How people do hate Catholics”.
On assuming power, Know-Nothings pushed a variety of measures opposing political corruption and promoting temperance, but Catholic immigrants remained the primary target. A bill was put forward to bar people not born in the United States from holding political office and to extend the waiting period for naturalization to twenty-one years. Such barriers and extensions would obviously have prevented many in the working class from voting, precisely the Know-Nothing intent. Like most Know-Nothing measures proposed by neophyte legislators, these failed to become law. In Massachusetts, however, Know-Nothings did manage to enact a nunneries inspection bill, which empowered legislators to inspect Catholic convents and schools, a mandate the legislators pursued with questionable enthusiasm.
Several luminaries played their part. Sam Houston (1793–1863), leader of the Texas revolution, president of the Republic of Texas, then governor and senator from the state of Texas, cobbled together a theory about the difference between old and new immigrants that functioned well into the twentieth century. For Houston, the founding fathers and heroes of the American Revolution constituted the fine old immigrants, in sharp contrast to the new immigrants of the 1850s, people “spewed loathingly from the prisons of England, and from the pauper houses of Europe”.
Ulysses S. Grant (1822–85), only a decade from the U.S. presidency, pitied himself for his lack of “privileges” compared with German job seekers who seemed to have all the luck. During the Civil War, seizing a chance to legalize his prejudices, Grant enacted one of the rare nineteenth-century anti-Semitic policies. Called General Orders No.11, it expelled all Jews, including families with children, from the Department of Tennessee in December of 1862. Grant’s excuse? He insisted that he had to control Jewish peddlers. In fact, his directive affected all Jews in Tennessee, no matter their vocation, sex, or age. President Abraham Lincoln quickly rescinded the order, but not before several families were displaced.
In the South, the Know-Nothings also did well in the mid-1850s elections. An Alabama Know-Nothing congressman spoke for many when he declaimed, “I do not want the vermin-covered convicts of the European continent… I do not want those swarms of paupers, with pestilence in their skins, and famines in their throats, to consume the bread of the native poor. Charity begins at home–charity forbids the coming of these groaning, limping vampires.” This kind of proclamation played well in the South, with its few immigrants, as in the North, with its many.
Eventually, as we know, fundamental political tensions destroyed Know-Nothingism as slavery–the elephant in the American living room–bumped about more aggressively. In 1855 the question of slavery in the Nebraska Territory set southern Know-Nothings on one side, demanding explicit safeguards for slavery, and northerners on the other, refusing to go along. Once the slavery issue split the Know-Nothing movement along sectional lines, the newly-founded Republican Party picked up northern Know-Nothings unwilling to bow to southern devotion to slavery. In the South, Know-Nothings rejoined or ceded to Democrats. The split did not signal the definitive end of nativism. For instance, the Know-Nothing candidate for President in 1856, the former Whig president Millard Fillmore, polled some 800,000 votes, or over one-fifth of those cast nationwide, although he carried only the state of Maryland. Democrats elected James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, their last successful presidential candidate until the 1884 election of Grover Cleveland. Slowly the worst violence associated with Catholic hating in the United States ended, but poor Irish Catholics remained a race apart–Celts. At the same time, nine-tenths of African Americans remained enslaved, and they were not only abused as an inferior race: they were seldom counted as Americans. Towering over the notion of two inferior races, Celt and African, the figure of the Saxon monopolized the identity of the American. But at least the Celts had their whiteness.
~ Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People, W.W. Norton & Co., 2010, pp.147–150