Friday, January 28, 2011

The Know-Nothings and Anti-Catholicism

We mentioned in previous posts that the Whig party was the anti-immigrant/anti-Catholic party. The Whigs were the liberal party and the heirs of the Enlightenment democratic heritage that valued reason about Tradition—a position that would put them into opposition with Catholicism, especially the European variety of Catholicism that had been closely tied to monarchism and absolutism in opposition to democracy. The “old-school” American Catholics of the Archbishop John Carroll variety had long ago, at the time of the American Revolution, accommodated themselves quite comfortably to the democratic ideals of the new nation, but the “new school” Catholics emigrating from Europe and brining European ideas with them were more reserved not only about American political structures but about American society in general and the American Church in particular. We start to see here in the 1830’s a fork in the path of the American Church, a fork which will allow two Catholic Churches to develop side by side with each other, a Church which will usually be broad enough to accommodate both branches in its communion but at two periods—in the final decades of the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth and again at the final decades of the twentieth and the opening decade of the twenty-first centuries will find that communion stretched close to its point of fracture. But that is the topic for a future series of blogs. We want to stay on the topic of anti-Catholicism.
The Whig distrust of Catholics and immigrants drove the waves of Catholic immigrants into the Democratic party. At the same time, the Whig inability to achieve its political goal of preserving the ascendency of WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) political and economic power led the decline of the party. As the Whigs lost power, it was natural for another party to rise in its place to preserve the same set of ideals in opposition to the Jacksonian Democrats. Two parties would fill that vacuum. The first would fail, the second would endure.
Eventually the Republican party would emerge to balance the Democrats, but the time was not yet ripe for the Republicans. As the Whigs faded, their banner was taken up by a short-lived political alliance (it becomes a party in the 1850's) called the “Know-Nothings,” Originally not a national party but a loose-knit alliance of various local groups, in many respects like today’s Tea Party, the Know-Nothings began in New York State in 1843 as the American Republican Party. Within two years it had spread to other states and became a national organization known as the Native American Party. Ten years later it changed its name to the American party. It was only when it took on this name that it evolved from what might be called a movement into a formal political party. Its genius and its success was in organizing on the local and grass-roots level. It tended to do well in local elections, and to some extent in state elections, but was never effective in electing a President—though it did try.
Before we go further, an incident in Europe fueled the anti-Catholicism in America. In 1848 there was a revolution against the Papal Government in Central Italy—the Papal States. American Catholics often forget that for centuries the Popes had not only been spiritual leaders but also ruled a nation in central Italy. Italy, as we know it, only became a nation in 1870 when the King of Savoy, his Prime Minister Cavour, and his great General, Garibaldi, overthrew a variety of Kings, princes, Grand Dukes, and Dukes, uniting their various independent principalities into a single nation. One of the Kings overthrown and deprived of his temporal crown was the Pope—but this is some 22 years later. In 1848 a group of Italian Nationalists, drove the Pope—the newly elected Pius IX—from Rome where he fled to Gaeta outside Naples and prepared for a possible flight from Italy. (The British—strange friends (Well, not so strange when you know your history)—had a warship waiting to take him to refuge/exile should he so need. He didn’t need, as it turned out.) With the help of French troops, the rebellion was squashed and the Pope was restored. Pius had been a political liberal to this point favoring Democratic reforms. When he saw what Democratic Reforms led to—well, he wasn’t to sure about Democracy any more. The Americans saw the crushing of the Roman Revolution of 1848 as a blow to Democratic government. It reinforced their stereotype of Catholicism as monarchist and absolutist. And it made the American Nativist Party very successful. Rumor flew that the Pope planned an invasion of America to destroy our freedom even as he had destroyed the liberties of the Roman people. Today it sounds pretty silly that a papal army with the intent to invade would attack America (remember the old Peter Sellers' movie, The Mouse That Roared?) but in the 19th century many believed it. As late as the election of John Kennedy in 1960 many were convinced that the Pope had designs on this country.
The Know-Nothing Party platform was
• Severe limits on immigration, especially from Catholic countries
• Balancing what immigration there was in favor of English, Welch, Scots, and Protestant Irish
• Restricting political office to native-born Americans
• Mandating a wait of 21 years before an immigrant could gain citizenship
• Restricting public school teachers to Protestants
• Mandating daily Bible readings in public schools
• Restricting the sale of liquor
The Know-Nothings—and by the way they were called that, because when questioned about their political organization they would answer, like Sergeant Shultz “I know nothing.” Of course they didn’t have Shultz’s accent; they didn’t like Germans, or Irish, or anybody except those of British extraction. There was a secrecy to their organization and how these various local groups coordinated their efforts which actually led to their being particularly effective. In the spring of 1854 they won elections in Boston, Salem and other New England towns. That autumn they swept the state elections. (Gone was the moderation of Mayor Lyman and Edward Cutter and the Charlestown Selectmen of 1834) In Philadelphia their candidate, Robert Conrad, promised to crack-down on crime, close Saloons on Sundays, and appoint only native-born Americans to city posts. In Washington DC the Know-Nothing candidates won in a landslide. They were unsuccessful in New York—with its large immigrant population—but won a credible 26% of the vote in a four-way election. They did manage to elect both the Mayor of San Francisco and the Governor of California.
The following year they carried Chicago and the Know-Nothing Mayor, Levi Boone, barred all immigrants from city jobs, The success of the Know- Nothings led them to coalesce into a national party in 1854 as the American Party. One of the voices raised against the Know-Nothings was Abraham Lincoln who said—and given the political atmpsphere in Illinois said courageously-- As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.
Lincoln was no particular friend of Catholicism—few politicians could afford to be at this period—but he was committed to democracy and the ideals of the Republic and he saw how the Know-Nothings threatened to undermine the basic values on which this nation was founded
I'm not sure where the image today comes from; i found it in my photo file but it is not one of my pictures. (I am pretty handy with Photoshop, but not that fancy)

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