This is part of The immigrants’ Civil War Series.
In 1841, New York City’s public schools used Protestant religious texts for instruction, taught anti-Catholic doctrines, and had daily readings from the Protestant translation of the Bible. Irish immigrant parents, seeing the schools as a vehicle of Protestant evangelization, began to keep their children home from school by the thousands.1
New York State Governor William Seward was a rare Whig politician. While many members of the Whig Party were harshly anti-immigrant, Seward, who would later serve as Lincoln’s Secretary of State, met regularly with German and Irish leaders and worked to understand the problems of new immigrants. While many abolitionists were also anti-immigrant bigots, Seward, one of the nation’s staunchest opponents of slavery, also saw himself as a friend of the Irish and Germans who were only just beginning to arrive in large numbers in his state.2
By the time of the public school crisis, immigrants in New York City had been the target of ten years of virulent and, at times, violent anti-immigrant campaigns. Children had been insulted in the schools, and teachers and native-born students disparaged Irish culture and beliefs.3
The Irish were not alone in feeling marginalized. Non-English speaking children of German, Hungarian, and Polish immigrants were showing up at school in large numbers for the first time. They were lost in the English-only public schools, which seemed to view the lack of English proficiency as a mental or moral failing.4
Seward first tried to soften the public schools’ approach to educating immigrants, but he could only persuade since he didn’t control the school board. After this approach failed, he suggested that a Catholic school system be established and that it be funded in part by the state. He also recommended the creation of bilingual schools for non-English speaking students where, Seward said, they could be “instructed by teachers speaking the same language with themselves” and receive special instruction in English. The proposal ignited mass hysteria in New York City because it would take the control of education away from the city’s nativist elite and place it in the hands of immigrants. Voters retaliated. In 1843 they elected James Harper, the owner of the Harper publishing company, to the mayor’s office on a strict anti-immigrant platform.5
Harper’s ability to turn anger into votes taught politicians nationally that electoral victories could be won by appealing to the fears of the native-born that the country was being taken over by immigrants. When anti-Irish riots rocked Philadelphia the following year, political insurgents capitalized on hatred to win local elections there, as well.6
The creation of a secret national structure giving voice to the hatred of immigrants came with the formation of the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, the first group properly called Know Nothings. Meetings were held in secret locations, like cornfields or empty warehouses. Members were sworn to secrecy and forbidden to even admit to being members. Their response to questions about the order was, “I Know Nothing.” Proud of their reputation for clandestine operations, the nativists would publish an annual journal called The Know Nothing Almanac. Far from being considered an insult, nativists prided themselves on Knowing Nothing.7
The constitution of the Know Nothings required that a member be “a native born citizen, a Protestant, born of Protestant parents…and not united in marriage with a Catholic.” Some lodges also required proof that at least two of an applicant’s grandparents were native-born. The secret group demanded a ban on foreign-born American citizens being elected to government office or even holding any government job at all. This would mean that even long time naturalized citizens would be barred from being police or public school teachers, opening up choice jobs for the nativists.8
By early 1854, there were more than 50,000 men enrolled in Know Nothing cells around the country. By the end of that year, nearly a million men had joined 10,000 lodges. The spectacular growth was fueled both by increasing fear of immigrants and by the conflict over slavery that was threatening to tear America apart.9
The Know Nothings became so pervasive in American society during the 1850s that entrepreneurs marketed to them. Know Nothing Soap was manufactured in Boston. The two Indians symbolize white native-born citizens, who referred to themselves as native Americans. As the advertisement suggests, the term Know Nothing was not considered an insult by the nativists. Source: Library of Congress.
Membership numbers were quickly translated into political victories. Without many people outside the secret order knowing what was happening, Know Nothings swept to victory in the 1854 mayoral races in Boston and Philadelphia. San Francisco elected a Know Nothing mayor who ran on an anti-Irish, anti-Chinese, and anti-Latino platform. Maine elected a Know Nothing governor. More than 40 percent of residents in New York’s Suffolk County, the eastern half of Long Island, voted Know Nothing that year.10
The state with the most explosive growth in Know Nothing support was Massachusetts. From 1854-1856, the Know Nothings would win the governor’s race there with 63 percent of the vote, capture all eleven seats from the state in the United States Congress, and win all but four seats in the Massachusetts legislature.11
Tyler Anbinder, the leading historian of the Know Nothing movement, described the basic tenets of the organization as follows:
1. Protestantism defines American culture and society.
2. Catholicism “is not compatible with the basic values Americans cherished most.” Catholic immigrants were the foes of democracy, reason, and education.
3. Catholic immigrants have power in the United States disproportionate to their numbers in the population. This power comes through voter fraud.
4. Politicians are corrupt and they form corrupt alliances with immigrants.
The Know Nothings in the North also gained support by portraying themselves as part of a broader moral crusade calling for the prohibition of the sale of alcohol and the curtailment of slavery.12
Popular music composers also catered to the Know Nothings. This sheet music for The Know Nothing Polka employs the all-seeing eye, common in Masonic imagery, to symbolize the vigilance of the native-born watching out for immigrant plots. The subheading “For Everybody by Nobody” sounds the clandestine theme of much of Know Nothing propaganda. Secrecy allowed Know Nothings to feel stronger than they may have actually been and reminded them that they worked underground because of the power of their enemies. Source: Library of Congress
The Know Nothing message had great appeal. It capitalized on existing prejudices and overlaid them with allegations of a conspiratorial Vatican plot to take over America.
The Know Nothings said that the immigrants of the 1850s were unlike all previous immigrants. They claimed that the new immigrants resisted assimilation and held American institutions in contempt. A Know Nothing newspaper editorialized that new immigrants were “determined that neither themselves nor their children shall ever conform to American manners, American sentiments, or the Spirit of American Institutions.” New York was described by the Know Nothing author as “more a foreign than an American city.”13
Know Nothing propagandists described the immigrant threat in apocalyptic terms. Here is an excerpt from an 1855 Know Nothing publication describing the danger posed by the Irish and Germans:
“A portentious cloud seems to be rising in the East. As it gradually approaches…it becomes darker; its thunders begin already to roar and its lightnings to flash, and it is feared that a tempest of inconceivable terror will soon be upon us, and demolish our glorious temple of freedom…”14
The same writer used lurid hearsay to warn of the horrible judgment to come if the immigrants were not stopped, writing that “A Popish [Catholic] priest in Indiana, told a Protestant minister that the time would come, when Catholics would make Protestants wade knee deep in blood…”15
Even worse than the threat of bloodshed, was the corrupting rot brought by immigrants. “The very incoming of ignorant and depraved foreigners…[t]heir very coming and mingling with us,” one Know Nothing tract warned, “diminishes the proportional amount of purity, and intelligence, and piety, that we before had…Our moral power is weakened, our moral sense blunted…by this foreign infusion.” Immigrants were not just corrupt themselves, the author wrote, they were corrupting the native-born as well.16
These messages reached a receptive audience in 1850s America and they propelled the Know Nothings to power, but it would only be a matter of months after their greatest triumphs that the party of hatred collapsed.
1. The Protestant Crusade; 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism by Ray Allen Billington, Quadrangle Books (1938) p. 149-150. Seward estimated the number of children being kept home at 20,000.
2. The Protestant Crusade; 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism by Ray Allen Billington, Quadrangle Books (1938) p. 145.
3. The Protestant Crusade; 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism by Ray Allen Billington, Quadrangle Books (1938) p. 142-144.
4. Link to English Only 1861.
5. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s by Tyler Anbinder, Oxford University Press (1992) p. 10.
6. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s by Tyler Anbinder, Oxford University Press (1992) p. 10.
7. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s by Tyler Anbinder, Oxford University Press (1992) p. 20-24. It is odd that modern anti-immigrant movements, which so echo the rhetoric of the Know Nothings, disclaim any relationship with their ideological forebears.
8. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s by Tyler Anbinder, Oxford University Press (1992) p. 23.
9. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s by Tyler Anbinder, Oxford University Press (1992) p. 50-58.
10. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s by Tyler Anbinder, Oxford University Press (1992) p. 53-57.
11. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s by Tyler Anbinder, Oxford University Press (1992) p. 90.
12. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s by Tyler Anbinder, Oxford University Press (1992) p. 104-106.
13. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s by Tyler Anbinder, Oxford University Press (1992) p. 113.
14. Startling Facts for the Know-Nothings Or a Vivid Presentation of the Dangers to American Liberty to be Apprehended from Foreign Influence, Nassau Street New York (1855) p. 5.
15. Startling Facts for the Know-Nothings Or a Vivid Presentation of the Dangers to American Liberty to be Apprehended from Foreign Influence, Nassau Street New York (1855) p. 67.
16. American Liberty: its Sources, its Dangers, and the Means of its Preservation by Alfred Ely, Seaman & Dunham (1850)
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites