Trump and the Return of the Know Nothings 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Mark Twain reportedly said that “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” One can see that in the nomination of Donald Trump as the nominee of the Republican Part for President. Eleven months ago I wrote an article called Trump and the Return of the Know Nothings. At the time few people gave him little chance of becoming the Republican nominee, and now he is the nominee and for all practical purposes owns the GOP. 

Trump’s xenophobic views on immigration charged the debate in the Republican Party during the primaries, and his positions which were fringe positions of most Repulicans for decades became the mainstream, just as the same issue did during the 1840s and 1850s. So this is not a new phenomenon, and even over the past few decades the debate has come and gone, but it has returned with a vengeance as Donald Trump made immigration, or rather a virulent anti-immigration platform the centerpiece of his campaign. Trump’s focus on the issue forced other Republican candidates to scramble in order to find a position close enough to Trump’s without completely throwing away the vote of immigrants who they will need to win in many states; if they are to have any hope of winning back the presidency in 2016. But they failed. Trump outmaneuvered them at every point, and in the end Trump’s strongest opponent, Senator Ted Cruz went into the witch’s cauldron of the Republican National Convention not to endorse Trump but to stand on principle and in the process destroy his politic career and maybe endanger his life. 

But Trump’s positionresonated with parts of the Republican base, and by appealing to their anger and frustration he has built a solid core of support which loyally supported him in a campaign that featured so many blunders and heneous comments that in a normal election cycle his campaign would not have survived past the Southern Super Tuesday. But he did, and if on the  takes the time to read Trump’s speeches and the reactions to them by his supporters it becomes apparent that Trump has tapped into that vast reservoir of nativism that has always been a part of the American body-politic.


As I said, such attitudes and movements are nothing new. Anti-immigrant movements in the United States go back to our earliest days, ever since the first Irish Catholics showed up in the northeast in the late 1790s and early 1800s. Met with scorn and treated as criminals the Irish Catholics had to work hard to gain any kind of acceptance in Protestant America. But immigrants continued to come, seeking the freedom promised in the Declaration of Independence.

Many White American Protestants viewed Irish, German and other European immigrants to the Unites States in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s as interlopers who were attempting to take over the country. The immigrants were regarded as poor, uneducated, uncouth, and immoral, and in the case of Catholic immigrants as representatives and foot soldiers of a hostile government, the Vatican, headed by the Pope and the bishops. Those who opposed immigration formed a movement that was aimed at forbidding immigrants from being granted full rights, especially the rights of citizenship and voting. The fear was pervasive. Many Northern Whites were afraid that immigrants would take their jobs, since like slaves in the South, the new immigrants were a source of cheap labor.

Northern Protestant church leaders and ministers were some of the most vocal anti-immigrant voices and their words were echoed by politicians and in the press. The movement grew and used government action, the courts and violence to oppress the Irish and Germans who were the most frequent targets of their hate. The movement eventually became known as the “Know Nothing” movement.

Know Nothing leaders were not content to simply discuss their agenda in the forum of ideas and political discourse, they often used mob-violence and intimidation to keep Catholics away from the ballot box. Mobs of nativist Know Nothings sometimes numbering in the hundreds or even the thousands attacked immigrants in what they called “Paddy hunts,” Paddy being a slur for the Irish. To combat immigrants who might want to exercise their right to vote, the Know Nothings deployed gangs like the New York’s Bowery Boys and Baltimore’s Plug Uglies. They also deployed their own paramilitary organization to intimidate immigrants on Election Day. This group, known as the Wide Awakes was especially prone to use violence and physical intimidation in pursuit of their goals. The Nativist paramilitaries also provided security for anti-immigrant preachers from angry immigrants who might try to disrupt their “prayer” meetings.

Know Nothing’s and other Nativist organizations, organized mass meetings throughout the country which were attended by thousands of men. The meetings were often led by prominent Protestant ministers who were rich in their use of preaching and prayer to rile up their audiences. The meetings often ended with physical attacks and other violence against German or Irish immigrants and sometimes with the burning of the local Catholic Church. They also provided security for preachers from angry immigrants who might try to disrupt nativist prayer meetings.


Bloody Monday, Louisville 1855

The violence was widespread and reached its peak in the mid-1850s.

Monday, August 6, 1855 was Election Day in Louisville, Kentucky. To prevent German and Irish Catholics from voting, Know Nothing mobs took to the street and launched a violent attack on immigrants as well as their churches and businesses. Known now as “Black Monday” the Nativists burned Armbruster’s Brewery, they rolled cannons to the doors of the St. Martin of Tours Church, the Cathedral of the Assumption and Saint Patrick’s Church, which they then were searched for arms. The private dwellings and the businesses of immigrants were looted. A neighborhood known as “Quinn’s Row” was burned with the inhabitants barricaded inside. At least 22 persons were killed in the violence and many more were injured. In Baltimore the 1856, 1857, and 1858 elections were all marred by violence perpetrated by Nativist mobs. In Maine, Know Nothing followers tarred and feathered a Catholic priest and burned down a Catholic church.

The Know Nothings did not merely seek to disenfranchise immigrants through violence alone, they were more sophisticated than that. They knew that to be successful they had to change the law. Then, as now, a new immigrant had to live in the United States for five years before becoming eligible to become a naturalized of the United States. The Know nothings felt that this was too short of time and their party platform in the 1856 election had this as one of the party planks:

A change in the laws of naturalization, making a continued residence of twenty-one years, of all not heretofore provided for, an indispensable requisite for citizenship hereafter, and excluding all paupers, and persons convicted of crime, from landing upon our shores; but no interference with the vested rights of foreigners.

The rational of the Know Nothings for the 21 year wait was that if a baby born in the United States had to wait until it was 21 years old he could vote, that immigrants were being permitted to “jump the line” and vote sooner than native-born Americans. But really what the Know Nothings wanted to was to destroy the ability of immigrant communities to use the ballot box. In many localities and some states Know Nothing majorities took power. The Massachusetts legislature, which was dominated by Know Nothings, passed a law barring immigrants from voting for two additional years after they became United States citizens.

The 1856 platform Know Nothing Party was synopsized by a Know Nothing supporter:

(1) Repeal of all Naturalization Laws.

(2) None but Americans for office.

(3) A pure American Common School system.

(4) War to the hilt, on political Romanism.

(5) Opposition to the formation of Military Companies, composed of Foreigners.

(6) The advocacy of a sound, healthy and safe Nationality.

(7) Hostility to all Papal influences, when brought to bear against the Republic.

(8) American Constitutions & American sentiments.

(9) More stringent & effective Emigration Laws.

(10) The amplest protection to Protestant Interests.

(11) The doctrines of the revered Washington.

(12) The sending back of all foreign paupers.

(13) Formation of societies to protect American interests.

(14) Eternal enmity to all those who attempt to carry out the principles of a foreign Church or State.

(15) Our Country, our whole Country, and nothing but our Country.

(16) Finally,-American Laws, and American Legislation, and Death to all foreign influences, whether in high places or low

In addition to their violent acts, the use of the courts and political intimidation the Know Nothings waged a culture war against immigrants. Latin mottoes on courthouses were replaced by English translations. Actions were taken to remove immigrants who had become naturalized citizens from public offices and civil service jobs as well as to use the government to persecute Catholic churches. In Philadelphia, all naturalized citizens on the police force were fired, including non-Catholics who has supported Catholic politicians, and in Boston, a special board was set up to investigate the sex lives of nuns and other supposed crimes of the Catholic church.


In the political upheaval of the 1850s Nativists tried to find homes in the different political parties. Some Know Nothings who were abolitionists became part of the new Republican Party, and Abraham Lincoln condemned them in harsh terms. He wrote his friend Joshua Speed about the hypocrisy that they displayed by supposedly being against the oppression of blacks while willing to oppress immigrants:

“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or 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.” 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 hypocracy [sic].”

As an organized movement, the Know Nothings died out by the early 1860s, migrating to different parties and causes. In the North many became part of the pro-slavery Copperhead movement, which opposed Lincoln on emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment. In the post-war South the anti-Catholic parts of the Nativist movement found a home in the Ku Klux Klan and other white terrorist organizations which also used racist and nativist propaganda to perpetuate violence, and disenfranchise emancipated blacks in the decades following the end of the Civil War and the end of Reconstruction. The Nativist and anti-immigrant sentiments have periodically found a home in different parts of the country and the electorate. Violence was used against Chinese, Japanese and Filipino immigrants on the West Coast, against Mexicans in the Southwest, Italians, Slavs, Eastern Europeans and Jews in the Northeast.

Sadly it seems that the Know Nothing is being turned against others today. I find it strange that there are a host of people, mostly on the political right that are doing their best in their local communities, state legislatures and even Congress to roll back civil liberties for various groups of people. There is a certain amount of xenophobia in regard to immigrants of all types, especially those with darker skin white Americans, but some of the worst is reserved for Arabs and other Middle-Easterners, even Arab Christians who are presumed as all Middle Easterners are to be Moslem terrorists, even those who have been here decades and hold respectable places in their communities.

But immigrants are not alone, there seems to be in some states a systematized attempt to disenfranchise the one group of people that has almost always born the brunt of legal and illegal discrimination, African Americans.

Likewise there have been numerous attempts to roll back the rights of women, especially working women; the use of the legislature by religious conservatives to place limits on the reproductive rights of women, holding them to the standard of a religion that they do not practice. Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling for Marriage Equality in Obergfell v. Hodges there still are numerous attempts to curb any civil rights, including the right to marriage or civil unions of the LGBT community.


As I said, this is nothing new, that hatred and intolerance of some toward anyone who is different than them, who they deem to be a threat is easily exploited by politicians, pundits and preachers, none of whom care for anything but their prosperity, ideology, religion, or cause. While I would not call them a new incarnation of the Know Nothings, I have to notice the similarities in their message and the way that they push their agenda. As for those among them who claim the mantle of Christ and call themselves Christians I am troubled, because I know that when religion is entwined with political movements that are based in repressing or oppressing others that it does not end well. As Brian Cox who played Herman Goering in the television miniseries Nuremberg told the American Army psychologist Captain Gustave Gilbert played by Matt Craven “The segregation laws in your country and the anti-Semitic laws in mine, are they not just a difference of degree?

That difference of degree does matter, and there have been and still could be times when the frustration and anger of people, especially religious people can be whipped into a frenzy of violence and government sanctioned oppression by unscrupulous politicians, preachers and pundits. History is replete with examples of how it can happen. When I think of this I am reminded of the close of Spencer Tracy’s remarks in the movie Judgment at Nuremberg:

But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” – of ‘survival’. A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is ‘survival as what’? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”

So for today I will leave it there. I probably will return to the similarities between the Know Nothings and Trump, but not this moment. I actually do have a life and want to write about other things. But that being said, there are times when history rhymes, and this is one of them. 

So have a wonderful day.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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