Brass Knuckles Crusade: The Know Nothings and the American Irish
John William Tuohy
The church that the Irish built in America is developed in their own image and likeness; reverent without being solemn, obedient without meekness and based in a determination and toughness to succeed.
That drive was largely created out of justifiable siege mentality because in 1845, this was still an overwhelmingly Protestant realm with the majority of Americans appertaining to the "Low Church" of the Protestant faith. Low Church or not, overwhelmingly, the Protestants in America were a God fearing, decent people, and to lump them all in to the violent Nativist camp, which is too often done, would be wrong. However there were millions of Americans who encouraged the spirit of Nativism, or the Native American Movement, as they preferred it.
That hatred ran extremely high in this country for (essentially) four decades and substantial numbers of the Nativist numbers came from within the rarefied ranks nation’s aristocracy with the most conspicuous being the Presbyterian Minister Lyman Beecher, whose equally confused daughter would later pen "Uncle Tom’s Cabin".
For all of the Nativist's talk about the Un-Americanism of the Catholic Church and the Irish, their the foundation of the Anti-Catholic, Anti Irish movement was economics. Irish Catholics were not only arriving by the tens of thousands and taking away jobs that had long been the sole domain of working class Protestants, they added insult to injury, from the Protestants point of view anyway, by underbidding them to get that work, a grand American tradition if nothing else. All of this led to a basic mistrust, misunderstanding and suspicion of Catholics and the Catholic faith. Many Americans saw the church as nothing more than a cult, made up of rag tag peasants and common laborers sent to their country, by the powers in Rome, as an invading force.
The Churches hierarchy in America was Irish or French born, all of them dressed in a bizarre garb and led a different, questionable lifestyle. Only Hierarchy members could perform the elaborate church ceremonies, and at that, they did it in Latin.
But for all of the Yankee's apprehension over the increasing numbers of Irish and ensuing other ethnic Catholics to the States, the American Catholic Church would never come near the grandeur, the wealth, or the status of the European Church, in fact, the Church of Europe would never understand the Church of America and vice versa. For the European Church, the American Catholic church was hopelessly working class, common place and pedestrian. The Europeans would long take a particular delight in scoffing at what they considered to be the Americans mediocre architecture, a small but underlining fact that summed the cultural gap between the two organizations. But aesthetics were never a consideration for the American Hierarchy. Theirs was and remains a "brick and mortar" denomination that was attentive to expansion and services to its flock and not with impressing the American born masses or the condescending European elitist of the church. As a result, finery was unimportant to them, these American sons and daughters of carpenters and bricklayers and shop keepers and cops. Theirs was a poor man’s church, made up of a flock that was often hopeless and crushed, the working poor who were shut out from the mainstream who would build, with their hard earned nickels and dimes that they could ill afford to part with, what would become, by the end of the 20th century, the largest, richest and most powerful single religious denomination in the history United States America.
For those early Catholics, the church was more than a place of veneration and the Priest was more than a spiritual leader. Their Parishes educated their children, offered safe harbors to battered wives from their drunken and frustrated husbands, it was a social center that accepted, in fact, welcomed them without regards to what they possessed or what they had been reduced in the new country. Instead it recognized and fostered in them everything that they could be at a time when so few of them believed they could be anything more than they were at that awful moment in time. Their Priest was a social worker, a translator of laws and social customs, a bail bondsman, a shoulder to lean and cry on, he was often a forgiving banker, a skilled defense lawyer and a constant source of encouragement who sometimes happened to hear confessions and celebrate the mass.
For all the faults that the early Church had, and they were many, those first Priests and Nuns who built the church, did, in every sense of the meaning, conduct Gods work with selfless honor and integrity.
With the arrival of the Catholic Irish to America, the once sleepy Catholic Church of North America exploded in a flurry of growth. Between the years of 1840 and 1880, the numbers of Roman Catholics in the United States leaped from a mere 600,000 to 6,000,000. In 1840, while there was less than 16 dioceses in the country, ten years later there were 32 and the number of Priests had tripled.
The Irish, being the Irish, took command of the new church, in large part because there were so many of them that arrived in such a short amount of time and in part they seemed to have a natural calling for the profession.
Their domination of the church was a natural extension of the religious upsurge that had overtaken Ireland just before the start of the Famine. The church there had been growing at tremendous rates in both the number of clerical recruits and in the power the church held over a people who were already religiously oriented anyway.
When the Irish came to America they relayed that religious fever with them. In 1880, of the 69 Bishops in the United States, 35 were born in Ireland or were Irish American, and two more were Irish-German. But with the leadership of the Catholic church came a price for which the Irish paid dearly.
THE KNOW NOTHINGS
"The greatest part of British America was peopled by men, who, having shaken off the authority of the Pope, acknowledged no other religious supremacy, the Catholic religion has erroneously been regarded as the natural enemy of this democracy" Tocqueville
In many ways, the Know Nothings would, as John F. Kennedy pointed out, give the Irish the odd distinction of being the only group of Americans to have a political party formed against them.
The Know Nothings were founded in New York city in 1853 by a former dry goods store owner named James W. Barker under the name The Supreme Order of the Star Spangled Banner.
It was supposed to be a ultra-secretive organization that was dedicated to keeping foreigners, naturalized citizens, and above all else, Catholics, out of political office. In the organizations prime years (1850's -1860's) all of those things, foreign and Catholic, meant the Irish who made up 45% of the countries foreign born.
How Strong were the Know Nothings ? Extremely strong.
One month after taking over the Know Nothing party (July of 1854) James Barker opened 152 Know Nothings councils nationwide, two months later there were 201 and by the end of the 1,000.
In 1852, the Know Nothings carried the New York city elections by 66,000 votes. By 1854 the Know Nothings had 5,000,000 dues paying members and were attracting new one in at the rate of 5,000 a week.
The Know Nothing branch in Mobile Alabama opened in June of 1854 with 678 members and closed the year with three thousand. In Montgomery, they won the cities 1855 elections, three votes to one. The party’s candidate for Governor lost by only 10,000 votes but the Know Nothings took control of the cities of Selma, Mobile and Tuscaloosa, they won two out of the seven US Congressional House seats and controlled over a third of the States Legislature, and put their own man in as Mayor of Mobile.
In 1854 the party virtually controlled the entire political scene in Natchez Mississippi and was eyeing control of the rest of that state (which at the time at less than 10 Catholic Churches and 5,000 foreign born citizens)
The Know Nothings opened shop in Augusta in May of 1854 and promptly headed up an attack on 2,000 "foreign" owned bar rooms. In that same year they took over Atlanta, sent to of their thugs to Congress and controlled the political platforms in one third of the state’s counties.
In Jacksonville Florida, they elected their own Mayor (he won without knowing he had been nominated, a true Know Nothing)
Starting very late in the state wide races, they won a number of seats in the state house but lost the Governor’s office by 161 votes.
In South Carolina in 1855, Know Nothing Mayors sat in Greenville, Columbia and Charleston.
In North Carolina, their Mayor ran Raleigh, in the next year, 1856, they sent three party members to the US House of Representatives.
Two months after opening their offices in Texas, the party controlled 30 Assembly seats, nine Senate seats, dozens of municipal and county offices and elected its Mayors in Galveston and Austin.
They won control of Little Rock in 1856 and had their man in the States Auditors office.
In 1855, their Mayor ran St. Louis and sent two Congressman to Washington.
In Tennessee they elected a Governor, elected five out of 10 Congressmen and controlled the state house as well.
In Kentucky, they elected Mayors to Elizabethtown and Louisville. They also controlled the State House and six Congressional seats.
In Maryland, they controlled Baltimore, Cumberland, Hagerstown Annapolis and Williamsport. They controlled the State House and twenty one counties, the Governor’s chair and six Congressional seats. In Louisiana they sent one man to Congress.
In California they controlled the Governor’s office, the Mayor’s office in San Francisco and almost all of the State Assembly. A Know Nothing spin off group called the Regulators, regularly broke in to Catholic Spanish homes, raped the women, beat the men and stole what they could carry away. In San Francisco, 300 Know Nothing thugs called the Mulligans, had running fist fights with Police and Irish laborers during an election and beat the beat to the ground when he tore the badge off of one of his Police Officers who was supporting the Know Nothing ticket
In the elections of 1854, the Party won control of Delaware, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut Pennsylvania and Maine hand down. The few offices that didn't control in those states were the ones they chose not to control, in New York State they controlled the Governor’s office, New York city’s Mayor and half of the US Representatives.
In the national election for President in 1854, their Candidate Milliard Fillmore carried 25% of the national vote.
In Connecticut in 1854 Know Nothing candidates were elected in twenty towns and city's including New Haven and Hartford and William T. Minor squeezed through to victory to the governor’s seat with only 788 votes.
However the Know Nothings captured the State Senate with 18 seats and the House with 161 seats, they sent one member to the United States Senate and four to the House of Representatives.
Oddly enough, the Governors inaugural parade was led by the state’s best drilled militia unit, the all Irish Emmet guards. A few weeks later, one of the Governors first acts was to disarm the Emmet Guard as well as six other all Irish units, furthering the rumor that the states Catholic uprising were planning an armed revolt.
Now with control over the States Congress the Know Nothings introduced a series of bills, one to divest all property held in the hands of the states Catholic hierarchies into the ownership of the congregations another to introduce a literacy test to voters. The states laws were revised to prohibit the courts from naturalizing Aliens. One newspaper went so far as to suggest that restaurants rename Irish stew to the more acceptable "Yankee Stew"
Eventually, Know Nothing hatred found its way into the nation’s Capital.
In November of 1857, a Know Nothing sponsored group of thugs calling themselves the Plug Uglies arrived by train from Baltimore to disrupt the local elections.
Armed with a cannon they marched here, to Northern market then the cities commercial district and quickly took control of the voting booths.
They beat Irish citizens who tried to vote and threatened to burn down Irish and African American ghettos.
The city's mayor, William B. Magruder, commanding a force of less than 56 full time Police officers were forced to appeal to President Buchanan for help.
Buchanan ordered marines from the nearby Capitol Hill barracks to restore order.
The marines, under the command of General Archibald Henderson took the voting booths back from the mob and ordered the rioters to disband.
Instead the Plug Uglies turned their Cannon on the General and threatened to shoot if he and his men did not withdraw.
Henderson, riding on horseback and dressed in civilian clothes, instead stuck his umbrella into the Plug Uglies Cannon and turned his back on the mob defying them to shot. "Give my men due cause to impose the wrath of God"
Again Henderson ordered the mob to disperse and then ordered his marines to march into the mob, Bayonets fixed.
The plug Uglies responded by firing into the oncoming Marines with pistol shot, killing one and injuring several more. The Marines charged the mob.
In the next several minutes, 12 more people fell severely wounded.
Eventually the marines managed to push the mob back to the B&O railroad station where the Plug Uglies where reinforced with a contingent of Know Nothings brought in from Baltimore.
In the next 24 hours, five more people lay dead and scores more were wounded before the Marines couldn't retake the city streets from the Nativist's.
The Pope Stone Incident exploded in the Summer of 1862.
In that year, the base of the Washington Monument had been completed by mostly Irish laborers with imported Italian Marble, much to the annoyance of local Maryland quarry owners who felt that the Monument should have been constructed in local Maryland marble.
At certain sections of the Monuments interior in scripted stones from various heads of state were to dot the walls, including one stone sent by the Pope. Soon a rumor spread not only across the city, but across the country, that the monument was not to be in honor of the Americas first President, but instead, it was to be dedicated to Pope in Rome, as a symbol to the Nation’s growing Irish- Catholic population.
One summer night, in 1862, a mob of 750 members of the Know Nothing party attacked the work site, over powered it guards and set about destroying monument as best they could. On finding the offending stone sent by the Pope and flung it into the nearby Potomac River.
That Stone, by the way, has never been found.
The following year, in 1863, the Know Nothings took control of the committee set up to complete the Washington Monument. But instead, under Know Nothing Control, work on the monument came to a virtual standstill. Then, at the end of the civil war, the monument was completed, this time with Maryland Marble. The difference in the stones can be seen today about midway up the Statue.
So many Anti- Irish Catholic riots occurred in Baltimore that the city was soon known as "Mob Town" across the United States. The Know Nothings took their start in Baltimore after the elections of 1844. Less than a decade later the city was the unwilling host of the largest Know Nothing Rally in its history.
On August the 8th of 1853, 5000 members of the party met in Monument square. But even with those impressive numbers the Know Nothing lost the next two elections held in the city and across the State. Maryland was the one state carried by Know Nothing Candidate Milliard Fillmore but the party would lose soundly on all other levels. Rhode Island had its share of Nativist's problems as well.
Spurred on by a strong Anti-Catholic press Nuns were insulted and sometimes proposition in the streets. In March of 1854, the Know Nothings held a secret convention in Providence and announced a complete slate of candidates for the year’s upcoming election. A few days later a series of handbills appeared on the streets of Providence that stated that local nuns had kidnapped a young women.
A mob converged on the Sisters of Mercy convent in Providence "to save" as they put it "an American girl" from the clutches of Popish Romanism. This, despite the fact that the young girl in question denied being anywhere near the convent, much less being held prisoner in it.
The mob was driven off by squads of Policemen and armed members of the Ancient order of Hibernians. However, in the elections of 1855, the Know Nothings did manage to take control of both the State House and Senate in Rhode Island, beating out the States powerful Democratic ticket by five to one and elected their own Governor. However the Know Nothing delegates proved to be something less then competent in legislative affairs, and in the next election, were soundly defeated in Rhode Island, forever.
The outstanding heroics of the Irish during the civil war led to a an increasingly positive image of the American Celts and eventually, in large part, did away with the Know Nothing movement, but the anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States lingered on for generations through the election of Italian-Catholic American presidential candidate Al Smith and the Catholic Irishmen John F. Kennedy in 1960. However, the worst of ti was over by the 1870s.