A Partial Refutation of Henry Wise

Henry Wise

Henry Wise

When running for governor of Virginia in 1855, Henry Wise tarred his Know-Nothing opponent and the party behind him as covert abolitionists. He had a point when it came to Know-Nothings in the North, if not those Virginians he actually accused. To some degree, the natural impulses of ex-Whigs, anti-Nebraska men, and nativists ran together. All feared subversive conspiracies to seize control of the nation and dispossess them of what they saw as their birthright. All had a kind of moral panic over scandals, real and imagined, at home and abroad. Rome and slavery both turned the places where they prevailed into giant brothels, as lurid pamphlets and novels told an audience eager for scandal. If that writing also provided a socially acceptable outlet for more prurient interests, few publishers and readers would complain. To many nineteenth century Americans, nativism and antislavery thus seemed logical, congenial bedfellows.

But other northerners very much disagreed. They looked on less than 700,000 of the nation’s 14,235,000 church members and asked why the Catholics prompted such fears. So small a number hardly represented a serious threat of turning the majority-Protestant United States into a majority-Catholic papal fiefdom. They counted 2,234,602 foreign-born against 19,429,185 native-born and wondered at the panic. Nativist demographic challenges did not hold just in the South. If the Catholics intended to work ruin on the nation, they had Chief Justice Roger Taney on their side. He went to their churches, listened to their sermons, and supposedly took his orders from their Pope. Yet what calamity, they asked before Dred Scott, befell from his influence? Or from Lafayette’s decades before?

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Viewed the right way, anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic paranoia could look very much like anti-aboltionist paranoia. Mobs attacked convents, but mobs had also attacked abolitionist meetings. One had murdered Elijah P. Lovejoy for the crime of abolitionism. Smart antislavery men took care where they traveled to avoid following his example. Respectable venues once refused antislavery patronage, just as the nativists would have the country refuse immigrants and Catholics. For that matter, the goals of the nativists sounded suspiciously similar to a slave system: one race, and nineteenth century Americans very much saw the Irish and, often, Catholics also, as a racial group subordinated permanently to the other via a form of despotism that would require extension over free, white Protestants to sustain itself. If that happened, the nation would have the anti-democratic impulses of slavery replicated and suffer still more for it. They had more of that than they ever wanted just from sustaining slavery.

Possibly the man who put it best had essentially quit politics some years before, after an uninspiring single term in the House of Representatives. The Kansas-Nebraska Act drew him back in. Looking on the ruins of his chosen party, Lincoln wrote to his slaveholding friend, Joshua Speed:

I am a whig; but others say there are no whigs, and that I am an abolitionist. When I was at Washington I voted for the Wilmot Proviso as good as forty times, and I never heard of any one attempting to unwhig me for that. I now do no more than oppose the extension of slavery.

Lincoln

Lincoln

Still an antislavery Whig in 1855, he knew the Know-Nothings wanted the votes of men like him. He would not have it:

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 of 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.

Virginia’s new governor would have trouble finding a man eager to throw in with the Know-Nothings in all of that, even if he could find others who would.

Advertisements

A Partial Vindication of Henry Wise

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

The Know-Nothings did not triumph in Virginia. They put on a very good showing and Henry Wise had to pull out every tool in the rhetorical arsenal to win, but win he did. Along the way, he called the Know-Nothings secret abolitionists. Their hidden meetings and secret society trappings only encouraged rumors about them. What did they have to hide, after all? Wise had a point, if not about the ex-Whigs from Virginia who flocked to the Know-Nothing banner. If the Puritan-minded antislavery men had a nativist problem diluting their ranks and competing for their natural constituency, then the nativists also had an antislavery problem diluting their ranks and competing for their natural constituency. The split ran both ways. If the same type of person favored antislavery and favored nativism, then having a party built around each issue meant splitting those voters.

Or did it? Henry Wilson’s election to the Senate from Massachusetts showed that nativists and antislavery men could work together, even if Wilson proceeded to act much more as an antislavery man than as a nativist. Across the North, the Know-Nothings and antislavery men did their best to avoid collision. Rather than work against one another, as one might expect of parties competing for the same voters, they tended to work around one another. That potential for amalgamation came together with the fact that even if one thought nativism or antislavery the controlling issue of the day, that need not mean one also felt the other should just drop off the face of the earth.

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church's perceived attempt to "take over" American life

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church’s perceived attempt to “take over” American life

Across the North, many antislavery men also feared the hard-drinking, Catholic Irish flooding into their ports. Likewise many nativist men also feared that the Slave Power had taken control of their Union and sold off their future. Nativists could point to Catholic sins abroad and threatening moves at home. Antislavery men could point to their impressive string of defeats since the start of the Mexican War, culminating in Kansas-Nebraska, and imagine a natural alliance of the Slave Power and its northern fellow travelers, as abetted by urban political machines larding the ballot boxes with the votes of easily controlled Irishmen. From a certain mindset, the two issues seem to flow together at every turn. Why wouldn’t these groups come together into a single party, if as wings with differing priorities? Americans have long been terrible at developing political parties with any ideological coherence. Having only two competing groups might actually count as progress.

Henry Wise

Henry Wise

The two groups already coordinated, avoiding direct contest amongst themselves. Some went one step further and did amalgamate, coming together as Know-Somethings and under other titles. If that antislavery nativist movement would go nowhere in the South, it could still frame itself as a northern party of northern interests and northern men. That would at once reverse Calhoun’s old dream of a single, southern political movement to save slavery. Instead a united sectional party would look down the map and down its nose at the South and set slavery on the road to extinction. Thus the end must come, unless the South could have and keep decisive control of national institutions or establish some kind of permanent veto over the national majority. Either solution depended on antislavery interests constantly losing, even as each loss further inflamed antislavery passions. The South could very well lose by winning.

The Virginia Showdown, Part Three

Henry Wise

Henry Wise

(Parts 1 and 2)

The Know-Nothing American Party contested Virginia’s gubernatorial election in 1855, hoping to replicate its success in adjacent Maryland and elsewhere. With Virginia in their pocket, the Know-Nothings would have a platform to expand in the South and become a true national party by sweeping up all the South’s discontented ex-Whigs. Against the strange non-campaign of ex-Whig turned Know-Nothing Thomas Stanhope Flournoy, Democrat Henry Wise waged an actual campaign. He toured the state extensively, speaking with theatrical flair. He took aim at the Know-Nothings’ secrecy and branded them a secret abolitionist cabal trying to subvert Virginia’s slave system.

One must expect that of a southern politician. Most every one of them had to prove his proslavery bona fides come election time or risk getting tarred as soft on slavery. But Wise also attacked the Know-Nothings based on the parts of their platform they made little effort to hide. If the Know-Nothings embraced such un-American dogmas as Boston abolitionism in secret, they openly avowed their hostility to the foreign-born and Catholics. Wise called that hostility just as un-American. To make his case, Wise invoked the one Frenchman that every nineteenth century American both knew and admired: the Marquis de La Fayette.

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette

The French aristocrat came close to sainthood in the minds of Americans of the era. When he died, the nation mourned Lafayette like it mourned Washington. He got 24-gun salutes and Congress asked the nation to wear black for thirty days. The Know-Nothings would toss him out and betray the memory of his numerous sacrifices for the cause of American freedom. And for what? For the privileges of the native-born? Native-born like the Protestant Benedict Arnold? Patriotic Americans had to know that the place of a man’s birth and the nature of his faith did not determine his worth. The national epic said as much, as did all the places carrying Lafayette’s name.

Heaping patriotism on top of protecting slavery, Wise finished off with a vision for a new Virginia. He would build internal improvements. He would establish a public school system. He would support the development of industry and agriculture in a Virginia that looked a bit long in the tooth from decades of tobacco decline. Henry Wise, patriot, proslavery man, man of the people, would lead Virginia into the future.

When election day came in May, Virginians turned out in record numbers. Wise won more votes than any other Virginian of the century. The Democracy defeated nativism and kept the South by a margin of 10,180. It very nearly went otherwise. The massive turnout and tremendous enthusiasm the race generated still ended with 47% of Virginian voters choosing Flournoy. A swing of a few percent would have given him and the Know-Nothings their victory. Had Wise made any misstep, most especially had he not tarred the Know-Nothings as abolitionists in hiding, he could easily have failed and heralded the rise of a new party to challenge the Democracy in the South. With his victory, southern democrats could finally relax.

The Virginia Showdown, Part Two

Henry Wise

Henry Wise

In 1854, the Know-Nothing Party elected nine governors. It stood over the ruins of Virginia Whiggery, poised to make it ten. The Democracy’s Henry Alexander Wise stood just as poised to make sure they did not. He traveled across Virginia, arraigning the Know-Nothings and their chosen man, Thomas Stanhope Flournoy. Wise screamed himself hoarse. He exhausted himself riding Virginia’s roads for months on end. He made a tremendous show of his campaign in the finest nineteenth century tradition of democratic theatricality. Flournoy refused to attend public meetings. He wrote a letter instructing his voters, as an eighteenth century gentleman might, and called it done.

With that kind of contrast, one might expect Flournoy to lose so hard that his great-grandchildren felt it. Everybody watching the election, however, expected it to go down to the wire. The contest electrified Washington, with everyone seeing its potential. From Virginia, the Know-Nothings could sweep the South. Seeing an exciting election that could go either way and would have great significance for the future of the nation, Washington politicians wagered heavily on it.

Why did they think it could go both ways? Virginia had enough immigrants to fuel some serious nativism, unlike much of the rest of the South. Those nativists had plenty a mix of real concerns and traditional paranoia to stoke their electoral fires. Furthermore, Flournoy’s genteel non-campaign belied the fact that the Know-Nothings operated as a secret society. They did not do typical eighteenth century politics, with public meetings and stump speeches. Know-Nothings convened amongst themselves and behind closed doors. They refused to speak of their party operations in mixed company, insisting that as it says on the tin they knew nothing about it. Despite that secrecy, they elected the governor of Maryland just north of Virginia.

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

But secrecy invites suspicion. What did the Know-Nothings have to hide? What of all these secret passwords, names, and so forth? It looked like a conspiracy, not a political movement. In the South, conspiracy meant slaves gathering and the underground railroad and abolitionists in their midst, preaching rebellion and ruin. Wise dug up a comment Flournoy made years before about how slave populations impeded prosperity. He pointed to the Know-Nothings’ success in Massachusetts, where they had just sent a slightly anti-immigrant but ferociously antislavery Henry Wilson to take moderate Edward Everett’s seat in the Senate. To do that, they openly combined with Free Soilers! Know-Nothing secrecy did not hide anti-immigrant politics. It only wore those as a mask to hide its true, antislavery face. Thomas Stanhope Flournoy would invite servile rebellion. He would raise up a legion of Nat Turners to murder white Virginians in their beds. Why else would he need that secrecy?

The Virginia Showdown, Part One

 

 

Henry Wise

Henry Wise

The Know-Nothings had it going on. They made an impressive showing in the 1854 elections. They even took over Massachusetts, host to  so much antislavery drama. Delaware’s Whiggery disbanded to join in the fun. If all the South did not have the North’s immigrant population to stir up nativist fears, then at least its border states and Louisiana did. Those could be the foundation of a new bisectional party, even if it did still tilt to the North. Would states that decided, as a Baltimore paper advised, to sideline slavery in favor of anti-immigrant fears even remain southern enough for it to matter? Stephen Douglas decided, even in the wake of Kansas-Nebraska, that he should worry more about the Know-Nothings than antislavery men. If the Know-Nothings could elect one of their own governor of a major southern state, he might have it right.

Virginians had that major southern state and an election coming up. Unlike half-free Maryland, Virginia still had a healthy slave system. It might also have some discontented people in its extreme west who did not much care for slavery, but aristocratic Virginian planters had bought them off before with incremental advances toward white egalitarianism. They had just done another round of that in 1850, finally giving all white men equal access to state government. Doing that also meant, of course, that the planters voted themselves considerable tax advantages. As a populous state with a healthy slave system, Virginia would be a great feather in the Know-Nothings’ cap.

To take the governor’s post and ring in the Know-Nothings glorious future, they chose an ex-Whig, Richmond lawyer Thomas Stanhope Flournoy. The very model of eighteenth century refinement, Flournoy disdained campaigning. He instructed his voters by letter and refused to make public appearances. He would not stage a circus and prostitute himself for the voting mobs; gentlemen did not do that kind of thing. It drove Virginia’s aging patriarchs wild.

Against Flournoy, the Democracy chose Henry Alexander Wise. A political shapeshifter of the highest caliber, Wise had been a Jacksonite enthusiast turned States Rights Whig before turning Democrat again. Back in 1850, he led the charge to empower poor whites, then switched back and led the charge to secure tax advantages for slavery. He mused that slavery might some day end, then attacked his foes for not defending it strongly enough. This did not endear him to Virginia’s patriarchs. Fire-eater Edmund Ruffin called Wise “a political liar of the first degree.”

Consistency did not much trouble mass politics, though. Wise had risen through the Virginia establishment by alloying eighteenth century ideals about hierarchy to nineteenth century populism. He would use popular appeal to achieve aristocratic goals, spreading the gospel that only age, sex, and race should separate men. Even a propertyless white man still had his skin endowing him with despotic power over every black person.

Wise tore across Virginia, covering three thousand miles in only four months. Every night, for as much as four hours, he screamed in the gaslight until he had only a whisper left. He stomped. He roused the rabble. He put on a show. Wise’s demagoguery could have come from an aristocrat’s worst nightmares. This all sounds like something one would expect of the nativists, playing up public fears. But if the Know-Nothings had unwashed hordes of Irish Catholics to keep them up at nights, then Henry Wise played to a different set of fears: those provoked by the Know-Nothings themselves.

Grappling with Demographics

Nathaniel Banks, Speaker of the House, ex-Democrat, future Republican

Nathaniel Banks, Speaker of the House, ex-Democrat, Know-Nothing, and future Republican

In the summer and fall of 1854, the Know-Nothings racked up win after win. In Massachusetts, they commanded 63% of the vote, elected all the state senators and all but two of the state representatives. That amounted to not just a win, but an amazing landslide. If they could co-opt Massachusetts, then the antislavery furor over Kansas-Nebraska might truly pass away. To the Bay State, they added a 40% showing in Pennsylvania. Even in New York, where Whiggery remained strong, they could pull in 25% of the vote. As the Whigs waned, the Know-Nothings waxed. They won more than fifty seats in the 34th Congress and caucused with the Opposition Party, a new conglomeration of anti-Nebraska, antislavery, and generally anti-Democrat (hence the name) men to control the House. They put one of their own, Nathaniel Banks, in the Speaker’s seat.

But could they cross the Mason-Dixon and become a national party? Delaware’s John Clayton thought so. Tennessee’s John Bell agreed, supporting a Know-Nothing for governor. The Know-Nothings seemed very much posed to make it happen, but they faced a strong demographic challenge. In 1850, the census counted 2,234,602 foreign-born people in the United States. That amounted to 11.50% of the national population. Only 313,312 of those people lived in the slave states. Almost a quarter of them, 24.45%, lived in Missouri alone. Louisiana provided another 68,233 foreign-born, for 21.78% of the South’s immigrants. Maryland (16.34%) and Kentucky (10.03%) rounded out the top four. Together they accounted for 72.40% of the South’s immigrant population.

Immigration in the South

Immigration in the South

An anti-immigrant party would have trouble building up a movement in states with few immigrants, and that included most of the South. Louisiana, with its sin city of New Orleans and dreams of a Caribbean empire, could look very northern. Few other places in the Lower South did. The Upper South could offer few additions to the list. Only in the border states did anti-immigrant fervor threaten to eclipse slavery and there we must at once exclude the South’s immigrant mecca of Missouri. David Rice Atchison’s state loved the Kansas-Nebraska act. The ongoing feud between Atchison and Thomas Hart Benton helped keep slavery front and center in the political consciousness, but even that conflict rose out of the inherent problem of securing slavery on its most exposed frontier. This left the other end of the northernmost South to flock to the nativist banner.

Flock Maryland, and John Clayton’s Delaware, did. By 1860, both had immigrants enough to outnumber their slaves. In Maryland, swelling numbers of immigrants almost matched shrinking numbers of slaves. William W. Freehling quotes the Baltimore Clipper:

Let all sectional disputes and all discussion of the slave question be laid aside. Our future should turn upon … whether natives or foreigners shall rule.

In Maryland and Delaware, white, native-born Americans could see an advantage in rolling back tides of immigration. They faced a real risk of losing control and thus had a real reason, on top of any abstract fears, to fight to keep what they saw as their birthright. Street gangs clashed in Baltimore almost daily. They had to do something and so elected a Know-Nothing mayor. The next year they took the Maryland legislature and elected its governor. Elsewhere, Know-Nothings soon took Delaware’s single seat in the House, six of Kentucky’s, three of Missouri’s, and even five of Tennessee’s.

Demographics certainly limited Know-Nothing appeal in the Lower South, but they might have a shot at Louisiana. Anti-Catholic credentials wouldn’t help much there, but anti-Irish credentials very well might. They would help themselves greatly if they could pick up Virginia, the perennial southern bellwether. A party that only functioned in the border states could not swing the South, but one competitive also in the Upper South and with a few outposts in the Cotton Kingdom very well could. Maybe the Know-Nothings did not need ironclad demographics on their side.

Building a National Party

John M. Clayton (Whig-turned-American-DE)

John M. Clayton (Whig-turned-American-DE)

The Know-Nothings had a real movement behind them. People genuinely feared Catholicism and Catholic immigrants. That mostly meant Irish immigrants, who greatly outnumbered the German immigrants arriving at the same time. The Germans also tended to disperse more broadly across the country, where the Irish concentrated in major cities along the East Coast. This made them obvious and threatening even beyond their numbers, as concentration naturally meant clannishness and naturally shaded into conspiracy to people with the right measure of nativist paranoia. This anti-immigrant fervor, very similar to and overlapping with antislavery fervor, invites speculation. Could the movement steal slavery’s spotlight? Could it fuel a new national party to replace the Whigs?

We know that it did not. Instead of Know-Nothings and their American Party, we got the Republican Party. But we can and should try to see things, as closely as we can, as they appeared to people of the time. They didn’t know how the decade would turn out. If Uncle Tom’s Cabin turned into a runaway bestseller, then the salacious anti-Catholic The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk still came in second. Like antislavery works, Maria educated its readers about the sexual excesses of its villains. If slavery turned the South into a giant brothel, then Catholicism did the same for every Catholic nation. Imperiled virgins and the lurid sexual depredations of slaveholder and priest alike gave concerned Americans plenty to read about. In an era of tremendous sexual repression, they also gave respectable Americans an excuse to do so and leave such works openly on their bookshelves. Prurience need not drive politics, but if the two coincided than few interested parties would object too loudly to that happy accident. Nativists could sell books. They even became a brief fad, with companies selling Know-Nothing branded tea, toothpicks, and candy.

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church's perceived attempt to "take over" American life

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church’s perceived attempt to “take over” American life

The nativists had successful propaganda and real fears that struck at the heart of a certain type of American. Could they also win elections? Nativists candidates already had done so from time to time. More could only follow. Know-Nothings elected the mayor of Philadelphia. They swept Massachusetts and came near to taking New York. Those wins did not a national party make, but they showed the great power of the nativist impulse. If they happened in the North, Pennsylvania rested right next to enslaved Maryland. An alliance of Lower North and New England nativists needed only to grow a southern wing to become a national party. The insular South would surely come around, deeply hostile to the arrival of alien people with strange folkways. If Yankees seemed alien to the point of hostility, then what did that say about Catholics?

Plenty of southern men found themselves shopping for a party in the early 1850s. In barely enslaved Delaware, senator John M. Clayton happily went about building a bridge to join northern and southern nativists. He took his last term in the Senate as a member of the American party, having started off as an anti-Jacksonite and later a Whig. Generally moderate, he saw in the movement a chance to bring back the good old days when slavery agitation remained on the margins of political life and the sections lived together. All the destructive passions animated by the slavery debate needed only be retargeted. The Americans, like the name said, would unite all Americans who deserved the title. Too often had Angl0-Americans allowed others to see naturalization and eventual citizenship as rights. By rallying the great majority of genuine, 100% native-born Anglo-American stock, which included plenty of southern men, the Know-Nothings could forge a new national party and restore sectional comity for good by putting the foreign-born and radical antislavery and proslavery men all in their proper, marginal, places.

Update: This post previously referred to the bestselling anti-Catholic work as Maria, Maria. The current version is the correct title.

A Visit from the Butcher of Bologna

Gaetano Bedini

Gaetano Bedini

To further reinforce the KnowNothings’ fears, the Catholic Church did have designs on the United States. Specifically, it wanted what every proselytizing religion wants of unbelievers: conversion. Conversion would naturally bring increased influence for Catholicism and the Catholic hierarchy, just as American Protestantism meant similar advantages for the Protestant clergy. Fairness demands we admit that the united Catholic hierarchy would probably use that power more effectively than diffuse and divided Protestantisms, but it seems unfair to blame Rome for divisions that the Protestants eagerly forged amongst themselves. Nativist fears received further stoking through the visit of the first Papal Nuncio to the United States, Gaetano Bedini.

For some time, the faithful disagreed as to who owned and controlled Catholic property. In Europe, no question existed. The Church, as a corporate entity, owned everything outright and often with extraordinary privileges beyond those of a normal landholder. On paper, the land belonged to the bishop and transferred with the office. In the United States, a corporate body also generally owned church property. That corporate body, however, took its governors from among the local faithful. Some Catholic Church property in America ran under European lines, with the bishop’s name on the deed. But American Catholics often didn’t care to join congregations dominated by Catholics of different ancestry. German Catholics, in particular, disliked the Irish and so often threw in together to buy a plot of land and build their own church. The local bishop, usually Irish, still assigned the priest. If these parishioner-owned parishes didn’t care for the appointment, they could refuse to pay said priest.

All of this sounds very arcane, but when the board of trustees and the bishop disagreed persistently those disputes landed in the courts. In March, 1854, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania overturned a lower court and awarded church property held by the trustees to the local bishop. When similar disputes erupted in upstate New York, the archbishop of New York had a bill put forward in the state legislature to assign all Catholic property to the bishops. That, of course, meant taking it from Americans to give it to agents of a corrupt, reactionary, despotic foreign power. If the state would seize land for Rome, where would it stop? The bill failed in 1852, but came back in 1853.

Into this fervor, which ran together with disputes over taxing Catholics to fund Protestant public schools while the Catholics had to pay for their own Catholic schools and the related dispute over whether Catholic children should participate in Protestant Bible readings if they went to the public schools, Pius IX sent his friend Gaetano Bedini. He would, Pius hoped, sort out the whole business over Church property and generally put American Catholicism’s house in order.

The Pope must have taken a lesson from the Franklin Pierce school of diplomatic appointments. Bedini, though his personal friend, came to America with a record as a dangerous reactionary. He served as military governor of Bologna and there put down a liberal revolution in 1849. He had never before operated in a nation with a Protestant majority. Bedini further lacked much in the way of the expected diplomatic tact. Though he arrived without incident, the Forty-Eighters knew how Bedini earned his bones and went to work agitating against the so-called “Butcher of Bologna”. They even had a priest from Bologna, who split with the Papacy over Italian unification, to tell Americans about the devil in their midst. Native-born Americans and immigrants alike soon met the Nuncio at each appearance, bringing violence in New York, Wheeling, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and Richmond. In Cincinnati, matters escalated to a full-blown riot.

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church's perceived attempt to "take over" American life

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church’s perceived attempt to “take over” American life

Bedini complicated matters by lingering, staying more than six months. He could not resolve the church property issue, but toured the country and generally hung around regardless. Even some Catholics thus suspected that he had secret orders from the Pope to do something aside from his official remit. Maybe Rome wanted him to work on Pierce until he consented to a permanent Catholic representative, at which point Bedini would take the job. Maybe he organized a secret Catholic political machine to dominate American politics. Maybe, given late tumult in Italy, he paved the way for the Pope’s relocation to the United States. Bedini did finally leave, incognito, in February 1854. By that point, his fellow churchmen feared for his life.

Bedini’s departure, to the sufficiently paranoid, meant only that this one mission failed. That he came at all proved that Rome had a subversive agenda for America. Godly Protestants had no choice but to put a stop to it. Fortunately, they had a new political party just for that. Just as the Slave Power seemed to have the free states under siege, so too did Rome seemed poised to invest American Protestantism.

Real Fears From Abroad

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church's perceived attempt to "take over" American life

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church’s perceived attempt to take over American life, via the Library of Congress

Protestant America, especially the sort with a Puritan pedigree, had a long folk memory of Catholic misdeeds. The fact that Protestants back in the Reformation behaved just as monstrously toward Catholics as Catholics did toward Protestants did not really enter into it. The Catholics, they believed, had it coming. Liberal-minded immigrants fleeing the reactionary crackdown in Europe could remind Americans of an older vintage of just that and supply new reasons that those awful thralls of Rome deserved steadfast opposition.

America, of course, already had native Catholics. But their small numbers, outside of certain locales, did little to draw Protestant fears. Louisiana stood no chance of somehow seizing control of national institutions for itself and the Pope. All of these new immigrants, however, could very well turn New York, or Massachusetts for that matter, Catholic. Would it stop there or would the whole nation soon bow, or be made to bow, to Rome?

The Know-Nothings’ fears had a great deal to do with simple bigotry, but they could point to more than phantoms to make their case. The Catholic church did, by and large, side with established reactionary regimes instead of liberal reformers over in Europe. Nor did anybody look to the Papal States, where the Pope ruled outright on all matters civil and spiritual, as a model of liberal principles. In countries where Catholicism predominated, both in Europe and the Americas, it did little to endear itself to unbelievers. Allen Nevins reports that in the Senate, Lewis Cass (D-MI) condemned the treatment of Protestants in Catholic countries, near and far. He highlighted two cases in particular:

Lewis Cass

Lewis Cass (D-MI)

An American woman died in Cuba, which had no place to bury her. Protestant bodies would not sully Catholic cemeteries. For her, the community offered only a hole in the ground where the mortal remains of Protestants heaped on top of each other like a human compost pile. Burying her elsewhere would earn the guilty parties a hefty fine. Taking her from the island required permission that rarely came and would itself involve a large fine.

In the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Catholic regime afflicted the living as well as the dead. The Madiais, a married couple, rotted in a Tuscan prison for the crime of owning a Protestant Bible. Archbishop Hughes, of New York, defended Tuscany to Cass. The Grand Duchy had laws against this sort of thing. It had an established religion and prohibited wooing its subjects away from that faith. He would not quite defend the arrest itself, but changed the subject to the burning of a convent in Massachusetts.

With oppression abroad, local churchmen making excuses for it, and the tide of new Catholic immigrants, a person of a certain bent could see the nation easily going the wrong way. Right here in the United States, Irish parades had turned into riots. The Irish, a nineteenth century American could say with confidence, just did that kind of thing. Drunken hoodlums to a man, they menaced the person and property of every godly Protestant American. Fools as well, one could depend on them to riot at the drop of a demagogue’s hat. Moreover, they came dirty and full of disease. This European detritus clogged up the prison and poorhouse alike. Did America really want still more? Even if, by some miracle, they did not imperil the Republic with their Catholic ways, they demonstrated again and again unfit for and unworthy of inclusion in the American body politic.

Of course, native-born Americans could also show strong clannish streaks. They rioted quite often, generally in the same cities where the Irish did. Their ancestors too came with strange ways and alien religions. Past generations had driven Quakers from New England and, a bit later, out of the South. More recently, they had driven the Mormons west with great enthusiasm. Plenty of Americans, right up until 1854, would gladly tell you that abolitionists had the same pedigree of dangerous religious fanaticism. Some still would. More than enough, including those tarred with the same brush in past generations, would eagerly deploy the same arguments all over again against immigrants from “the armpit of Europe”, from Asia, from Latin America, from Muslim countries, and from anywhere else. Some segment of the American population appears to hold it as an article of faith that people come to the United States only to recreate every horror they knew on foreign shores.

Understanding Anti-Catholic Nativism

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church's perceived attempt to "take over" American life

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church’s perceived attempt to take over American life, via the Library of Congress

Much of the Puritan crusade against Catholicism comes down to crude religious hatred and general xenophobia, with a healthy dose of partisanship on top. We can just write it off as a bigotry of the times and dismiss it, like we would the same sort of ideas today. That would probably suit our stomachs fairly well, and certainly flatter our self-image, but if we can try to understand the paranoia and outright terror that inspired slaveholders to the defense of their institution as making sense in a certain context then we can do the same for anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic hysteria.

Catholics, they imagined, engaged in all manner of political corruption, and sexual depravity on behalf of, and perhaps with direct instructions from, Rome. White Americans applied the same libels to black Americans, the corruption coming during Reconstruction, and the anti-black and anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant movements essentially merged in the decades around the turn of the twentieth century. Over in Europe, generations of anti-Semites applied the same libels to the Jews. At various times they also attached to European Catholics, to various dissenting religious movements, to people from the Mediterranean basin, linguistic minorities, and so forth. We have a real genius for finding ways to excuse mistreatment of one another.

Puritan-minded Protestant Americans, fixed on their vision of a lily-white empire for people with ancestors in the fashionable section of the British Isles, did not need to look far to come on these ideas. The Reformation and consequent religious wars, complete with both propaganda and genuine atrocities, loomed large in their minds. To some degree, the Roman Church represented the ultimate religious horror: an institution devoted to serving Christ but corrupted from within into a Satanic vessel. Even if Protestants behaved terribly toward one another, and they often did, they all had a folk memory of an opulent, corrupt, oppressive church in Rome with designs on them all. But if they needed a reminder to spur their anti-immigrant hysteria, they could get one from the immigrants.

Many of the wave of immigrants sweeping into America in the late 1840s and into the 1850s came as refugees from the European revolutions of 1848. Their Springtime of Nations failed, but they took their nineteenth century liberalism with them across the Atlantic to the one republic that seemed to run on something approaching liberal principles, the United States. The admiration did not go only one way across the ocean, of course. The abolitionists often understood themselves as members of a kind of transatlantic liberal movement that had much in common with efforts to abolish aristocracy and the like in Europe. When the foreign-born population swelled by 84% in the 1850s, it included plenty of European liberals fresh off the boat with new tales of reactionary Catholicism to remind antislavery men of their own religious history.

Lajos Kossuth, Hungarian revolutionary

Lajos Kossuth, Hungarian revolutionary

This all has a strong element of score-settling, of course. The revolutionaries lost their battles to reform Europe. Some of them quit the continent for good, but others intended to go back. Maybe they could go back with an army of Americans. Nineteenth century Americans, including far more conservative men than any abolitionist, adored the idea of teaching bad old Europe from which their ancestors fled how the world should really run. They would be the light of the world. If some American boys wanted to carry a gun alongside that light and go save Europe from itself, nineteenth century America could admire their patriotism and manly vigor.

This went beyond the streets and fringe. When Lajos Kossuth, Louis Kossuth to Anglophones, fled Hungary he found many admirers in the United States. Congress invited him to address a joint session, an honor previously given only to the Marquis de Lafayette. Millard Fillmore entertained Kossuth at the White House. He toured the nation, attending a meeting held in his honor by a failed politician named Abraham Lincoln among many others. Congress fell short of authorizing any kind of foreign adventures on Kossuth’s behalf, but filibusters courted him and he found welcome in the country until he got mixed up in a proposal to take over Haiti and recommended that German Americans vote for Pierce. Those efforts him a partisan and pushed him from the political mainstream.