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.
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.