Know-Nothing Bigot Who Won Big

Roundup
tags: election 2016, immigration, Trump



Gil Troy, a native New Yorker, is Professor of History at McGill University. His tenth book on American history, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, was just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press. Follow him on Twitter @GilTroy

Can you believe such a crude “know-nothing,” immigrant-bashing, trash-talking, fickle rich guy exploiting working man nativist white prejudices could advance so far politically? He was one of those partying brats with a strict father who turned serious after college, yet still struck many as a candidate “as ridiculous as satire could invent.” But immigration arrivals had quintupled in ten years. Crime and poverty relief budgets soared. The system was so broken down that, as one senator acknowledged, “The people were tired of the old parties and they have made a new channel.” So, this market-savvy businessman shrewdly shifted from peddling to politics—adjusting key positions to maximize popular disgust.

 Yes, in 1854, the once-wayward youth, Henry Gardner, stopped selling wool and started spinning political yarns, stoking the anti-establishment anger identified by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. On Election Day, Gardner won a HUUUGE victory in the Massachusetts gubernatorial race, attracting 63 percent of the vote along with the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s contempt. The “new legislature consisted of one Whig, one Democrat, one Republican,” the historian David Herbert Donald wrote “— and 377 Know-nothings.”

Surprisingly, the Know-Nothings saddled themselves with their unflattering name. This anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-liquor, protest party originated in organizations protecting Protestant prerogatives as Catholics streamed into the cities. This was the time of NINA—No Irish Need Apply. Harvard hosted annual Dudleian Lectures devoted to “detecting, convicting, and exposing the idolatry, errors and superstitions of the Romish Church.”

Groups like The Sons of Sires, The Druids, The Order of United Americans, came and went, while The Order of the Star Spangled Banner built a nationwide coalition into The American Party. Delighting in secret passwords and elaborate handshakes, members initially dismissed questions about their party—code named Sam—saying “I know nothing.”

Since 1846, more than 100,000 poor Irish Catholics had immigrated to Massachusetts alone. Worcester became 25 percent Irish.  Boston became majority Irish. And Henry Gardner’s promise to “Americanize America” became relevant. ...




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