Les Mis, 1848, and the Know Nothings

Les Mis, 1848, and the Know Nothings

1848 was a year of uprisings throughout Europe. Different countries called them different things although the word ‘Spring’ was prominent, as in the ‘People’s Spring.’ They arose in widely diverse nations but shared many similarities. France, Ireland, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, parts of the German States, all experienced popular uprisings spearheaded by the middle and working classes demanding more participation in government, freedom of the press, and more.

These revolts shared another common denominator – with the possible exception of Denmark, they failed. Most were stomped out, viciously. Tens of thousands were killed.

One of the few positive things to come out of the Year of Revolution was Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. His depiction of the Barricades in Paris has stirred generations of readers and, recently, movie and playgoers. He wonderfully portrays the times, the paranoia, the conflict and its aftermath. To a point.

The true result of the conflicts of 1848 were that hundreds of thousands fled their countries. Maybe millions. Some, especially in Ireland and Italy, went to Australia (the Irish not by choice, it was considered a penal colony by the British at the time). Most, of course, came to the United States.

The United States was already experiencing a boom of immigration, the potato famine had hit Ireland and Germany earlier in the decade forcing hundreds of thousands to emigrate. People poured in from other nations as well, for a variety of reasons, the majority were Catholic.

There was, perhaps predictably, a backlash. An anti-Catholic backlash that began, again perhaps predictably, in New York City and spread rapidly. The Native American Party rose rapidly and its goals were pretty much adequately represented by its name: America for Americans born in America. Except, of course, Native Americans.

The Native American Party’s rise was fast, particularly in the Northeast. It was solidly Abolitionist, which is a good indication that it was, above all, economically motivated – middle and working class Americans feared losing jobs to immigrants, the South had no such fears for obvious reasons.

It started as a quasi ‘secret society.’ Members were told that, if asked about the movement, they were to reply, “I know nothing.” Then, as now, there’s no fun in belonging to a secret society unless people know you do, so that response was most likely given with a wink and a nod. It was certainly given often enough for the Party to acquire its nickname: The Know Nothings.

For a time, The Know Nothings were content to be the unseen force behind state and local politics, backing candidates who were either sympathetic to their causes or came to be sympathetic because they saw early which way the political winds were blowing.

What did the Know Nothings believe? That Catholicism was “the ally of tyranny, the opponent of material prosperity, the foe of thrift, the enemy of the railroad, the caucus, and the school.” They wanted immigration curtailed or stopped entirely – but only for immigrants who weren’t like the Know Nothings. In San Francisco in the early 1850’s this was expanded to include the Chinese.

They created, encouraged, expanded and distributed vast conspiracy theories, most revolving around the Pope and his plot to infiltrate and subjugate the United States by flooding it with his Catholic subjects, still under control of their local bishops under his direct orders.

There was violence, at voting polls, Catholic and immigrant centers, some random, some planned and carried out with chilling ruthlessness such as the burning of a convent and orphanage in Charleston, Massachusetts. Crowds were whipped into anti-immigrant frenzies and unleashed on communities without repercussion. Unlike Martin Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York where an attack by New York Nativists at Five Corners in Manhattan was met by an Irish gang, favorite targets were those who could not fight back.

The highwater mark of the Know Nothings was 1854, when it took 52 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives (22% at the time, not an inconsiderable minority), and 4 Senate seats (out of 66, imagine what would happen today if a third party controlled 4 seats in an otherwise virtually deadlocked Senate).

It fell apart quickly after that. Few people lost jobs to immigrants (or, at least, jobs they wanted); the Know Nothings were never more than a vocal look-at us minority and their lack of appeal to most led to denouncements by influential leaders and, worse of all, ridicule. Pope Pius IX never arrived to a coronation procession down Pennsylvania Avenue.

More important issues took precedence – the anti-slavery members of the Know Nothings left en masse to join the Republican Party.

One writer in the late 1850’s expounded on the Know Nothings:

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 equals, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to that I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

Abraham Lincoln wrote that to a close friend a few years before his nomination in 1860. It could serve as an epitaph for the Know Nothings, would that they stop cropping up throughout American history.

The last word should be left to John Peter Altgeld, governor of Illinois from 1893-1897, who faced his own revival of the Know Nothings. Judge, lawyer, partner of Clarence Darrow, he wrote:

The spirit which enacted the Alien and Sedition laws, the spirit which actuated the “Know-nothing” party, the spirit which is forever carping about the foreign-born citizen and trying to abridge his privileges, is too deeply seated in the party. The aristocratic and know-nothing principle has been circulating in its system so long that it will require more than one somersault to shake the poison out of its bones.

Governor Altgeld was born in Germany … in 1847.

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