Democratic Orators

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXIV (4) start of chapter

Happily for the cause of truth and common sense, there were in those days men bold enough to lash hypocrisy and humbug. Henry A. Wise, of Virginia, was one of those bold defenders of the truth, and unmaskers of fraud. His speeches, when canvassing his State on the Democratic ticket for the office of Governor, which he won gallantly, are full of the most stinging rebukes of his opponents, whom he defeated in argument as well as in votes. In his remarkable speech at Alexandria, he thus hit off the religious pretensions of many of this class of Know Nothings, who affected a new-born interest in the Bible:—

They not only appeal to the religious element, but they raise a cry about the Pope. These men, many of whom are neither Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists, Lutherans, or what not—who are men of no religion, who have no church, who do not say their prayers, who do not read their Bible, who live God-defying lives every day of their existence, are now seen with faces as long as their dark-lanterns, with the whites of their eyes turned up in holy fear lest the Bible should be shut up by the Pope! Men who were never known before, on the face of God's earth, to show any interest in religion, to take any part with Christ or His Kingdom, who were the devil's own, belonging to the devil's church, are, all of a sudden, deeply interested for the word of God and against the Pope! It would be well for them that they joined a church which does believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost.

As a further specimen of the manner of this famous Democrat, another passage may be quoted from the same speech. He now desires to show the religion of the party, as defined by their Constitution, according to which one of the qualifications of membership is mere belief in the existence of 'a Supreme Being':—

No Christ acknowledged! No Saviour of mankind! No Holy Ghost! No heavenly Dove of Grace! Go, go, you Know Nothings, to the city of Baltimore, and in a certain street there you will see two churches: one is inscribed, 'O Monos Theos'—'to the one God;' on the other is the inscription, 'As for us, we preach Christ crucified —to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks foolishness.' The one inscribed, 'O Monos Theos' is the Unitarian church; the other, inscribed, 'We preach Christ crucified' is the Catholic church! Is it—I ask of Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, and Baptists—is it, I ask, for any orthodox Trinitarian Christian Church to join an association that is inscribed, like the Unitarian church at Baltimore, 'O Monos Theos'—to the one God? Is it for them to join or countenance an association that so lays its religion as to catch men like Theodore Parker and James Freeman Clarke? I put it to all the religious societies—to the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, the Methodists, and the Baptists—whether they mean to renounce the divinity of Christ and the operation of the Holy Spirit, when they give countenance to this secret society, which is inscribed, 'to the one God?'

A rebuke, milder in tone, and beautiful as a picture, may be taken from a speech delivered at Richmond by Senator R. M. T. Hunter during the Know Nothing campaign:—

But, fellow-citizens, I went a little too far when I said it was proposed to proscribe Catholics for all offices in this country. There are some offices which the sons and daughters of that Church are still considered competent to discharge. I mean the offices of Christian charity, of ministration to the sick. The Sister of Charity may enter yonder pest-house, from whose dread portals the bravest and strongest man quails and shrinks; she may breathe there the breath of the pestilence that walks abroad in that mansion of misery, in order to minister to disease where it is most loathsome, and to relieve suffering where it is most helpless. There, too, the tones of her voice may be heard mingling with the last accents of human despair, to soothe the fainting soul, as she points through the gloom of the dark valley of the shadow of death to the Cross of Christ, which stands transfigured in celestial light, to bridge the way from earth to heaven. And when cholera or yellow fever invades your cities, the Catholic Priest may refuse to take refuge in flight, holding the place of the true Soldier of the Cross to be by the sick man's bed, even though death pervades the air, because he may there tender the ministrations of his holy office to those who need them most.

It is impossible to describe the frenzy that seemed to possess a certain portion of the American people, whose strongest passions and most cherished prejudices were stimulated by appeals from the press and the platform, the pulpit and the street tub. It seized on communities and individuals as a species of uncontrollable insanity. Bitten by the madness of the moment, acquaintance turned savagely on acquaintance, friend upon friend, even relative upon relative. The kindly feelings which it took years to cement were rudely torn asunder and trampled under foot. The Irish Catholic was the chief object of attack. He was guilty of the double crime of being an Irishman and a Catholic; and, to do him justice, he was as ready to proclaim his faith as to boast of his nativity. His enemies were many, his friends few, his defenders less. Poor Pat had indeed a sad time of it.

That the religious feeling added bitterness to the national prejudice was made manifest by the unreasoning fury of those who combined both antipathies in their hostility. Either, however, was quite sufficient to swell the outcry and deepen the hatred against its unoffending objects. Thus the religious prejudice was so bitter, and so violent, that it prevailed against identity of nationality; and the national prejudice was so envenomed that religious sympathy could scarcely restrain its exhibition, and could not prevent its existence. It is not to be wondered at that the genuine Irish Orangeman sided with the persecutors of his Catholic countrymen; and his conduct on many occasions was a sufficient evidence of his unnatural ferocity. Many Irish Protestants, not Orangemen, gave countenance to the Know Nothings, though, according to the Know Nothing code, none but native-born Protestants were held to be eligible for any office or position in the gift of the people, whether by election or appointment. The shabby conduct of this class of Irishmen was the result either of sectarian hate, or a sense of their own helplessness. They were willing to persecute, or they hoped to propitiate; therefore, they too joined in the crusade against their countrymen in a foreign land. But there were many, many glorious exceptions to this unworthy conduct. Irish Protestants—men of strong religious opinions, who opposed Catholicity on principle—boldly took their stand by the oppressed, and resented the policy of the Know Nothing party, as if it were directed exclusively against themselves. Sympathising with their Catholic fellow-countrymen, they met the assailants gallantly, and rebuked their insane folly with the courage and the sense of men. And to Irishmen who thus acted Catholics felt bound by the strongest ties of gratitude and respect. It was a time to test the true merit of the man, and those who stood it triumphantly were deservedly honoured.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

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