The Know Nothing Movement

John Francis Maguire

The Know Nothing Movement—Jealousy of the Foreigner—Know Nothings indifferent to Religion—Democratic Orators—Even at the Altar and in the Pulpit—Almost Incredible—The Infernal Miscreant—A Strange Confession

THE KNOW NOTHING movement of 1854 and 1855 troubled the peace of Catholics, and filled the hearts of foreign-born American citizens with sorrow and indignation. They were made the victims of rampant bigotry and furious political partisanship. There was nothing new in this Know Nothingism. It was as old as the time of the Revolution, being Native Americanism under another name. Its animating spirit was hostility to the stranger—insane jealousy of the foreigner. It manifested itself in the Convention which formed the Constitution of the United States, though the right to frame that Constitution had been largely gained through the valour of adopted citizens, born in foreign countries, and through the aid and assistance of a foreign nation. It manifested itself in the year 1796, in laws passed during the Administration of President Adams, a narrow-minded man, much prejudiced against foreigners. The Alien Act, which was one of the most striking results of the illiberal spirit of that day, provided—'That the President of the United States shall be, and is hereby authorised, in any event aforesaid, by his proclamation thereof, or other public act, to direct the conduct to be observed, on the part of the United States, towards aliens .... the manner and degree of the restraint to which they shall be subjected, and in what cases and upon what security their residence shall be permitted, and to provide for the removal of those who, not being permitted to reside in the United States, shall refuse or neglect to depart therefrom.' Here was a despotism marvellously inconsistent with the object and purpose of the struggle which secured freedom and independence to the revolted colonies of England! Here also was folly bordering upon madness, in discouraging that great external resource, through which alone the enormous territory even then comprehended within the limits of the Union could be populated and civilised—namely, the foreign element—those impelled, through various causes and motives, to cross the ocean, and make their home in America.

Remembering the history of the last fifty years, during which thousands, hundreds of thousands, nay millions of the population of Europe have been spreading themselves over the vast American continent, building up its cities, penetrating and subduing its forests, reclaiming its wastes, constructing its great works, developing its resources, multiplying its population—in a word, making America what she is at this day—one does not know whether to laugh at the absurdity of those who imagined that, without injury to the future of the States, they might bar their ports to emigrants from foreign countries; or doubt the sanity of those who could deliberately proclaim, as the Hartford Convention of 1812 did—'That the stock of population already in these States is amply sufficient to render this nation in due time sufficiently great and powerful, is not a controvertible question.'(44) Certainly not controvertible to vanity and folly, which were stimulated by absurd jealousy and causeless apprehension. The generous men who assembled at Hartford were willing to ' offer the rights of hospitality ' to the strangers, under such conditions as those imposed in the Alien Act; but they took care to restrict their munificence to such fair limits as would secure all the honours and emoluments to themselves. Thus: 'No person who shall hereafter be naturalised shall be eligible as a member of the Senate or House of Representatives of the United States, nor capable of holding any office under the authority of the United States.' The Alien and Sedition laws, passed in the Administration of Adams, were repealed, fourteen years afterwards, by the Jefferson Administration. These laws were repugnant to the spirit of the American Constitution; and in opposing such laws, and confronting the narrow and ungrateful policy in which they originated, Jefferson and Maddison were simply treading in the broad footprints of the illustrious Washington.

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:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America