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Progressive nativism: The know-nothing party in Massachusetts


Historical Journal of Massachusetts,  Summer 2000  


Steven Taylor

The mid-19th century success of the Know-Nothing Party was not merely the result of ethnocentric bigotry and religious intolerance, but also of a clash of political cultures. The Know-Nothing Party, whose official name was the "American Party," is widely known for its strident antiCatholicism and for its anti-immigrant positions. What is lesser known about the American Party is that in some of the northern states the Party was quite progressive on other issues.

In no state did the American party reap as much success as in Massachusetts. In 1854 the Party captured the governor's office, the entire state senate, and virtually the entire state house of representatives. The American Party also took over the City of Boston and other municipalities in the Bay State. Once in office, the Party not only passed legislation that reflected the anti-immigrant positions of the national Know-Nothing movement, but the party also distinguished itself by its opposition to slavery, support for an expansion of the rights of women, regulation of industry, and support of measures designed to improve the status of working people. These progressive measures appear to be inconsistent with the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic stance of the American Party. This article takes a look at the origins and the background of the Massachusetts Know-Nothing movement and the reason for what might appear to be stark contradictions.

The American Party had its origins in a nativist organization called the "Order of the Star Spangled Banner." The Order was a secret society with lodges throughout the United States. Members of the Order took an oath that they would not reveal information about the membership of the Order. When asked, they were to deny any knowledge, hence the sobriquet the "Know-Nothing Party" was given to the American Party. The Party's candidates for office were required to be members of a local lodge. One of the major purposes of the Order of the Star Spangled Banner was to preserve what the members believed to be American culture, which they felt was endangered by Catholic immigrants, particularly those from Ireland. The state of Massachusetts, which had the highest percentage of Irish immigrants, was a stronghold of the American Party. When the Party came to power in Massachusetts in 1855, the state legislature (known as the "General Court") and the governor, Robert Gardner, acted on the Order's nativist agenda.

Upon taking control of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the American Party proposed and passed legislation aimed at restricting the strength of the growing Irish community in Boston. The most drastic measure proposed was a constitutional amendment requiring that immigrants wait 21 years after naturalization before they could become voting citizens of the Commonwealth. Another proposed bill would require that they wait an additional two years before they could hold public office in Massachusetts. The 21-year amendment did not receive the necessary two-thirds vote required for adoption. Nevertheless, the General Court passed a resolution calling on the federal government to extend the residency period to 21 years before an immigrant could vote in federal elections. The Know-Nothing General Court also proposed a legislative redistricting that would reduce the number of seats in predominantly immigrant Boston. This benefited the rural areas, which were predominantly populated by "Yankee" descendants of English settlers.'

While working to curb the voting power of immigrants, the KnowNothing General Court passed measures aimed at limiting the influence of the Catholic Church. One of the most infamous acts passed was the establishment of a "Nunnery Committee" to investigate convents in Massachusetts.2 In addition, the legislature also passed a bill requiring a daily reading of the Protestant King James Version of the Bible in public schools, voted to ban aid to sectarian schools, and they voted to expunge a Latin inscription from above the desk of the Speaker of the state House of Representatives.3 The legislature also passed an amendment barring from office any person who owed allegiance to a "foreign prince, power, or potentate." This was aimed at Catholics, whom the legislators believed were loyal to the Pontiff in Rome. Like the 21 -year amendment, this did not receive the two-thirds vote necessary for a constitutional amendment.

Nativist measures such as those listed above were proposed and/or passed in other states where the American Party had legislative strength. Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, and New Hampshire enacted laws restricting naturalization, while Connecticut and Massachusetts passed legislation requiring English literacy tests for those who wished to vote. Connecticut also passed a property law mandating that a lay board of trustees hold the title to church real estate.

Also passed in both Massachusetts and Connecticut were acts dissolving Irish-American militia units that had previously been certified by the two states. Nativists had fears of an armed Irish populace. In Massachusetts nativists were particularly angry with Irish militia units after one such unit, the Columbian Artillery, stood guard to prevent a captured slave from escaping.5 Though the nativists demonstrated a great deal of intolerance toward immigrants, the American Party in Massachusetts and other Northern states was in the forefront of the political struggle against the expansion of slavery. The Party in Massachusetts went on record as opposing the Fugitive Slave Law, which mandated that free states return slaves to their Southern owners. Massachusetts Know-Nothings also favored a reinstitution of the Missouri Compromise, which prevented the extension of slavery into newly acquired territories. The Compromise was disbanded when Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, an act strongly opposed by Massachusetts Know-Nothings.

When the American Party took over the General Court, the legislators passed a resolution declaring that the Fugitive Slave Act was a violation of the 10th Amendment. The resolution stated that the Act violated "The Dictates of the Christian Religion" and the "higher law of God." This resolution was followed by passage of the "Personal Liberty Law" which, in effect, mandated that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts ignore the Fugitive Slave Law. The Personal Liberty Law (1) forbade authorities from detaining runaways without the right of habeas corpus, (2) required that each detainee receive a jury trial, (3) prohibited state courts from participating in fugitive slave cases, (4) forbade state jails from housing escaped slaves, (5) barred all Massachusetts officials from participating in fugitive slave cases, (6) disqualified from state office any federal official who certified the return of a fugitive slave, and (7) banned from state courts any lawyer who represented a claimant in a fugitive slave case.6 This act was passed over the veto of Governor Gardner.

The Know-Nothing General Court also passed a resolution urging Congress to repeal the Fugitive Slave Law, condemned violence in Kansas committed by pro-slavery settlers, and pledged the support of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in protecting anti-slavery settlers in Kansas.7 The legislature further demonstrated its racial progressiveness (for that time) by outlawing racial segregation in Massachusetts schools. They went on to return to the U.S. Senate Charles Summer, who had represented African-American plaintiffs in the battle to desegregate the schools. In neighboring New York State, the Know-Nothings in the legislature sent anti-slavery statesman William Seward to the U.S. Senate, and in Connecticut the Know-Nothings sent anti-slavery lawyer James Dixon to the U.S. Senate.8

Other northern states' American Parties demonstrated their opposition to slavery. At the Party's 1855 convention in Philadelphia, the delegates from Massachusetts and the other New England states, as well as those from Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin walked out over the national Party's refusal to condemn slavery. This split between Southern and Northern Know-Nothings would lead to the demise of the American Party after the 1856 election.



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved