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The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America

January 13, 2012   View Discussion

The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America

Patrick Young, Esq.

by Patrick Young, Esq. - Blogger

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More than a decade of Know Nothing violence and propaganda had a dramatic impact on the immigrant communities  that were attacked by the nativists in the 1840s and 1850s.

To understand the trauma, imagine yourself a young Irish immigrant. You have fled the Famine in your homeland after watching family members starve to death. You arrive in the land of freedom only to see the newspapers brand you a criminal and to watch preachers lead upstanding native-born men through hate-filled prayers against your people in the streets of the ghetto you are forced to live in. You read about church burnings and hear stories of men and women who were beaten by roving mobs on “Paddy hunts.” Your religion is openly denounced in your child’s public school and she is taught that the path to salvation is cut off to her because of her papist idolatry.

You have the choice of hiding your identity and trying to pass yourself off as someone you are not, or walling yourself off from the danger and discrimination of nativist America and seeking shelter in the solidarity of the emerging Irish-American subculture.

Your choices are limited by who you are.

To understand why vulnerable immigrant communities had such a limited scope of self-determination, we should look at the three ways that New York’s Irish Catholic bishop John Hughes tried to address religious intolerance in public schools, where nativists were attempting to convert immigrant children to Protestantism. The center of this controversy involved the use of the Protestant Bible and Protestant texts in public school classrooms.1

First, Bishop Hughes tried a tolerant multicultural approach. He suggested that Protestant children read from Protestant books and Catholic students read from Catholic books. This proposal only increased anti-immigrant sentiment because nativists accused him of trying to have the schools teach Catholicism at taxpayer expense.

Next, the bishop sought a secularist solution, saying that religion should not be taught in the public schools at all. This led to the nativists accusing him of trying to drive Jesus out of the academy.

That pushed the bishop toward a separatist solution. He established a separate parochial school system where Catholic children would be educated completely apart from non-Catholics. Long after the Know Nothings collapsed as a political movement, many Catholics would be educated within their own system of elementary schools, high schools, colleges, law schools, and medical schools.

Tactically, Bishop Hughes used public forums, debates with nativists, and the news media to try to convince native-born Americans of the justice of his positions. When these failed, he used threats and bare-knuckled politics to try to preserve a space for Irish children in the public schools, but ultimately he was defeated.

A week of anti-immigrant rioting in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia culminated in the burning of St. Michael’s Catholic Church in 1844.

In addition to their influence over religious practice, the Know Nothings impacted immigrant political behavior profoundly, as well. Before the 1840s, immigrants split their votes among the different parties. When the Know Nothing terror began, immigrants began to vote solidly Democratic. The Democrats favored the immigrant and were rewarded with his vote.

Know Nothing political violence took scores, and even hundreds, of lives, and you can hear how the violence traumatically effected the civic outlook of immigrants in this recollection written by a German survivor of the 1855 Bloody Monday riots in Louisville, Kentucky:

If one can designate the years from 1849 to 1855 as the period of Storm and Stress for Germans, one also may similarly designate the time after the previously mentioned Know Nothings’ atrocities until the outbreak of the Civil War as the time of Weariness and Lethargy. And this Weariness and Lethargy was even so great, if yet not greater than the spirit of Effort and Excitement that had previously existed. In fact a general apathy and despondency seized the Germans. For years they took part in neither local nor state elections, indeed left the political field totally to the Know Nothings, to the sorrow of a large number of native-born Americans antagonistic to this proscriptive party… [T]hey scarcely still dared to visit the public beer gardens on Sunday afternoon, out of fear of a confrontation with the bullies, who were brought in by the Know-Nothings on the bloody election day…2

Since the same Protestant ministers who were associated with Know Nothingism were also abolitionists, many immigrants became mistrustful of the anti-slavery movement. Even the liberal German refugees from the 1848 revolutions were so alienated from the abolitionist “Puritans” that they refused to join forces with native-born abolitionists, forming instead their own separate anti-slavery organizations.

By the time of the Civil War, virtually all Catholic immigrants and many non-English speaking Protestant and Free Thinking immigrants felt that they had been rejected by a broad swath of the American people. They realized that advancement could not come through individual action since many Americans believed that immigrants could not be trusted as legislators, judges, or even dog catchers. Only ethnic solidarity could allow immigrants to advance, many newcomers came to believe.

The suspicion by immigrants that many of their “fellow Americans” harbored nativist prejudices would color the way immigrants reacted to the events of the coming Civil War. The discharge or failure to promote an immigrant officer might be due to the officer’s performance, or it might be that his superior was a secret Know Nothing. If a commander was removed for what was perceived as anti-German or anti-Irish bigotry, immigrant communities would rally around the officer, even if he was incompetent. The fact that Secretary of War Simon Cameron was himself a former Know Nothing did not quiet their fears.

The military, political, and racial behaviors and attitudes of America’s immigrants during the Civil War can only be understood against the background of discrimination, hatred, and violence they had suffered during the preceding two decades.

The Know Nothing factor would play a disastrous role in the development of Irish immigrant attitudes towards African Americans.


1. The Protestant Crusade; 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism  by Ray Allen Billington, Quadrangle Books (1938); Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s by Tyler Anbinder, Oxford University Press (1992)

2. Statement of Ludwig Stierlin about the effect of Bloody Monday on the Germans in Louisville in the 1850s. Translated by Joe Reinhart.

The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that will examine the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear monthly between 2011 and 2015, the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War. Here are the articles we have published so far:

1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War - Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.

2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America - Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.

3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist- A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. ...And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?- The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.

40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did new Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.

50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

53. Union Defeat and an Irish Medal of Honor at the End of the Seven Days

54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.

55. Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery

56. Carl Schurz: From Civilian to General in One Day

57. Did Anti-German Bigotry Help Cause Second Bull Run Defeat?

58. Immigrant Soldiers Chasing Lee Into Maryland

59. Scottish Highlanders Battle at South Mountain

60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”- A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

61. The Irish Brigade at Antietam

62. Private Peter Welsh Joins the Irish Brigade

63. Preliminaries to Emancipation: Race, the Irish, and Lincoln

64. The Politics of Emancipation: Lincoln Suffers Defeat

65. The Irish Brigade and Virginia’s Civilians Black and White


Painting of the Return of the 69th from Bull Run Unearthed

Blog Posts

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Book Reviews

The Harp and the Eagle: Irish American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861 to 1865 by Susannah Ural Bruce

Jews and the Civil War: A Reader Edited by Jonathan Sarna and Adam Mendelsohn

Civil War Citizens edited by Susannah Ural Bruce

Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home edited by Walter Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich

A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War By Amanda Foreman

Irish Green and Union Blue by Peter Welsh

Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites

Fort Schuyler- Picnic where the Irish Brigade trained





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