Know-Nothings incited fear of Catholics

Friday, May 19, 2017 - Updated: 8:00 am

QUESTION: Is it true that in the United States a major political party nominated a person for president of the United States on a platform of anti-Catholicism?

ANSWER: Yes, and that political party was called the Know-Nothing Party (named for the answer one received when asking questions about its activities). An excellent study of this group is a book by Ray Allen Billington. The author details the growth of the party from its origins in prejudice toward immigrants and especially Catholics. Such feelings began to appear much more vocally in the early 1820s as Irish immigration began to increase in major cities.

Street preachers appeared with strong messages inspiring fear of the immigrant and Catholics. Incidentally, Pittsburgh was no exception. One such preacher, named Joseph Barker, was arrested and jailed for his inflammatory preaching. His popular support was so strong, however, that he was elected mayor of the city while in jail. In Pittsburgh, churches and Catholic property were attacked by mobs of angry citizens. Interestingly, churches built during that period can be distinguished by high and narrow windows to lessen the danger from flaming projectiles.

The Know-Nothings counted among their strongest supporters Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph. Some of the country’s most influential newspapers ran outlandish stories and cartoons against immigrants and Catholics. Novels began to appear detailing the “escapes” of nuns from convents where they were supposedly imprisoned and cruelly mistreated.

The preaching and media attention built upon prejudice, and focused it toward violent acts. A mob burned a convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1834, and this marked the beginning of personal attacks on Catholics, especially priests and religious. Attacks on Catholic buildings were widespread in some places.

This anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant movement entered politics as early as 1840 in municipal and state elections. In 1854, candidates of the Know-Nothing Party won the governorships of the states of Massachusetts and Delaware and the state legislatures in several New England states, as well as Maryland, Kentucky and California. They also obtained five seats in the Senate and 43 in the House of Representatives.

In 1856, the party nominated Millard Fillmore as its candidate for the presidency (Fillmore was also the Whig candidate). Part of the national platform included intentions to “place in offices of honor, trust or profit ... none other than native-born Protestant citizens” and to oppose all “foreign influence, Popery, Jesuitism and Catholicism.”

In the national election, the Know-Nothings received 25 percent of the popular vote but the electoral votes of only one state (Maryland). Following the election, however, the strength of the Know-Nothings greatly diminished.

The Know-Nothing Party is an interesting chapter in the history of our nation. But it is also a reminder to people of every generation of how fear of others can lead to prejudice, which in turn can evolve into personal violence and destruction of the values upon which this nation was built. Clearly there is a responsibility to protect our nation and its citizens. But the exercise of that responsibility must be balanced by the enduring American values that also protect individuals and communities from the irrational fear of people who are different.


Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.

Bishop Zubik's Columns

Current Magazine

Click here to see, download more issues

Current Magazine
Current Magazine

Click here to see, download more issues

Most Popular