Monty Python and the Holy Grail” features a “Witch Scene” where zealous medieval bigots haul a bound woman before an official, shouting: “We found a witch … a witch … burn her, burn her.” When an official asks how they know she is a witch, they say: “She looks like one! Burn her! Burn her!”
When the woman protests that she is not a witch, the official states: “But you are dressed as one.” The woman — ridiculously dressed in a black conical hat and sporting a long, fake rubber nose — protests that the mob dressed her. The leader of the mob begrudgingly admits that, yes, they did do the nose … and, well, the hat too. “But she’s still a witch.” More shouts: “Burn her! Burn her!”
I have been reading recently about history’s ill treatment of “outsiders,” and this classic comic scene reminded me about mob behavior toward immigrants in mid-19th century America, specifically the “Know-Nothing Movement.”
This group, officially called the “American Party,” was notorious for targeting outsiders, particularly Germans who migrated to the Midwest seeking refuge from the social and economic upheaval in Germany, and Irish immigrants in the East seeking refuge from the famine. In 1849, a group of native-born Protestants formed the secret “Order of the Star-Spangled Banner” in New York City and quickly set up shop in every major American city.
Members of this secret society
were instructed when asked about their organization to say they “knew nothing.” They were mostly working-class citizens and harbored a strong anti-elitist bent. Their platform sought to limit immigration in general and of Catholics in particular, fearing the influence of the pope in American politics.
In her article “The Know-Nothings: the United States’ First Anti-Immigration Party,” Amy Briggs states that “Nativists often played on stereotypes depicting Irish and Germans as immoral drunkards and often blamed them for social ills, such as rising crime and poverty rates. Tensions sometimes ignited violence …. In May and July 1844 anti-immigrant violence rocked the City of Brotherly Love … The first riot lasted four days during which two Catholic churches burned and at least 14 people died.”
Politically, the Know-Nothings achieved enormous success on the state and local levels in the late 1840s and early 1850s, even garnering 43 seats in the U.S. Congress in 1854.
An unforeseen by-product of their success was that the Know-Nothings were largely responsible for the dissolution of the once-prominent Whig Party. As the Whigs splintered over national issues like slavery, Briggs indicates, “Some former Whigs defected to the nativist Know-Nothings while others joined a new party, the antislavery Republicans.”
In 1855 the Know-Nothings’ “American Party” nominated former Whig President Millard Fillmore for the 1856 elections. But it did not go well, as Fillmore and the Know Nothings came in a distant third behind the Republicans and the victorious Democrats. Fillmore shuffled back home to Buffalo, and the Know Nothings, at least as an organized party, disappeared. Upheaval and realignment followed. Those for slavery joined with the Democrats. Those against slavery joined the Republicans.
Today, many former Republican icons like George Will, Bill Kristol, the late John McCain and Barbara Bush, and former House Majority Leader John Boehner, have declared that the Republican Party — the one given to lower taxes, smaller, limited government, distrust of dictators and balanced budgets — no longer exists.
If this is true, what follows? In Yeats’ words, “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Will it be the “Trumpism” that seems to have petrified most congressional Republicans? Or, will Trumpism go the way of the Whig Party and the Know-Nothings? If Trump follows Millard Fillmore’s script and shuffles off … to Mar-a-Lago, what becomes of Trump’s loyal enablers, who hitched their wagons to a moonbeam?
Republicans boast that they are the party of Abraham Lincoln. They should reflect on the words Lincoln wrote on Aug. 24, 1855, to Joshua F. Speed (quoted from Carl M. Cannon’s “Immigration and the Rise and Fall of the Know-Nothing Party”):
“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? … Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this, I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”
William Shaw, of Pinehurst, is the author of “Fellowship of Dust: Retracing the WWII Journey of Sergeant Frank Shaw.”