Americans Shall Rule America! The Know-Nothing Party in Cumberland County

In 1854 Americans took a detour from the road to civil war. It was the year of the Kansas-Nebraska act, which allowed slavery to spread into the formerly free Kansas territory. This act, the warfare between pro- and anti-slavery settlers in Kansas that followed, and the rise of the free soil Republican party, so inflamed hostile feelings between North and South that the firing on Fort Sumter took place less than seven years later. But 1854 was also the year that a new movement boiled up out of New York and Philadelphia to spill out across the entire country, a movement dedicated to suppressing the political power of immigrants in general, and Catholic immigrants in particular. This movement, whose supporters were known derisively as "Know Nothings", came to Cumberland County and shaped its politics for more than two years. This was the time, "when the Know Nothing furor swept over the land-when former majorities, political status, personal fitness and all similar considerations were tumbled into the common whirlpool of temporary political disintegration."1

Americans had had a long tradition of suspicion and fear of Roman Catholicism, and added to this a dislike for immigrants when Catholic Irish and Germans flooded from Europe into the northeastern coastal cities of the United States during the 1840s and 1850s. Urban immigration brought with it drunkeness, crime, poverty, and competition for jobs. Worst of all (for supporters of the Whig party), they voted overwhelmingly for Democrats. In response to these problems, the Native Party had formed in the mid-1840s and captured some seats in Congress, but it failed to gain widespread support before 1852. However, opposition to Catholicism sharpened in 1852 and 1853 with controversies over control of Catholic church land, the reading of (Protestant) Bibles in school, and public funding of Catholic parochial schools.2 There was also a growing sense of impatience with professional politicans unresponsive to the popular will, a will that more and more embraced nativism and anti-Catholicism among native-born Protestants.3

The Know Nothing movement began in 1850 as the secret Order of the Star-Spangled Banner in New York. Members of the Order recognized each other by handshakes, signs and passwords, and were forbidden to reveal anything about the Order's name, membership or goals to anyone not a member. When asked, a member should reply, "I know nothing." The Order did not originally act as an independent party, but exerted its influence to support Democrats, Whigs or "independent" candidates favoring the Order's goals. These goals included requiring a twenty-one year residence by immigrants before they might qualify for citizenship, and restricting political office to native-born, Protestant Americans. In other words, Americans should rule America.4 When Know Nothings did organize a political party, they called it the "American” party.

The American party attracted the loyalties of many Cumberland County voters between 1854 and 1856. But it is hard to see why it did so. Although a Catholic community had existed in Carlisle, at least, since the late eighteenth century, its size was small. The local Whig newspapers, and certainly the Democratic, had not shown any hostility toward Catholics or immigrants in the years before 1854, as they did toward black residents. The Carlisle Herald, Carlisle's Whig paper, had even criticized the Kansas-Nebraska bill for excluding foreigners about to be citizens, such as "thrifty" Germans, from voting and holding office in the territories.5 Nor did nativism interest the voters. Although the Native party had had some success in Philadelphia, the best showing it could make in Cumberland County was 148 votes out of about 4600 cast for its 1845 statewide canal commissioner candidate. The same candidate got only 22 votes here the following year.6

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