|Unit History Project|
The Thorny Rose: The
Americanization of an Urban, Immigrant, Working Class
Regiment in the Civil War. A Social History of the 39th New
York Volunteer Infantry
I had heard about America. Its rich soil and industrial advancement right now offered a home, a means of livelihood, and an independent life for thousands of Europeans who in one way or another had found their hopes dashed in their homelands. Labour, no matter in what sphere, if only honest was no disgrace. There, every faithful worker had in his civic reputation his certificate of nobility. Conventional prejudices, class interests, petty public opinion and the harlequin wraiths of changing fashions did not cling to one's coattails or dog one's heels,
I am the immigrant, clutching the hope I seek, and finding the same old stupid plan of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
And, so, they came. Hundreds of thousands of the economically marginal, the politically alienated, the religiously persecuted, the land- starved, poured forth from the overburdened European shores toward the enigmatic promise of refuge that was mid-nineteenth century America. They came from a Europe plagued by crop failures, increasing populations, diminishing farm size and productivity in the countryside, (3) and "shrinking incomes, deteriorating working conditions, mass unemployment, and the specter of pauperism and proletarianization" (4) in the cities. Many came seeking religious freedom from the established churches of the Continent. Among these were Swedes, Dutch, Jews, and Prussians of the Old Lutheran denomination. (5)
Dramatic changes in European demography pushed farmers off the farms into the cities, where rapid industrialization already imperiled artisans and craftsmen, forcing them to become wage workers to meet the spiralling labor needs of the burgeoning factory system. When faced with the wretched working conditions, lengthening work days, decreasing pay scales and high food taxes of the cities, many of these countrypeople chose instead to try their luck with America's rural frontier. (6)
To be sure, oppressive economic conditions in the Old World were sufficient to send its daughters and sons packing, but only a vision of justice, liberty and prosperity portrayed in theatric proportions could have made them brave the horrors of middle passage to cross the Atlantic to America. Alluring, and more often than not exaggerated, tales of economic opportunity came to prospective emigrants by word of mouth, newspaper stories, immigration societies and especially the indomitable "America letters" written by those who had tasted the fruits of the American horn of plenty (or at least seen them from afar) and wished to encourage relatives and former neighbors to join them. (7) Much less scrupulous were the efforts of factory contractors to recruit a massive emigrant work force for the New World from the reserve army of marginalized laborers in the Old. The American labor newspaper The Harbinger, observed in early 1846, "There are persons who are constantly watching for German emigrants who can work at cabinet making even going on board the ships before the emigrants have landed, and engage them for a year at $20 or $30 and their board or the best terms they can make." (8)
More than one and a half million immigrants came to America between 1840 and 1850 with more than two and a half million entering in the next decade. By 1860,47.62% of the population of New York City, 49.9% of Chicago, 49.99% of Pittsburgh and 59.66% of St. Louis were foreign born. (9) Native American urban workers in these great industrial centers and in the smaller factory towns, faced with the same industrial expansion and economic exploitation as their European class counterparts, viewed the massive invasion of immigrants with fear and resentment as they watched the disintegration of already deficient wage scales. Immigrants were willing to work "for fourteen and sixteen hours per day for what capital sees fit to give [them]." (10) This antipathy toward the new arrivals made laboring people and those of the middling classes, who were fearful of being thrown into the ranks of the unemployed by foreign competition, a ripe constituency for the propaganda of the nativist movement that was gaining strength in the 1850's. Ironically, period commentators used the theme of class antagonism to further augment this ethnic/class division:
It is no secret that foreign workers have become an article of importation, professedly to provide for deficiency in the labor market but in reality to obtain efficient workers at low wages. The protective tariff and unrestricted immigration is the invariable policy of master coal miners, master non-workers, master machinists, master woolen and cotton manufacturers. (11)
Many small manufacturing firms were either forced to lower their wages or forced out of business by the competition of newer factories that employed both skilled and unskilled immigrants. (12) As has been too often the case, instead of turning their wrath upon their capitalist masters with their definitive lust for the profits of cheap production, many American-born workers rained their hostility instead upon the heads of their foreign-born class brothers. In New York City on Washington's Birthday, 1850, Alfred B. Ely of the Order of United Americans, a Nativist society, addressed a sympathetic working class audience:
The American laborer requires something more than barely food and clothing. He believes that 'man shall not live by bread alone'. He is an intelligent citizen, and feels that his rate of wages should in some sense be proportioned to his intelligence and refinement; that the item of brains should be somewhat considered; and the man valued according to his true manhood, and not according to his mere physical force. But, driven out by the underbidding of the foreigner, he must seek some other employment than that to which he has been accustomed or else be compelled, for the sake of bread to degrade and brutalize himself in his own eyes forever.(13)
Ely's speech was presented at the Broadway Tabernacle, a structure built by the Tappan brothers, anti-slavery crusaders who financed it to provide a forum for abolitionism and other progressive reforms. (14) That to some abolitionists, nativism was a progressive reform is an interesting paradox. In the South, the large influx of Irishmen after the 1840's famine produced a class of laborers occupationally inferior even to black slaves. In industry and especially on the docks, Irishmen were used for the most dangerous jobs so that valuable slaves would not be endangered. Irish laborers were a despised class. One slaveholder wrote: "The mistake with us has been that it was not made a felony to bring in an Irishman when it was made piracy to bring in an African." (15) Yet to many anti-slavery, reform minded New Englanders, it was no contradiction to hold class/ethnic bias against the Irish while polemicizing for the dignity of African -American slaves. In Boston, Irish laborers and "proper gentlemen" rode to work on separate but parallel cars. Charles Francis Adams Jr. later recalled that as a boy, he was very fearful lest his father make him go to school with the Irish laborers' children. Many who had been schoolboys in the pre-War days later remembered quite well the battles and snowball fights on Boston Common between the "better sort" and the ragamuffin offspring of the "Paddies." One generation implanted in the next the "irreconciliable cleavage between the economic classes," a cleavage deepened by nativist beliefs. (16) Even to reformers who supposedly understood the threat of chattel slavery to the American egalitarian vision, the influx of immigrants presented a paradox because it dramatized in the North the profound contradictions between the increasingly elusive democratic fantasy of a fluid social structure in a so-called free society and the frightening specter come alive of a permanent lower socioeconomic class. (17)
But the chief irony of Northern ethnic/class bias against immigrants and particularly the Irish was that anti-slavery reformers increasingly subscribed to a free labor/free soil ideology thats implementation rested upon increasing numbers Humphrey Joseph Desmond, The Know Nothing Partv (Washington. The New of nominally free workers and small farmers. Eric Foner in his Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men described the bitter struggle in the Republican Party of the 1850's between "the nativist goal of restricting immigration" and the "two cardinal objectives of the free labor ideology-free labor control of the western territories and continuing northern economic expansion" (18) Foner distinguished between "nativism as a cultural impulse" and "nativism as a force in politics", and contended that
events of the 1850's demonstrated that the Republican ideology, which identified the South and slavery as the enemies of Northern "free labor" and which offered immigrants a place in the economic development of the nation, had a far broader appeal to the native-born Protestants who made up the bulk of the northern population than did anti-foreign and anti-Catholic bias. (19)
One need not contest the broader appeal of this free labor pro-immigration principle to suggest that Foner may have underestimated the ancillary effects of the nativist cultural impulse on economically progressive Republicans. At least one might say that northern ethnic, religious and social class discrimination against immigrants and exploitation of immigrant labor power were by no means mutually exclusive. They could in fact operate as interlocking variables in the developing mesh of dominant class ideology. Neither is it deterministic to postulate that the extent to which a nationality group in society is marginalized is the extent to which society as a whole will condone the economic exploitation of that group. Ethnic inferiority gave the go-ahead for class exploitation. Those profiting from the exploitation of immigrant labor power would certainly not blame themselves for the immigrants' plight. It was far simpler to blame ethnic characteristics, real or imagined, rather than economic oppression, for everything from the immigrants' social status and horrendous living and working conditions to inability to be organized into unions. No one was to blame for their exploitation but the immigrants themselves. Inculpable were not only the factory owner and landlord, but the native American trade union organizer as well. This was no less true at the beginning of the period of modern industrial capitalism in the first half of the nineteenth century than it was in the latter half. Although political nativism aimed at immigration restriction, its incompatibility with capitalist expansion made it only partially successful as a political movement, and then subject to industry's need or lack thereof for cheap labor. Cultural nativism, on the other hand, played an integral role in the building of capitalist class hegemony and, far from impeding industrial expansion, increased its opportunities for exploitation of pools of immigrant labor in the nineteenth century.
But economic rationalizations for nativism only augmented an on-going xenophobia that expressed itself in its simplest form against not only aliens as a whole but also, more specifically, against the Catholic Church and those who adhered to its teachings, particularly the Irish. Much of this Anglo-Protestant religious tension occurred simultaneously with the Catholic Emancipation movement in England, the overtones of which reached across the Atlantic. Although, Pope Pius DC, "Pio Nono", a "liberal Pope" was elected to the Papacy in the late 1840's, the challenge of the Italian Risorgimento in 1848 sent him scampering into the protective custody of the Bourbon dynasty while frantically waving writs of excommunication at those patriots attempting to reunify Italy and make her a republican state. The Pope's temporal kingdom occupied the whole central portion of the Italian peninsula, and his political and economic interests as a foreign prince made him an ally of monarchy and reaction. Moreover, it was in the 1850's that the Pope declared himself infallible in matters of doctrine. To nativists, those who followed him unquestionably were certainly no candidates for citizenship in a democracy. (20)
The imagination of American nativist propagandists ran amok in relation to Roman Catholic institutions. Chapters in one nativist book included "Jesuit Thieves," "Catholics Owe No Alliegiance to the United States," "Supremacy in America the Design of the Pope," "Popes and Despots Against American Liberties," and even "Licentiousness the Fruit of Celibacy. (21) Horrific tales of Catholic nuns holding innocent young girls captive in convents coupled with stories of priestly promiscuity prompted a Boston mob to burn down the Ursuline convent at Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1834. The perpetrators of the crime were tried and acquitted, and the nuns were never compensated for the loss. (22) In 1836, a book that might be characterized as the Uncle Tom's Cabin of Know-Nothingism offered a sensational and frequently obscene autobiography of a young woman named Maria Monk who allegedly bore several illegitimate children by Catholic priests who had raped her while she lived in a convent. The work was the best selling American book to that date. Afterwards, the girl was found to be a liar and an impostor, but naturally, this did not stop the nativists. (23)
In the 1840's, an incident in the New York school system gave nativists further reason to decry organized Roman Catholicism. Many common schools of the northeast sponsored daily Bible readings using the Protestant (King James) version of the Holy Bible. This discriminated against Catholic students for their Church required the Roman Vulgate version. Moreover, the Roman Curia of the time did not permit lay interpretation of Scriptures and the school readings often included discussion and speculation. Since Catholic taxes helped to support these schools, Catholic clergymen, notably Bishop Hughes of New York, lobbied for laws to allow revenue from Catholic taxes to go to parochial schools. Contrary to nativist assertion, he did NOT ask that Bibles be banned from the common schools. (24) Although the legislature in Albany rejected the Hughes proposal, the cry went up of a "papal assault" on American public schools. To one nativist, here was the conspiracy of conspiracies:
Gaetano Bedini, Papal Nuncio to the United States, also chose this period to begin working for "ecclesiastical ownership of Church property". Here was the ultimate proof, to the Know-Nothings, that papal invasion was at hand. (26)
In this age of Protestant evangelicalism, nativist religious intolerance and propaganda must have aroused the indignation of many Americans against Roman Catholics, particularly since the peak of nineteenth century immigration in 1854 saw the entrance into northern cities of large numbers of Irish and German Catholics.
The peak of political nativism coincided with the peak of immigration. Nativist political arguments took many forms. All had as their object the lengthening of the naturalization term in order to deprive immigrants of a too quick route to a citizenship that included the vote. One extreme example of Nativist rationalizations for denying immigrants the elective franchise was offered by Richard Whitney Thomas in his 1856 publication A Defense of the American Policy. Thomas contended:
However debased his characterizations, Thomas' charges were not entirely unbased. The Democrats of Tammany Hall and other local political organizations were not above manipulating the newcomers' votes, any more than factory owners were above exploiting their labor. Oscar Handlin tells us: "in the immigrant's scale, a vote weighed against five dollars, an unmeaningful 'X" on an unintelligible paper against a week's wages or a month's rent, rendered the very notion of corruption irrelevant." (28)
Moreover, the immigrants tended to vote in blocs--and knowing this, politicos would appeal to their ethnic and religious identities to bring in the vote. (29) In nearly all cases, these tactics benefitted the Democratic Party. The Democratic machine lords at Tammany Hall were even willing to elevate certain loyal, vote-getting immigrants to appointive positions when their services had been satisfactorily rendered. This provoked another nativist outcry: "I ask who will venture to affirm that a man, reared under a monarchical or despotic form of government is better fitted to administer the affairs of state than an American?" (30) In order to challenge this relationship between the Democrats and immigrants in the realm of electoral politics, the Republican party after 1854 would sometimes form local "fusion" parties with the nativists. (31)
Nativists argued that people who were indoctrinated in non-republican, despotic political atmospheres would not be able to comprehend American democratic institutions well enough to participate immediately in public affairs. Following this argument closely was another contention that a foreigner would not easily surrender his/her allegiance to native land in order to give his/her entire patriotic allegiance to the United States. Thomas, in his extremism, gave the immigrant no way out: He wrote: "Patriotism is love of one's own country; that is, the country of birth, and the man who could coldly reject that natural allegiance to his home, is not the man who ought to be trusted in his professions of fealty in any other country. " (32)
In a less radical vein, the nativists contended that "any citizen of foreign-birth was unfitted for citizenship until time had obliterated his active interest in the mother land from whence he came [and also that] any Roman Catholic was unfitted for citizenship because of his obedience to an extra-territorial ruler." An adequate time period to allow for obliteration of loyalty to mother country was twenty one years. (33)
This attitude was not entirely fanciful. When the embers of the failed Revolutions of 1848 succumbed to the firebreak of reaction, the band of refugees seeking safe haven in the United States included "red Republicans" and those who intended to return home at the first sign of another opportunity for insurrection. When Hungarian liberator, Louis Kossuth, visited the United States in the 1850's, the United Committee of the European Democracy, composed of French, Germans, Italians, Hungarians, Polish, and Czechoslovaks delivered a "flag of the European democracy" to him. Richard W. Thomas exploited this incident in his book, and argued that this proved that the organization's president, General Z. Avezzana, had
not become Americanized and that he does not intend to become Americanized. He doubtless stands ready, with his associates, to spring into the vortex of European revolution whenever a favorable opportunity is presented; not in the character of an American citizen, but as an Italian. (34)
Thomas turned out to be right. In 1860, Avezzana returned to Italy to fight for Italian Reunification in the army of Giuseppe Garibaldi. His daughter would present an Italian flag to a multiethnic Union infantry regiment from New York City — The Garibaldi Guard.
Moreover, many of the sons and daughters of Erin never lost hope that someday they might deliver their native land from British tyranny. Many joined pre-war militia companies in preparation for the event, and belonged to secret organizations of Fenians.
Nativist fears were further augmented by what they perceived as the attempts of other even more radical immigrants to implant the socialist ideas of radical Europe in American consciousness. In New York City, these emigres formed "leftist" organizations such as the Democratic Union, Social Reform Society, Freie Gemeinde, the CubanDemocrats, the Polish Democrats, the Universal Democratic-Republican Society, with its French section and its Italian section, the Arbeiterbund, and the Ouvrier Cercle. (35)
To the nativists, none of these foreigners truly desired to be assimilated. An anonymous writer in a period newspaper complained about the Irish, "They are men, who having professed to become American by accepting our terms of naturalization, do yet, in direct contradiction to their professions, clan together as a separate interest and retain their foreign appellations." (36)
Moreover, ethnic "clannishness" was apparent in the rise of the foreign language press. New York alone had four German papers, one French paper, a Spanish paper and an Italian paper. Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Baltimore, indeed, all big cities that were immigrant meccas, had ethnic journals. (37)
And if one doubted that foreign influence was invading traditional American institutions instead of foreigners becoming Americanized, one need only attend the regular Militia Drills in and around New York. Although feared by some to be next to useless in time of war, by the mid-nineteenth century, the militia still attracted duty-bound and entertainment-seeking enthusiasts. New York City mustered both formal state militia companies like the famous Seventh New York as well as dozens of volunteer organizations. For many immigrants, the militia was their first experience with the American military in their new homeland. By the 1850's, more than half of New York City's militiamen were foreign-born. Out of these, 2600 were Irish and 1700 were Germans. It was said that:
So little do these organizations resemble American militiamen, that a stranger seeing them on parade might think them visitors from foreign parts, for their officers give orders in foreign tongues, and they carry flags emblazoned with devices and wear uniforms patterned after those used in the countries of their birth. (38)
In response to these foreign companies, native Americans in New York oftentimes shunned the militia and formed their own rifle clubs. More than 7000 New Yorkers joined 140 such organizations to protest this great European army in their midst, whose loyalty in time of war, it must be remembered, was as yet untried. (39)
These ethnic militia units and the response of Americans to them offer an opportunity to observe the dynamics of native prejudice and immigrant response, as a paradigm for other native/foreign-born interactions. Sociologists studying the effects of ethnic prejudice upon minority members themselves have determined that "a sense of group identification is, in fact, to a greater or lesser degree an almost universal result of discrimination." (40) Some social scientists have even suggested that the definition of "minority group" is a "social group whose solidarity is primarily determined by external pressure, which forces it to live in terms of opposition and ostracism." (41) Thus, it becomes a question of whether minority group organization into ethnic specific militia units preceded or resulted from ethnic marginalization. The reaction of native Whites to ethnic specific organizations produced a vicious circle of nativism and minority response. Alienation created ethnic solidarity expressed in European companies; native whites responded nativistically by creating separate rifle clubs and avoiding the state militia; ethnics responded with even more separatism.
Cynthia Enloe, who has studied ethnicity, the military and state power has described the sociological debate over whether ethnicity is ascriptive or situational in the military context, whether in its permission for the formation of ethnic units, the military, acts as "simply a cipher for ethnic attachments or, contrarily as an active force in shaping those attachments." (42) The public nature of militia day activities must have exposed very obviously the community's cultural divisions and worked against class consciousness as well. But these conclusions tend to preclude any feelings of national and group pride among minority group members as a primary rationale for solidarity thus making group consciousness merely a mechanism of defense.
In the particular case of the European militia units of New York City, there were possibly two factors at work. It was not unlikely that exposure to European militaries and their professionalization in the mid-nineteenth century had imbued particularly German immigrants with a sense of superiority especially to the American militia system and even to the small, Regular Army. In many American towns and cities, "militia day" was more a social event than a military one, beginning with token drilling and parading, and ending with a raid upon the local tavern. To Europeans who had experienced war and revolution so recently in their own countries, the American military system must have seemed like a charade. Separate units gave them a chance to exhibit ethnic pride and solidarity. However, this must also have reinforced in native American minds the traditional American distaste for standing armies and their association with European tyranny and corruption, compounding their dislike of immigrants for other reasons. All in all, the dominant culture placed obstacles in the way of Americanization thus strengthening the immigrants' ethnic solidarity, which led some of them to adopt an "exaggerated" Irishness or Germanness (43) and simultaneously blamed the immigrants for not embracing Americanization more quickly.
Nativist mob actions and riots against immigrants made this circle of frustration a violent one. Even before some German emigrants had left their homes, they were confronted with government- posted placards on every street corner reporting nativist attacks in which Germans fell dead. (44)
Cultural and social nativism found its political expression in the rise of the American (Know-Nothing) Party. (45) Ethnocultural historians contend that ethnic and cultural differences, not ideologies and platforms, are "the major determinants of American political realignments.'" (46) The rise of the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850's is a case in point Based upon ethnocultural prejudice and a fear of pluralism, the American (Know-Nothing) Party played a major role in the break-up of the Whig Party and offered, for a short moment, a national alternative to sectionalism. The political strategy of Know-Nothingism was an attempt to replace the crumbling Whig Party as the primary opposition to the Democratic Party in the 1850's. Party activists desired to build a nationally based political organization at a time when American politics had already divided along sectional lines. This was their weakness, for they, too, would be susceptible to the sectional tremors threatening America.
Although the American Party had been active for over a year in local politics, they held their first national nominating convention in Philadelphia in 1856. Their presidential platform included popular sovereignty as a solution to the slavery question, the restriction of immigration, government offices for only the native born, a naturalization period of twenty-one years and the exclusion of immigrant paupers and criminals. The convention nominated ex-President Millard Fillmore of New York for president and A. J. Donelson of Tennessee for vice-president. Fillmore had been a compromiser on slavery, and, accordingly, the anti-slavery Know-Nothings bolted the convention.
The anti-slavery bolters then held their own convention in New York and nominated Speaker of the House Nathaniel P. Banks (ironically, Banks would later become a Civil War general whose command in the Shenandoah Valley would include a majority of foreigners). William F. Johnson was nominated for the vice presidency. However, when the new Republican Party nominated John C. Fremont for president, both Banks and Johnson threw their American Party support to him. Thus, at the peak of its existence, a major portion of the American Party supporters, linked its interests with the anti-slavery Republicans. (47)
The electoral success of that Party can give us an idea of the popularity of nativist views among the general electorate. Great names rode under the banner of the American Party movement-people such as Millard Fillmore, Samuel Morse of telegraph fame, Sam Houston and Anna Ella Carroll-chief propagandist for the nativists and for Abraham Lincoln in the first years of the Civil War. (48) Anti-slavery leaders from New England found no contradiction in muttering nativist sentiments in the same breath with reform. Their Southern adversaries joined in support of Know-Nothingism, for they feared that the influx of immigrants to Northern states and territories would further upset the already teeter-tottering political balance. (49)
Know-Nothingism did receive moderate electoral support between 1856 and 1860, especially in gubernatorial elections. A look at election statistics helps to tell the story of the party's rise and decline.
Largely due to the efforts of Anna Ella Carroll and her fellow Know-Nothings, Maryland gave all her electoral votes to the Know-Nothing candidate, Fillmore. With their 21.53%, the American Party did relatively well with the popular vote.(51) No other third party movements in American History did as well as the Know-Nothings did in 1856. (52)
The gubernatorial elections of 1854-57 are the best indicators of political nativist sentiment in the states and the statistics for those years may be found in Appendix A. The American Party ran a healthy second in the solid Democratic South throughout the decade. In the North and border states, the nativists were caught up in the intricacies of fusion politics. American Party gubernatorial victories took place in 1854 in Delaware and Massachusetts, in 1855 in California, Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island where a Whig/American Party candidate took 81.5% of the vote. In 1856, Nativist governors won in Massachusetts in a Fremont/American Party ticket with 58.9% of the vote. A Fillmore/American Party ticket in that election took an additional 6.6%. In New Hampshire, the American Party also took the 1856 election. American Party candidates never won an election in New York, but did drum up 1/4 -1/5 of the vote in 1854 and 1856 respectively. As would be expected, as the Republican Party grew stronger, the American Party grew weaker. Perhaps the most interesting fusion party was an American/Emancipation ticket that took 49.8% of the vote, compared to the Republicans' 50.2% in Missouri in 1857. (53)
The intricacies of state politics make it difficult to generalize about the depth of nativist sentiment in the general populace as portrayed by electoral statistics. Statistics do not take into consideration political deals, the details of fusion politics, the priorities of political decisions, or even technicalities, such as the possibility, especially in the case of elections for the House of Representatives, that nativists did not run a candidate. In the case of the American/Know-Nothing Party, political realignments threw nativist votes to remaining segments of the Whig Party and the new Republican Party. Nativists were not necessarily single-issue voters. Nativist sentiment was influential and versatile enough to produce a American/Emancipation Party in Missouri in 1857. The Republican Party brought together proponents of many issues including nativism. It was not necessarily a political liability to be a Know-Nothing and run on the nativist ticket Nativist party victories could at least signify greater-than¬average nativist sentiment among the voters.
In the case of Southerners, who, for the most part, had no stomach for Northern Whigs and sectional anti-slavery Republicans, the American Party, for a time, was the only other alternative to the Democratic Party. In another sense, a Know-Nothing vote could indicate the desire of some Southerners to support a nationally based party and avoid sectional issues.
As might be expected, nativism received its greatest support in Northeastern states, particularly those with ports of entry. New England states, especially Massachusetts, elected Nativist governors in response to Irish-Catholic concentration and the Irish tendency to vote against anti-slavery and temperance reform.
The Middle Western states elected American Party governors less frequently. The only state in which the Know-Nothings did well was Missouri, where there were large numbers of Germans.
Texas politics of the 1850's illustrates the complexity of suggesting cause and effect relationships between popular nativism and electoral results. Ideology might be of secondary importance to a party's availability as a vehicle for candidacy. A prospective candidate, unchosen by the party of his choice, might very well run on the nativist ticket, whether ethnic prejudice was his motivation or not. Thus, in 1857, Sam Houston polled 42.1% of the vote as a Know-Nothing candidate. In 1859, he ran as an Independent Democrat and won.
To summarize, in many states in which three parties ran candidates, Democrats won and the remaining vote was split between Republicans and Know-Nothings. Conversely, when Republicans and Know-Nothings or Whigs and Know-Nothings fused, as in Rhode Island in 1857, resounding victories occurred--81.5% cast their votes for the Whig/American Party ticket there.. An American/Emancipation Party fusion barely missed taking the Missouri special gubernatorial race in 1857.
The outstanding case of political nativism capturing a governor's seats was Massachusetts. It is also an interesting case study because of its yearly gubernatorial elections. In 1854, while 20.9% of voters still clung to the Whig Party, 62.6% voted Nativist, the Democrats claiming only 10.6% of the vote. With the appearance of the Republican Party in 1855, the Nativist vote split, giving them a lesser victory with 37.7% of the vote; the Republicans claimed 26.9% and the Democrats 25.5%, swollen quite possibly with immigrant votes and by the electioneering of a capable politician like Benjamin Butler. In 1856, with the nomination of Fremont for the Republican Party presidential candidacy, the American Party anti-slavery bolter faction merged with the Fremont Republicans and took 58.9% of the vote. The Fillmore Know-Nothings claimed a meager 6.6% and the Democrats retained 25.5%. In 1857, Nathaniel Banks who had been the American Party bolter anti-slavery candidate for President in 1856 and who had withdrawn from the Nativists to support Fremont the year before, exploited his American and Republican Party support and ran for Governor on the Republican ticket, taking 46.6% of the vote to Know-Nothing Gardner's 28.8% and the Democrats' 24.3%. From this point until 1860, Banks retained the governorship and the nativism as a political entity slowly declined. Massachusetts offers a good example of Republican Fusion politics and the extent to which Republican hands were muddied with nativism.
Although the American Party sent no Senators to Washington, a cursory look at returns from the House of Representatives races shows the rise and decline of Nativism in some states in particular. All of Massachusetts' eleven elected Representatives were American Party candidates in 1854, the year immigration peaked. New York sent 13 American Party candidates out of its 33 Representatives to the House in the same year. In 1855, Connecticut elected 4 out of 4 Know-Nothings, Tennessee 5 out of 10, Kentucky 6 out of 10, Maryland 4 out of 6, and New Hampshire 3 out of 3.
The fundamental political problem of the Know-Nothing Party was not that it represented an unpopular notion, but that it developed at a time in United States History when another great issue dominated American attention--that of sectionalism and the expansion of slavery. Marcus Lee Hansen wrote:
William Henry Seward, orator of the Republican Party, analyzed the relationship between the two issues quite well in the debates over the Kansas-Nebraska Bill. Seward prophesized that someday the great issue would come to a contest between slave states and free states, and a northern victory would only be assured by a steady stream of immigrants. (55)
Charles Sumner made one of the first bids for an anti-slavery emphasis rather than a nativist one in the Republican Party, and for immigrant support, in a speech he delivered at Faneuil Hall in Boston in 1855. Sumner argued:
Between the election year of 1856 and 1860, the Republican Party worked furiously to tempt the immigrant vote away from the Democrats in order to solidify Republican power for the climax of the sectional conflict and the charting of economic expansion. In April 1859, Carl Schurz, now a party politico, rode the circuit in an attempt to rid the Republicans of their Nativist taint. His campaign climaxed with an anti-nativist speech at New York's Cooper Institute entitled "True Americanism." (57)
Still, internal political conflict perpetuated by a "loyal nativist opposition" within the Republican Party swayed political fortunes. Most historians agree that Republican Presidential hopeful William Seward damaged his chances for the nomination in 1860 beyond repair with his "Irrepressible Conflict" speech. But Seward had also been a bitter opponent of nativism for two decades. Instead, the Republicans would nominate a virtual unknown, but one with a less offensive record-Abraham Lincoln.
As the nation marched perilously on toward war, the "needs of the Union and the northern economy...took precedence over any lingering nativist sentiments." (58) In New York, the Know-Nothing Party's political power came to an end with the party's dissolution on August 28,1860. (59) But the party's successes, and more importantly, the groundswell of cultural and social nativism that underlay those electoral successes, suggested the staying power and versatility of a particularly virulent ideology that had before it a long history in wartime and beyond. One historian has contended that "the doctrine of nativism...was one about which there could be no great differences of opinion among native-born Protestants." (60) Nativism was a complex amalgamation of religious intolerance, Anglo-Saxon ethnocentrism, and fear of radical ideas and unfamiliar cultures, a combination that could attract in its component variations the majority of native Americans to some degree. As with any pervasive social attitude, the consequences, especially for the immigrants, were both explicit and insidious.
But in 1861, the insistent needs of both North and South for military manpower found both governments knocking on the immigrant's door, regardless of their rudeness before it in previous times.
Some historians have mistaken this military necessity with social and cultural acceptance and thus the demise of nativism. John Higham has written "The war completed the ruin of organized nativism by absorbing xenophobes and immigrants in a common cause. Now the foreigner had a new prestige; he was a comrade at arms. The clash that alienated sections reconciled their component nationalities." (61) Higham goes on to minimize nativist influence, insisting that only two passing incidents during the war offered evidence of any residual nativist belief: the New York Draft Riots seen as an Irish conspiracy, and General U. S. Grant's expulsion of the Jews from within his military jurisdiction in 1862, singling them out to rid his army of war profiteers, an order revoked by Lincoln three weeks later. Higham characterizes the expulsion as "an act that may stand as the principal nativistic incident of the war years," (62) and then goes on to chronicle the beckoning of America to the immigrant with a "cosmopolitan and democratic ideal of nationality [that] made assimilation plausible to Americans" and an "immediate situation [that] made it possible." (63) That tolerance, as Higham sees it, always a part of the democratic tradition, was sustained and invigorated by the "conditions of the period-economic opportunity, social stability, and international security." Higham goes on to sing the praises of American "inclusiveness", those "twin ideals of a common humanity and of equal rights" that "continued in the 1870's and 1880's to foster faith in assimilation." (64) With a schizophrenia seen too often among American historians, Higham goes on singing the praises of American pluralism, while writing a book about nativism, its primary antagonist The centerpiece of this story is the need for immigrant labor; the need for their services, according to Higham, made immigrants welcome in cosmopolitan American society. Like so many intellectuals, Higham drinks a toast to America's idealistic vision of itself, but his evidence betrays the sourness of the wine. Although his work in itself, like the golden goblet of American ideology, is brilliantly conceived, gracefully written, impeccably developed, in essence, a reviewer's dream, Higham's function as toastmaster retards his ability to look seriously and probingly at the synthesis of factors that characterized mid-nineteenth century thinking about immigrants; and, more importantly, the way those factors fashioned the lives of immigrants and how the immigrants themselves responded to nativism, class subordination, "Americanization", and the "making it scenario."
Footnotes for Chapter 1
1 Philip Taylor,The Distant Magnet. (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 27.
2 John P. Sanderson, Republican Landmarks: The Views and Opinions of American Statesmen on Foreign Immigration. (Philadelphia. 1856), 223-224 quoted in Bruce C. Levine, "In the Heat of Two Revolutions: The Forging of German-American Radicalism," "Struggle A Hard Battle": Essays on Working Class Immigrants, ed. Dirk Hoerder (Northern Illinois University Press, 1986), 28.
3 Franklin D. Scott, The Peopling of America: Perspectives on Immigration (Washington D.C.: American Historical Association Pamphlet 241, 1972), 21.
4 Levine, 20.
5 Scott, 21.
6 "Maldwyn Allen Jone, American Immigration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 96.
7 Jones, 100.
8 Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States. I (New York: International Publishers, 1972), 224-225.
10 Ibid., 225.
11 Carl Wittke, We Who Built America (Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University Press, 1967), 499-500.
12 Michael F. Holt, "The Politics of Impatience: The Origin of Know-Nothingism," Journal of American History.LX:2 (September 1973), 324
13 Alfred B. Ely, "American Liberty: Its Sources, Its Dangers, and the Means of its Preservation," an oration given at the Broadway Tabernacle in New York on February 22, 1850 by a member of the Order of United Americans (New York: B's Seaman & Dunham Printers, 1850), 24.
14 Russel Nye, William Lloyd Garrison and the Humanitarian Reformers (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1955), 59.
15 Humphrey Joseph Desmond, The Know Nothing Party (Washington. The New Century Press, 1905), 15-16.
16 Barbara Miller Solomon, A Changing New England Tradition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), 45.
17 Eric Foner, Free Soil Free Labor. Free Men. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 231.
18 Foner, 236 and Chapter 7: "The Republicans and Nativism," 226-260, passim.
19 Ibid., 260.
20 See Priscilla Robertson, The Revolutions of 1848: A Social History, particularly Chapter 15. 311-330.
21 Startling Facts for Native Americans called Know-Nothings (New York: E. Hutchinson, 1855). passim.
22 Desmond 15-16.
23 Desmond, 18.
24 Michael F. Holt, "The Politics of Impatience: The Origins of Know-Nothingism," Journal of American History LX:2 (September 1973), 324.
25 Frederick Rinehart Anspach, The Sons of the Sires (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Gramble and Co., 1855), 50.
26 Holt, 323.
27 Richard Whitney Thomas, A Defense of the American Policy as opposed to the Encroachments of Foreign Influence and especially to the interference of the Papacy in the Political Interests and Affairs of the United States (New York: DeWitt and Davenport, 1856), 41.
28 Oscar Handlin, "The Immigrant and American Politics," Foreign Influences in American Lifted. David F. Bowers (New York: Peter Smith, 1952), 87.
29 Holt, 233.
30 Anspach, 47.
31 see documentation later in chapter.
32 Thomas, 135.
33 Louis Dow Scisco, Political Nativism in New York State (New York: AMS Press, 1900), 16.
34 Thomas, 172.
35 John Bach McMaster, History of the People of the United States (New York: 1914), 75.
36 Desmond, 9.
37 McMaster 76.
38 McMaster, 75-76.
39 McMaster, 75.
40 George Eaton Simpson and J. Milton Yinger, Racial and Cultural Minorities (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 152.
41 Ibid., 153; quoted from Alain Locke and B. J. Stern (eds.) When Peoples Meet (Hinds, Hayden and Eldredge, 1946), 465.
42 Cynthia H. Enloe, Ethnic Soldiers: State Security in Divided Soceties (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980), 3.
43 Marcus Lee Hansen, The Immigrant in American History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1940), 136.
44 Marcus Lee Hansen, The Atlantic Migration 1607-1860 (New York: Harper and Row, 1961), 304.
45 It is not my purpose here to engage in a detailed account of the rise of the American Party for this has been done elsewhere in such publications as Scisco's The History of Political Nativism in New York State. Ray Allen Billington's The Protestant Crusade, and Overdyke's The Know-Nothing Party in the South, and most recently The Formation of the Republican Party as well as a host of essays. The latest and most definitive work that addresses political nativism, fusion politics and the rise of the Republican Party is William E. Gienapp's The Origins of the Republican Party 1852-56 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
46 Foner, 226.
47 Guide to U.S. Elections (Washington D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1975), 19. Hereafter. Elections.
48 Carroll, allegedly, also helped to mastermind the Union Anaconda strategy in the first year of Civil War. Hollister Noble, Woman With a Sword (Garden City, New Jersey: Doubleday, 1948). The author calls this work a "biographical novel."
49 Wittke, 564.
50 Elections.. 231, 170.
51 George Wallace with his modern American Party claimed only 13.5% of the popular vote in 1968, and the popularity of his ideas was known to extend farther than the vote could tell. And with so few of registered votes actually voting in elections of the 1980's, presidents are elected with not much more than the nativists received in 1856. Ibid., 298.
52 It is also interesting to note that Breckinridge's states-rights Democrats would claim only 18.09% of the popular vote in 1860, resulting in secession and Civil War. In 1860, the last vestiges of concentrated political Know-Nothingism-in Bell's Constitutional Union Party-took 12.61% of the vote. Ibid., 271.
53 See Appendix. Elections. 397-437.
54 Hansen, 140.
55 Foner, 236.
56 David Brion Davis, (Ed.), The Fear of Conspiracy: Images of Un-American Subversion from the Revolution to the Present (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1971), 132.
57 A.E . Zucker, The Forty-Eighters (New York: Columbia University Press, 1950), 129; Carl Schurz, Reminiscences of Carl Schurz, II (New York: The McClure Co., 1907), 204-207.
58 Foner, 237.
59 Scisco, 241.
60 Ibid., 112.
61John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism 1860-1925 (New York: Atheneum Books, 1981), 13.
62 Ibid., 13.
63 Ibid., 20.
Copyright by Catherine Catalfamo, 1989
New York State Division of Military
and Naval Affairs: Military History