Been there, elected that: Nativism is nothing new

Berry Craig
Berry Craig

Dangerous immigrants loyal to an “inflated ... despot” are imperiling our country.

Bent on foisting their “false religion” and its “anti-Christian” law on America, these fanatical foreigners are “a foe to the very principles we embody in our laws, a foe to all we hold most dear.” They are “the chief source of crime in this country” to boot.

All that bigoted baloney might sound like a Donald Trump stump speech. But it’s stock Know-Nothing boilerplate from the 1850s.

The frontrunner for the GOP presidential nod in almost every poll, Trump has resurrected the hate and fear-mongering legacy of the Know-Nothings, a white, Protestant nativist party that made a big splash in Kentucky in the mid-19th century.

“Trump is using the same demagogic tactics,” said Duane Bolin, a Murray State University historian and author. “The Know-Nothings appealed to nativism and fear, and Trump does that so well, too.”

The Know-Nothings were officially the American Party. Party members were dubbed “Know-Nothings” because they were supposed to reply — like Sgt. Schultz on Hogan’s Heroes — “I know nothing” to an enquiry about the party from a possibly hostile newspaper reporter or a suspicious stranger.

The group swept the Bluegrass State on election day in 1855, when a nativist riot in Louisville left at least 19 men dead, most of them Catholic immigrants from Germany and Ireland, according to the Kentucky Encyclopedia.

While neo-Know-Nothing Trump focuses his xenophobia on Muslims and Hispanics, Catholic German and Irish immigrants were the chief objects of Know-Nothing disaffection. Party members pledged “Eternal hostility to Foreign and Roman Catholic influence!”

On Aug. 6, 1855, Know-Nothing mobs rampaged through German and Irish immigrant neighborhoods in the Falls City, murdering, beating, burning and looting. The violence went down in history as “Bloody Monday.”

Many blamed the anti-foreign hysteria, at least in part, on editor George D. Prentice of the Louisville Journal. He authored vicious editorials against “the Pope of Rome, an inflated Italian despot who keeps people kissing his toes all day.”

Prentice’s rants were popular with his readers. Likewise, Trump’s bile is obviously playing well with potential Republican primary voters.

In any event, going on 161 years ago, the state elected a Know-Nothing governor, Charles S. Morehead. Know-Nothings captured both houses of the General Assembly and claimed six of the state’s 10 U.S. House seats. In the spring, 1855, municipal elections, the party took control of city governments in Louisville, Lexington and Covington, The Kentucky Encyclopedia says.

History records that seven other states elected Know-Nothing governors. Beyond Kentucky, 37 more Know-Nothings were elected to Congress and five occupied U.S. Senate seats. Several mayors and dozens of city officials and state legislators belonged to the party.

Trump apparently figures to bloviate, race-bait and immigrant-bash his way to his party’s nomination. Yet a Republican candidate for president in 1860 denounced anti-immigrant bilge in no uncertain terms, and he won the White House. Trump is more proof, as if proof were needed, that the GOP of that president seems long gone.

“I am not a Know-Nothing,” Abraham Lincoln declared in a famous 1855 letter to his friend, Joshua F. Speed of Louisville. “That is certain. How could I be?

“How can any one 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.’”

The future Great Emancipator added, “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 pretence of loving liberty-to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

Here’s hoping Trump experiences the fate of ex-President Millard Fillmore who sought the presidency on the Know-Nothing ticket in 1856 and got clobbered. He even lost Kentucky.

Ultimately, the Know-Nothings faded away and ended up on the trash heap of history, where they belong.

There’s plenty of room for The Donald in history’s landfill, too.

Berry Craig of Mayfield is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and the author of “Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase,” University Press of Kentucky.