Massachusetts in the early 1850s had undergone dramatic changes that had radically upended the social, economic, and political dynamics of its very recent past. It had become “the nation’s most densely populated, urbanized, and industrialized state,” [p83] with thriving mills and factories that employed legions of laborers that often worked long hours in terrible conditions for very low wages, with traditional agricultural and rural lifeways in steep decline. Efforts at reform were thwarted by the dominant pro-business Whig party. A market hungry for labor only encouraged an exponential increase in the population of the foreign born, already swollen by a rising tide of desperate immigrants from Ireland fleeing starvation, their numbers pregnant with an unfamiliar culture and a religious faith despised by most Americans. A growing discontent fueled a rage directed at the elite and their failed institutions, spawning a populist revolt that manifested itself in racism, hatred, xenophobia, exclusion and a determination to overthrow the old order and start afresh. The result was a shocking and unprecedented sweep to power of the American Party—popularly known as the Know-Nothings—who captured all but three seats of the state legislature and even the office of the governor!
Invited to write an article about Know-Nothings for a nativism-themed journal, the very first source I turned to for background on my research was The Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts: The Rise and Fall of a People’s Movement, by the late John R. Mulkern. It turned out to be such a fine work of history that I read it cover-to-cover. And it served to inspire and define the narrower focus of my own article.
Accounts of the antebellum era often gloss over the Know-Nothings as a brief flare that served to signal the collapse of the established political order that had acted as an uncertain glue to the larger looming geographical fissure, which has sadly doomed the movement to unwarranted obscurity. And while the ascent of the Know-Nothings was indeed a national phenomenon coincident to the larger fracture of the two-party system over the slavery issue, only in Massachusetts was its impact so extensive and profound. On its face, the sudden rise to power of such magnitude of a racist, nativist régime seems especially surprising, since by most measures the Bay State was the most egalitarian in the nation, with a comfortable African-American community, as well as a significant anti-slavery element. But, as Mulkern—formerly Professor of History at Babson College—underscores in this well-written, comprehensive volume, this manifestation of the Know-Nothings was truly peculiar to Massachusetts, once again proving the maxim often associated with former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill that “all politics is local.”
Mulkern skillfully guides the reader through the tangle of issues and interests that shaped the advent and unlikely political monopoly held ever so fleetingly by the Know-Nothings on Beacon Hill. It all began with the complacency of a pro-business Whig Party that—aligned with the captains of industry—seemed to have an iron grip on power. Reforms that had taken hold in other states—such as districting and plurality—were absent in Massachusetts. Gubernatorial candidates rarely achieved the requisite majority, so the race was tossed to the Whig-dominated legislature, thereby assuring that their man got the job. Rural areas had little voice in state government. Rather than working in agriculture and living in small towns as their grandfathers had, great numbers of citizens crowded in the urban east and worked as wage laborers in sometimes deplorable conditions. Lobbies for a “Ten-Hour Law” that would restrict the work day were repeatedly rebuffed. Jacksonian Democrats, long in lonely opposition, were yet too wedded to laissez-faire economics to seize this issue and run with it. Meanwhile, other voices in temperance, nativism and free-soil remained muted and increasingly frustrated. Add to this combustible mix a great influx of desperately poor unskilled Irish refugees who brought with them strange customs and Roman Catholicism, a faith universally despised by the Protestant native-born. There was such a hunger for labor that not a single American was displaced, but the presence of masses of foreign workers fed a false yet compelling narrative that jobs were at risk.
Traditional social and political institutions were incapable of redressing or even containing the growing discontent that was a by-product of these competing forces. It was the Free-Soil Party that first exploited it, sensing an opportunity and seizing the moment to join with anti-corporate Democrats (styled as “locofocos”), disaffected Whigs, and others to spring to power in a surprise “Coalition” government that permanently unseated Whig dominance. A grand attempt at constitutional reform failed even more grandly, but there was lasting historical significance to the Coalition’s short-lived grip on the reins of legislative authority when it sent the notable Charles Sumner to the U.S. Senate. Closer to home, it bulldozed the established order, paving the way for the emergence of the Know-Nothings.
The Know-Nothings in Massachusetts were an ostensibly nativist organization that traced their roots back to the virulently anti-Irish “Native American” party. Based in local, fraternal lodges across the state, their power base lay in gatherings of friends, relatives and neighbors who met in secret to voice their grievances. A shared sense of alienation and political impotence eclipsed the veneer of nativism and united disparate voices on the outside—including those of anti-slavery and pro-temperance—in a populist surge that took the state by surprise with their sudden coup in the 1854 elections. In an unexpected landslide, Know-Nothings elected the governor, all forty state senators and all but three house representatives; most of those elected had never before served in government. The once dominant Whigs—damaged by their earlier displacement at the hands of the Coalition, and further weakened in a state unfriendly to slave interests by their association with the Compromise of 1850 and its hated Fugitive Slave Act—were fatally wounded by their startling rout.
What followed was a plethora of efforts to restrict citizenship and contain the burgeoning Irish population, most of which came to nothing. Part of that was due to the fact that most of those elected were political neophytes, but more importantly, it was because the Know-Nothings in Massachusetts were actually a shadowy coalition of progressives and reactionaries. Once again, the Free-Soilers—led by the wily, chameleon-like, soon-to-be United States Senator Henry Wilson—saw an opportunity and seized it, commanding an outsize role in the movement. But they were not alone. At the end of the day, reformism trumped reactionary. The Know-Nothings did not retain power long, but their legacy included an astonishing amount of extremely progressive reform legislation, creating laws to protect workingmen and ending imprisonment for debt. There were also laws that provided an overall boost to public school expenditure, made vaccination compulsory, funded libraries, took tentative steps to regulate child labor, and strikingly improved women’s rights in property, marriage and divorce. Arguably of the greatest significance was a law that mandated integration of blacks and whites in public education, landmark legislation which effectively made Massachusetts the first state in the country to ban school segregation! [The latter became the topic of my journal article, “Strange Bedfellows: Nativism, Know-Nothings, African-Americans and School Desegregation in Antebellum Massachusetts,” which is accessible at: www.know-nothings.com]
It was not to last. Despite their dramatic takeover and flamboyant dominance, the Know-Nothings faded as rapidly as they flared. Still, while they may have been just a flash-in-the-pan locally as well as nationally, the Massachusetts incarnation made a bold mark on what was to follow. Gearing up for the 1856 presidential race, the national Know-Nothings met in convention and declared the party agnostic on slavery, seeking to unite the country behind nativism. Massachusetts Know-Nothings, however, met in Springfield and, while championing nativism, countered with a free-soil and anti-slavery position known as the “Springfield Platform.” This severely wounded the national party, which ultimately went down to defeat as anti-slavery votes hemorrhaged to the emerging Republican Party. The Know-Nothings were essentially relegated to a footnote in history.
In retrospect, the Know-Nothings in Massachusetts represented nearly a textbook case of a populist movement that combined both reactionary and progressive elements, a topic analyzed elsewhere at great length by the historian Ronald P. Formisano, who argues that populism can frequently marshal a mosaic of forces to serve as engine to revolt against the status quo. Thus rage and revolt take center stage over policy and agenda. This is what best accounts for the incongruous 1968 drift of many supporters of the liberal Robert Kennedy to the segregationist George Wallace after the assassination. Similarly, some estimate that as many as ten percent of those who backed Bernie Sanders ultimately voted for Donald Trump in 2016!
Mulkern artfully wields the tools of complexity and nuance critical to historical analysis from start to finish in this definitive chronicle of a long overlooked political movement in a barely remembered moment of Massachusetts history. All too often, a truly magnificent work directed at a narrow academic audience gets buried in the library stacks. Published back in 1990, this volume probably has not received the attention that it deserves. I am grateful that I found it, but full of regret that I could not share my praise—and a copy of my completed article that was nurtured by his scholarship—with the author, who passed away in 2012. I can only hope that this review serves to bring others to read it, so that the product of Mulkern’s fine effort will live on for generations to come.
[NOTE: Some of the content of this review was lifted from my journal article, “Strange Bedfellows: Nativism, Know-Nothings, African-Americans and School Desegregation in Antebellum Massachusetts,” which—along with related materials—is freely accessible to the public at a website I created to explore this topic, www.know-nothings.com]