As noted in Chapter 9, nativism—hostility to immigrants, especially Catholics—emerged as a local political movement in the 1840s. But in 1854, with the party system in crisis, it burst on the national political scene with the sudden appearance of the American, or Know-Nothing, Party (so called because it began as a secret organization whose members, when asked about its existence, were supposed to respond, “I know nothing”). The party trumpeted its dedication to reserving political office for native-born Americans and to resisting the “aggressions” of the Catholic Church, such as its supposed efforts to undermine public school systems. The Know-Nothings swept the 1854 state elections in Massachusetts, electing the governor, all of the state’s congressmen, and nearly every member of the state legislature. They captured the mayor’s office in cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco as well. In many states, nativists emerged as a major component of victorious “anti-Nebraska” coalitions of voters opposed to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In the North, the Know-Nothings’ appeal combined anti-Catholic and antislavery sentiment, with opposition to the sale of liquor often added to the equation. After all, most Catholics, as noted in the previous chapter, vigorously opposed the reform movements inspired by evangelical Protestantism, especially antislavery and temperance. The 1854 elections, said one observer, revealed “a deep seated feeling in favor of human freedom and also a fine determination that hereafter none but Americans shall rule America.”
George Catlin’s 1827 painting Five Points depicts a working-class immigrant neighborhood in New York City that gained a reputation for crime, drinking, and overcrowding.
Despite severe anti-Irish discrimination in jobs, housing, and education, however, it is remarkable how little came of demands that immigrants be barred from the political nation. All European immigrants benefited from being white. During the 1850s, free blacks found immigrants pushing them out of even the jobs as servants and common laborers previously available to them. The newcomers had the good fortune to arrive after white male suffrage had become the norm and automatically received the right to vote. Even as New England states sought to reduce immigrant political power (Massachusetts and Connecticut made literacy a voting requirement, and Massachusetts mandated a two-year waiting period between becoming a naturalized citizen and voting), western states desperate for labor allowed immigrants to vote well before they became citizens. In a country where the suffrage had become essential to understandings of freedom, it is significant that many white male immigrants could vote almost from the moment they landed in America, while non-whites, whose ancestors had lived in the country for centuries, could not.