John Kerry and the Know Nothings

One of the more delightful scenes, and there are many, in John Ford’s 1952 classic The Quiet Man, involves an ongoing dispute between an Irish train conductor and a small-town policeman who can’t seem to agree on anything. They quibble over the most indisputable of details, such the quickest route from the train station to the rural village of Innisfree. They invariably come to blows over competing interpretations of the past.

“If you knew your country’s history as well as you claim to…” despairs the train conductor, removing his glasses and rolling up his sleeves for a fight.

In a recent tantrum before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Senator John Kerry decried the lowly condition of American political discourse. “We’re in a period of know-nothingism in the country, where truth and science and facts don’t weigh in. It’s all short-order, lowest common denominator, cheap-seat politics,” he said.

It is a beloved trope of many on the secular left that conservatives and religious folk use fear to win elections. Further, it is an article of faith that conservatives employ coded language to communicate their true intent to supporters of their radical agenda. But in his remarks to the Boston Chamber, Kerry managed to both mischaracterize American political history for partisan gain—the real Know Nothings were neither anti-science nor populist in the modern sense—while using coded language to spread fear. The message, of course, is this: Conservatives are unconcerned with the truth; they are only interested in preserving the status quo for the privileged few. You should fear them.

These days, the Know Nothing party is the very symbol of political intolerance. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Know Nothings—officially the American Party—used terror and intimidation to win elections. They were a secretive bunch. They got their nickname not because they were dummies, but because when asked about their doings, members were fond of saying “I know nothing.” In some cases—notably the 1855 Bloody Monday election riot in Louisville, KY and the 1856 Know-Nothing Riot in Baltimore—Know Nothings were responsible for actual blood-spilling violence. Invoking their name to win political points is about as honorable as pulling the Hitler card.

The Know Nothing movement was born in response to the growing numbers of Irish Catholic and German immigrants flooding into the United States in the 1840s. By the late 1840s, anti-Catholic sentiment was running high. It was widely—though erroneously—believed by American Protestants that Pope Pius IX had a hand in putting down the liberal European revolutions of 1848 in Italy, Austria, and France. Know Nothings may have stolen or destroyed a block of marble in 1854 that was donated by the pontiff for the construction of the Washington Monument.

Among the richest ironies of Kerry’s statement is that he made it in Massachusetts, where the Know Nothings achieved their greatest political success in 1854, taking the governorship, winning all of the congressional seats, and nearly all the legislature. Once in power, the Massachusetts Know Nothings pursued a vicious agenda to exclude and intimidate immigrants—specifically the Irish—and keep them from participating in politics. They proposed bills and amendments requiring naturalized citizens to wait 21 years before being allowed to vote.

They also passed or proposed a variety of measures targeted specifically at Catholics, including the formation of a “Nunnery Investigation Committee” tasked with sorting out allegations of immoral activity taking place within convents and religious schools. The committee performed numerous invasive “inspections” of the lodgings of several communities of religious sisters.

Now, one of the nation’s prominent Catholic politicians would have you believe that the tea party, and the politicians it has helped elect, are the modern incarnation of the Know Nothings—low class rabble with an unshakable faith in the political power of fear. But the secret oath sworn by newly inducted Know Nothings to “defend our Republican Institutions against encroachments from the Church of Rome…and its ignorant and deluded followers,” found in Peter F. Stevens’s book, Hidden History of the Boston Irish, sounds like nothing if not a neat foreshadowing of Kerry’s recent coded warnings.

We could be charitable, and assume that Kerry used the word “know-nothingism” in its literal sense, as an insult to the intelligence of his political adversaries. But that would be short-order stuff meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and we know the gentleman from Beacon Hill wouldn’t stoop that low.

So the obvious question is: Does he know his country’s history as well as he claims to?

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