Trying to Forget Slavery
Nativism and New Riots
If you put a chain around the neck of the slave, the other end fastens itself around your own.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance"
The field of politics always presents the same struggle. There are the Right and the Left, and in the middle is the Swamp. The Swamp is made up of the know-nothings.
-- August Bebel, Address to the Social Democratic Congress, 1903
After the Dorr debacle of 1842, Whig and Democratic rivalries stayed rough but nonriotous. This owed something to the withering away of issues of a deeply divisive sort. After 1840, the major problems of earlier debate, the tariff and the bank, faded. James K. Polk put to sleep the tariff issue after the long quiet ushered in by Henry Clay's compromise of 1833, and the national bank died as surely as the president from William Henry Harrison's sudden postinaugural illness. The last legislative legacy of the 1835 anti-abolition eruption, the gag rule, disappeared as even the most belligerent Southerners tired of giving John Quincy Adams another chance to bait them. The clearest ideological difference between the parties--the Jacksonian stress on government inactivity and the Whig insistence that government had some responsibility for promoting the general welfare--developed no policy correlatives at the national level, nor did the different rhetorical emphases on legalism, racism, and proslavery. Only when relative political outsiders brought into politics volatile issues with profounder social roots did political violence return. Religion and immigration gave the best-known incentive to new parties tied to violence, but such tumult became worst and most dangerous when integrated with the explosive question of slavery. 1
Only one large political riot occurred between 1834 and the 1850s, that in Philadelphia in May 1844. This has been commonly treated as an ethnic-religious clash, and the brutal attack on Catholic property and Irish homes on the second night of the riot wholly fits this description. Yet the triggering event was political, the shooting from an Irish firehouse into a Nativist Party rally in "Nanny Goat Square," an Irish-dominated section of Philadelphia. Three Nativists were killed in the first skirmish, and ten later on, as well as one Irishman, making it the most deadly of antebellum non-election political mobs. Nativists destroyed much property, though no