Gamaliel Bailey and Antislavery Union

By Stanley Harrold | Go to book overview

chapter thirteen
The Know-Nothing Threat

The major cause of Bailey's singular pessimism following the electoral triumph of the Anti-Nebraska forces over the Democrats in the fall of 1854 was the role in the victory played by anti-Catholic, anti-foreign sentiment. For years a movement of native-born Protestants had been taking root in the large cities of the eastern seaboard. It grew out of tensions between the native and foreign communities resulting from cultural differences, ingrained distrust of "Papism," economic competition, and a reaction against an alliance of immigrants and Democratic politicians. Nativists supported the disenfranchisement of immigrants through an extension of the naturalization period and the exclusion of Catholics from elective office. By the early 1850s nativists had formed a national organization called the Order of the Star Spangled Banner. It was from the order's requirement of secrecy that its members became known as Know-Nothings, a name that stuck with them when they organized politically as the American party in 1854.

By then the nativist fears that Catholics and foreigners threatened American republican values had combined with the irrelevancy of old economic issues and the northern reaction to the Kansas-Nebraska Act to disrupt the Whig and Democratic parties. In the political vacuum that resulted, Know- Nothingism spread from its eastern bastion into the West and South. Nativism appealed most strongly to those who had supported the Whig party, and as that party disintegrated, Bailey and others wondered whether it would be succeeded by the Republican or American party, that is, an antislavery or a nativist party. The fact that in many instances Republicans and Americans had cooperated so closely in nominating Anti-Nebraska candidates that the two movements had become almost indistinguishable complicated the picture. A tinge of nativism had attached itself to the Republicans, who were

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