Berry Craig: Citizen Know Nothing

Dangerous immigrants loyal to an “inflated … despot” are endangering our country.

Determined to force their “false religion” and its “anti-Christian” law on America, these fanatical foreigners are “a foe to the very principles we embody in our laws, a foe to all we hold most dear.” They are “the chief source of crime in this country” to boot.

All that bigoted baloney might sound like a Donald Trump stump speech. But it’s stock Know-Nothing boilerplate from the 1850s.

The president-elect resurrected the hate and fear-mongering legacy of the Know-Nothings, a white, Protestant nativist party that made a big splash in my native Kentucky in the mid-19th century.

“Trump is using the same demagogic tactics,” said Duane Bolin, a Murray, Ky., State University historian and author. “The Know-Nothings appealed to nativism and fear, and Trump does that so well, too.”

The Know-Nothings were officially the American Party. Members were called “Know-Nothings” because they were supposed to reply — like Sgt. Schultz on “Hogan’s Heroes” — “I know nothing” to an inquiry about the party from a possibly hostile newspaper reporter or any suspicious stranger.

While neo-Know-Nothing Trump focuses his xenophobia on Muslims and Hispanics, Catholic German and Irish immigrants were the chief objects of Know-Nothing disaffection. Party members pledged “Eternal hostility to Foreign and Roman Catholic influence!”

The American Party swept Kentucky, my home state, on election day in 1855, when a nativist riot in Louisville left at least 19 men dead, according to the Kentucky Encyclopedia.

Know-Nothing mobs rampaged through German and Irish immigrant neighborhoods in the Falls City, murdering, beating, burning and looting. The violence went down in history as “Bloody Monday.”

Know-Nothings took control of city governments in Louisville, Lexington and Covington. The state elected a Know-Nothing governor, Charles S. Morehead. Know-Nothings captured both houses of the General Assembly and claimed six of the state’s 10 U.S. House seats, the encyclopedia says.

History, the subject I taught in a western Kentucky community college for two dozen years, records that seven other states elected Know-Nothing governors in 1855. Beyond Kentucky, 37 more Know-Nothings were elected to Congress, and five got U.S. Senate seats. Several mayors and dozens of city officials and state legislators belonged to the party.

Trump won nearly 63 percent of the Kentucky vote. He lost only two of the Bluegrass State’s 120 counties—Jefferson (Louisville) and Fayette (Lexington).

The immigrant-bashing Trump will become the country’s 19th Republican president. Kentucky-born Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, denounced Know-Nothing anti-immigrant bilge in no uncertain terms.

Trump is more proof, as if proof were needed, that the GOP of “Lincoln and Liberty, too,” is all but gone.

“I am not a Know-Nothing,” Abraham Lincoln declared in a famous 1855 letter to his friend, Joshua F. Speed of Louisville. “That is certain. How could I be?

“How can any one who abhors the oppression of Negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’”

The future Great Emancipator added, “We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty-to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

Ultimately, the Know-Nothings faded away and ended up on the trash heap of history, where they belong. There’s plenty of room for Trump, a big fan of Vladimir Putin-ruled Russia, in history’s landfill, too.

Berry Craig is the webmaster-editor for the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, and also services on the state AFL-CIO Executive Board and serves as recording secretary for the Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council. He is a charter member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360.


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