The Know-Nothing Press
By E. M. Sanchez-Saavedra
The 1840s and ‘50s was a period of extreme social, political and demographic upheaval in the United States. Thanks to the Irish famine and the 1848 revolutions in several European nations, immigrants overwhelmed urban areas, and local governments proved unable to cope with the sudden crises in housing, sanitation and unemployment. The lower strata of society felt especially threatened by desperate hordes who were willing to do their menial jobs for less and live under inhuman conditions. In the past 160 years, this phenomenon has recurred frequently, notably in the post-Civil War era, when thousands of newly-freed blacks migrated in search of jobs and better living conditions, and in the early twentieth century, when millions of eastern Europeans flooded Ellis Island, which had replaced “Castle Garden” as the portal to America.
During the first immigrant flood, many Americans reacted with fear and hostility to the newcomers in a familiar “Us vs. Them” pattern of tribal defense. Several canny politicians recognized the potential power base of the poorer classes when united against a perceived common enemy. Other higher echelon citizens saw a threat to, or at least a dilution of, American Protestant values in the influx of Catholic, Lutheran, Moravian, Eastern Orthodox and Jewish immigrants. Coming on the heels of a heterodox spiritual turmoil, exemplified by the Millerite Millenarians and the (Mormon) Church of Latter-Day Saints, many saw the imminent demise of their comfortable world. The artist and inventor, Samuel F.B. Morse was one of them. A stiff-necked American protestant who had been humiliated in Europe when a soldier knocked off his hat after he failed to remove it during a religious procession, Morse hated Catholicism and subscribed to a conspiracy theory that the Vatican was training a secret army in the Midwest. He would become an influential spokesman for like-minded people who coalesced first into social clubs and then local political movements. These clubs generally aped Masonic rituals and included blood oaths and secret signs. They appealed to angry, disaffected individuals who craved the bonds of fraternity and the guilty thrill of possessing arcane insider knowledge, as well as to opportunists seeking power.
Ignoring the fact that the true “Native Americans” or “First Nations” had been forcibly displaced by their own English and European immigrant ancestors, these reactionary hotheads began calling themselves “the Natives,” meaning Anglo-Americans whose parents or grandparents had arrived before 1840, preferably early enough to fight the hated “Brits” in 1775 and 1812. Indeed, the earliest of the “Native” platforms was a repudiation of anything from England – goods, customs, literature and so forth. Morse’s anti-Catholicism and other local disgruntlements would soon merge into a sort of equal-opportunity hatred. To repeat a stereotype, Southern “Natives” hated blacks (and northern abolitionists), Westerners hated Mexicans, Midwesterners hated Germans, New Englanders hated the Irish, Californians hated the Chinese and New Yorkers hated everyone. Although Nativist agitators always remained a minority group, their propaganda saw wide distribution in the popular press.
America’s two-party system reached a crisis as the faltering Whig party lost its power base and reasons for existence. All but killed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed new territories to choose whether to enter the Union as free or slave states, the Whigs dissolved into factionalism. Into the vacuum stepped a number of third parties, including the Native American Party, founded in 1845, (and renamed the American Party in 1855,) and the antislavery groups that would later form the Republican Party. Violence, culminating in anti-Catholic riots in Philadelphia and New York, often accompanied the “Natives” in their bids for political power. After winning many local elections and influencing others in 1854, party membership swelled to over a million voters.
The 1840s was the decade of America’s “Manifest Destiny” to “o’erspread the continent” as Irish-American newspaper editor John L. O’Sullivan advocated. Texas became a state in 1845. A short, nasty war with Mexico in 1846-1848 increased U.S. territory by almost a third and extended its boundaries to the Pacific Ocean. During the war, thanks to a little invention by S.F.B. Morse, the conspiracy theorist, dispatches could be telegraphed from Mexico to New Orleans and relayed to the eastern publishing centers. The newfangled daily penny press got such a boost from the immediacy of war news that the printed word became a major influence among the lower classes.
The “story paper,” a large sheet, complete with engraved masthead, which contained serial fiction, but resembled a newspaper, flowered during the late 1840s. Regular newspapers had always used short fiction as space fillers, but the story paper was an entirely novel concept (pun intended.) Because publishers hated to fork out real money for copy, they pirated English periodicals heavily or exclusively. This did not go down well with the anti-English “Natives,” who demanded their own American fiction. Most publishers ignored the fringe groups who could not afford to subscribe, but some saw an untapped market and began to court the “great unwashed” with politically-charged fiction. In Boston, Frederic Gleason, the pioneer of the illustrated weekly, issued a series of jingoistic story papers, such as “The Flag of Our Union,” which trumpeted the “Native” message throughout the country, disguised as harmless adventure or “domestic” fiction. It is often difficult to see the raw impact of these early potboilers from our media-saturated perspective, but to entertainment-starved people it seemed like manna from heaven. And the propaganda was devoured as avidly as the melodrama.
If one individual personified the phenomenon, he was brilliant and erratic Edward Zane Carroll Judson, better known as “Ned Buntline.” Judson was a fascinating rogue, bigamist, alcoholic, temperance lecturer, naval officer, duelist and sensational novelist. The co-founder of a Nativist political organization, he also contributed incendiary melodramas to a number of story papers, in addition to “Ned Buntline’s Own.” He spent a year incarcerated on Blackwell’s Island for his role in New York’s Astor Place Riot of 1849. During the 1840s and ‘50s, Eugene Sue’s Mysteres de Paris had spawned a flood of melodramas that purported to be fact-based exposees. G.W.M. Reynolds produced The Mysteries of London, while William Harrison Ainsworth chronicled The Mysteries of the Court of the Stuarts. In America, George Lippard’s The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk’s Hall inspired Ned Buntline to commence his interminable The Mysteries and Miseries of New York. Set in the Manhattan slums, the serial also contained a valuable glossary of “flash” slang. Sociological studies began appearing during the decade as well, ranging from George G. Foster’s New York by Gas Light to Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. In both the U.S. and England, the social scientists followed closely in the track of the novelists.
Although a historical mish-mash, Martin Scorsese’s cinematic “Gangs of New York,” drawing heavily from Herbert Asbury’s book of the same title, accurately depicts the mind-set of the Nativist denizens of New York’s worst slum, the “Five Points.” In addition to humdrum criminal activities, the Five Points gangs served as hired “muscle” for Democratic ward-heelers like “Boss” W.M. Tweed and Mayor Fernando Wood. Thugs calling themselves “Dead Rabbits” and “Plug-Uglies” battled each other during elections, each trying to prevent opposition voters from reaching the polls. New York’s “tribes” were a microcosm of the country as a whole: an uneasy federation of independent governments. It is no accident that antebellum Americans referred to “These United States” in the plural. Affairs grew so lawless in New York that the ineffective Municipal Police force had to be replaced by the state-controlled “Metropolitan” Police, whose copper badges soon earned them the sobriquet of “cops.”
Against this background, cheap publishers churned out the nastiest propaganda, recycling such tired hacks as the 1835 shocker “Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk” and adding newer vitriol, like Isaac Kelso’s Danger in the Dark, notable for its frontispiece of the Pope skewering the American eagle while trampling the Constitution. In New York, respectable firms like Harper and Brothers put out the same type of nonsense as Robert M. DeWitt at a slightly higher price. These overheated works rehashed the unsuccessfully suppressed sexuality and sadism allegedly rampant in cloisters and convents, together with vague warnings of the end of religious freedom. Along with the hate literature, publishers’ lists included biographies of street fighter William Poole, (the real-life “Bill the Butcher,”) and adventure novels about highwaymen, Indian killers and urban crime. This heady mixture reflects the pattern of anxieties among the readers of paperbacks.
Although they would have denied the allegation, American publishers closely followed a British model. Several of the early writers and producers of cheap fiction for the masses had been involved with the failed Chartist movement. There has always been a close connection between radical political views and cheap fiction. In the 1960s western countercultural movements, a subversive “underground” press played a key role, similar to the forbidden counterrevolutionary “samizdat” in Soviet Russia. Thanks to cheaper papermaking and steam presses, literature for the masses first became available in the 1830s and ‘40s. Coupled with high literacy rates in England and America, these developments made America’s first widespread hate group possible, but also served to defeat it. Although they ran ex-president Millard Fillmore for a second try at the chief magistracy in 1856, the emptiness of their negative platform alienated the electorate, with an assist from the mainstream popular press. Their stock reply of “I know nothing,” when questioned by police, led to their best-remembered nickname, which sounded just as hilarious in the 1850s as it would coming from “Sgt. Schultz” on the “Hogan’s Heroes” television comedy. Although hatred of newcomers and minorities would never go away, the “Know Nothings” died out as a political force just before the Civil War. The harsh realities of disunion made their anti-immigrant vaporings irrelevant.
For Further Reading:
Tyler Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s (Oxford University Press, 1994)
Jay Monaghan, The Great Rascal. The Exploits of the Amazing Ned Buntline (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1951)
Bernard De Voto, The Year of Decision, 1846 ((Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1943)
Michael Denning, Mechanic Accents. Dime Novels and Working Class Culture in America (London & N.Y.: Verso, 1987)
Shelley Streeby, American Sensations: Class, Empire, and the Production of Popular Culture (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2002)
Anthony Gronowicz, Race & Class politics in New York City Before the Civil War (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998)
Ray Allen Billington, “The Know-Nothing Uproar” American Heritage, X, 2, February, 1959. A summary excerpt of his The Protestant Crusade, 1800-1860 (1938)