There were rapid changes in the American political scene during the 1850s. The Whig Party, led by Henry Clay, was fading. The Democratic Party, the party of Andrew Jackson, was in control. But not for much longer. Sectionalism, slavery, and immigration were splitting the Democrats apart. The Republican Party would soon replace the Whigs as the opponents of the Democrats. And a third party would come along to briefly throw the others into confusion.
This was the Native American Party, better known as the Know-Nothings. They arose as a reaction against the immigration of impoverished Germans and Irish and the subsequent alarming rise in crime and welfare costs. They were strongly anti-Catholic, believing that Catholics were under the control of a foreign power, the Pope.
The party began among anti-Catholic secret societies opposed to Democratic policies. The “Know-Nothing” nickname came about because they were instructed to answer “I know nothing” if asked about these secretive organizations.
The members of the party saw themselves as honest, patriotic, fair-dealing opponents of foreign influence and corruption in politics. Their symbol was Citizen Know-Nothing, an idealized American farmer, handsome, young, and white.
John Bidwell’s friend, Nelson Blake, writing from Boston in 1854, typified the concerns and prejudices of the Know-Nothing Party.
I will fix you up a package of “Bosting” papers as specimens of some of the ‘Isms that are rooted and growing here, prominent among which is “Know Nothingism.” A portion of their creed, as far as can be ascertained that is, I go in for. No man that looks upon the Pope as Christ’s Vice-Regent and infallible is fit to be one of a people who make their own laws and choose their own rulers, for where all are at the “beck and nod” of one man, all are of one mind, and he (the Pope) is Absolute Monarch over them, and if the people go through the formality of electing Officers, you may be certain they are of the right stamp and such as “He” approves of, men after his own heart. Blake to Bidwell, 25 July, 1854
I learn from the papers that there is a shaking among the politicians in Cal. even as elsewhere, but out there from a different cause. Your watch-word is Reform! Ours is Nativism and they are both good. When such a man or Scholar as Orestes A. Brownson cannot write an article to be published until it is submitted to the inspection of Bishop Fitzpatrick or Patrick Somebody! because forsooth he is within the pale of the “Holy Church”? and he though a good Catholic, is still a Yankee born one and must not be trusted too far. When a Religion whose Leader demands that of his followers, comes to meddle in petty States and National politics, or Governments, ‘tis time to say “Hold!” Blake to Bidwell, 17 Sept. 1854
Unfortunately, we do not have Bidwell’s replies to Blake’s letters during the 1850s, so it is difficult to know how Bidwell reacted to these statements, although he did not join the Know-Nothings. We do know that the Know-Nothings were, for one election cycle, a powerful force in California politics.
Next time: The Know-Nothings in California