A Den of Know Nothings, Papists, and Radicals: NYC in the 1850s

By Glen Olson

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From the Know Nothings to Donald Trump, New York City has often been a hotspot of nativism. Back in the 1850s, the city’s nativism rose partly in reaction to waves of Irish immigrants coming in the wake of potato famine.While the Know Nothings found greater electoral success elsewhere, the roots of the officially named American Party were in New York.

Scholars from Ray Allen Billington to Mae Ngai have helped us better understand nativism.[1] Less investigated is how nativism has shaped immigrant politics. We know that the Know Nothing threat helped tie Irish American voters to the Democratic Party. However, the story of how nativism fit into Irish American politics is often just assumed. The vast majority of Irish immigrants hated the Know Nothings, but it would be wrong to assume that any group of immigrants merely acted with the directionality of a pool ball. Just as antebellum struggles over slavery created fissures in German American communities, so the Know Nothing movement played into the political rivalries of the Irish.

Torchlight meeting of “Know-Nothings “ in New York

Torchlight meeting of “Know-Nothings “ in New York

The rise of the Know Nothings coincided with the battle between Irish nationalists and clergymen for leadership of the immigrant community, and New York Irish elites used Know Nothing rhetoric as a weapon to attack rival factions. Irish editors, politicians, and clergymen blamed each other for the party’s electoral success, arguing that their opponents were giving Irishmen a bad name. One important issue in these debates, which I discuss below, was the question of who should join and control the city’s militia units.

While New York is only one city, it was the most important source of Irish American leadership during the antebellum period. Editorials and sermons printed in New York often were reprinted across the country.Irish nationalists were drawn to New York because of the potential for a large political audience. No other American branch of the Catholic Church had as prominent a spokesman as Archbishop John Hughes, who Know Nothings often perceived as the leader of all American Catholics, Irish or otherwise.

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Born in Ireland, Hughes was different from previous spokesmen for American Catholicism. He did not try to ingratiate himself with American Protestant leaders. Instead, he actively sought to push a political agenda. Hughes gained a reputation as a man willing to aggressively counter anything he deemed a threat to the survival of Catholicism in America. In the words of one contemporary newspaper, “he belongs to the Church militant, and has no faith in the merit of an unresisting martyrdom.”[2] Both his aggressiveness and habit of signing his name with a cross earned him the nickname “Dagger John.”Nativist attacks on Hughes provided rhetorical ammunition to Irish nationalists, who often found themselves at odds with the Church.

Many of the nationalists who fled Ireland for New York in the 1850s had been part of the Young Ireland movement, a group of journalists and activists inspired by the 1848 would-be republican revolutions in Europe. This new generation rejected the strategies of older leaders like Daniel O’Connell, who had tried to gain Church support and work within the institutions of British government in order to achieve Irish autonomy. Young Irelanders believed stronger resistance to the British was needed. But in 1848 their nascent revolt in Ireland was quickly crushed.

English authorities exiled nationalists, including John Mitchel, sent to Australia for thirteen years for his part in the movement. Mitchel escaped, and in 1853 came to New York City during the time that Know Nothings were gaining strength in national politics. While he immersed himself in the politics of his new nation, Mitchel was more interested in using New York as a forward base rather than a permanent home.He founded The Citizen, a newspaper dedicated to continuing the cause of the Young Irelanders, and within a few months of arrivingtargeted Hughes as both a dangerous man and a false shepherd responsible for creating the nativist party.

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Hughes was not one to take the attacks of the Young Irelanders lying down. Under the pseudonym Philo-Veritas, he wrote a series of letters to the Daily Times in the summer of 1854, in which he attacked the Young Irelanders as a dangerous element whose leaders falsely blamed priests for nativist sentiments. Hughes attacked the nationalists’ credibility, writing that “some of them were satisfied with impressing felon’s tracks on Irish soil…whose hearts are apostatized from the honest creed of their country, but whose lips have not yet mustered the bad courage to disavow the faith of their forefathers.”[3] Here the Archbishop painted the Young Irelanders as enemies of the Church, even if they pretended to simply disagree with him as an individual. By depicting and emphasizing the nationalists as felons, Hughes was using Know Nothing fears that America was attracting dangerous immigrants. In other words, a nativist argument was exploited in a leadership battle among Irish American elites.

A 1846 cartoon from the British periodical Punch. The cartoonist portrayed the Young Irelanders as both threatening and ridiculous. Almost a decade later in New York, both the Know Nothings and Hughes would try to paint the same image of the Irish nationalists.

A 1846 cartoon from the British periodical Punch. The cartoonist portrayed the Young Irelanders as both threatening and ridiculous. Almost a decade later in New York, both the Know Nothings and Hughes would try to paint the same image of the Irish nationalists.

In a series of response editorials, Mitchel argued that Hughes was a defender of the tyrannical Papal States, which made him a pernicious influence in America. Connecting Hughes to the strength of the Know Nothings, Mitchel wrote, “Now is it any wonder that Americans should distrust and abhor you! Is it any wonder that our poor Irish, who form the principal portion of your ‘subjects’ here, should have fallen under a cloud from the very shadow of your mitre.”[4] Finishing his letter, Mitchel refused to acknowledge Catholic press arguments that by attacking Hughes he was giving credence to Know Nothing argument:

They say it is ‘imprudent’ and ‘impolitic’ for me to take you to task in this fashion. I laugh at this cant. The subject of this letter is deeply interesting to the American people; is no less interesting to the Irish race, whether here or in their own country…if there be any class of persons in the world I abhor worse than the Orangemen, worse than the Know-Nothings, worse than the Sanfiedisti, it is the inquisitors.[5]

With such rhetoric, Mitchel wanted to show that the nativists were wrong about Irishmen, but right about Hughes.

Hughes feared that radicals like Mitchel would reeducate Irish immigrants through volunteer militia units: the typical way public order was restored when a civil disturbance broke out in antebellum America. These units were composed of local citizenry and given legitimacy by state governments. In times of emergency they fell under the control of the governor. At the time, few cities had a strong police force, especially one capable of handling a riot. In contrast, the U.S. Army was both miniscule and stationed far from urban centers like New York. Civil authorities had to rely on amateurs like militia members, and the composition of these units became a hot-button issue during the years of Know Nothing success.

In addition to filling a major state capacity problem, militia service provided a space in which to mediate questions about citizenship. Since the American Revolution, the potential for military service had been seen a key component of an active republican citizenry. Militia units raised throughout all of the states served both as a preparation for possible war and as a social club for antebellum Americans.

Know Nothings and other nativists feared that immigrant militia units were divided in their loyalties. Would armed Irish Catholics follow the orders of a governor or that of their priests? It is hard for a modern reader to take such fears seriously, to see the participants of social clubs as being the henchmen behind a popish takeover of the United States. But one should keep in mind that in this age of small armies and nascent police forces, militias often found themselves called out to restore domestic order or enforce laws like the Fugitive Slave Act. In such cases, private individuals were transformed into instruments of legitimized violence, usually with very little training or qualification.

Bound up in militia debates were conceptions of political manhood. Often leaders like John Michel used gendered language in attacking the Know Nothings. Mitchel argued that by taking away militia service, the Know-Nothings were trying to take away the badges of republican manhood.If marital service, or least the potential for it, was the justification for the right to civic participation, than the dismissal of Irish units was a step toward depriving them of voting rights. Mitchel urged Irishmen in Know-Nothing-controlled states to form fully independent militia companies, separate from the authority of nativist governors.[6] While outside the official jurisdiction of republican political institutions, such units would still allow Irishmen to hold onto a major qualification for citizenship.

Hughes grew increasingly suspicious of nationalist militia units, worried that they were breeding grounds for the spread of radical Irish nationalism. This was not a ridiculous notion. In the 1870s, militia units were key recruiting stations for the Fenian invasions of Canada. To Hughes and his allies, the militia units also smacked of the separatist secret societies, the type of organization that drew criticism from the Know Nothings; ironically, coming from a party of secret societies. These suspicions appeared to be confirmed when Mitchel explicitly stated that American-based secret societies could be a legitimate means with which “to resist English domination of Ireland and their American conspiracies.”[7]

A telling case of clerical suspicion came in November 1854, when a Father Halsinger gave two sermons condemning an upcoming military ball for the New Jersey City based Meagher Republican Grenadiers, a ball that featured John Mitchel as the guest of honor. He accused Mitchel and the other editors of the Citizen as acting “in concert with the Know-Nothings, and must be ranked with the worst enemies of the Catholic Church.”[8]

Somewhat contradictorily, Halsinger also accused nationalists like Mitchel of running political organizations that epitomized the worst fears of nativists. To participate in militias would, according to Halsinger, ruin both homelands for Irish immigrants. Halsinger denounced Irish nationalist goals to his practitioners, arguing that because they were American citizens foremost, “the law forbids you to have any part in revolutionizing a foreign country.”Halsinger was repeating Know-Nothing arguments about the incompatibility of holding both American and Irish loyalties.

In the struggle for New York Irish American leadership, it is hard not to see the Irish nationalists as clear losers to the clergy and Catholic press. Mitchel left his newspaper the Citizen after both failing to undercut Hughes and offending many with his proslavery views. He eventually moved to the South and started a newspaper during the Civil War.[9] For his role in the conflict, he briefly ended up in jail once more when the war ended. When freed, Mitchel threw himself back into the cause of Irish nationalism.

The battle between clergy and nationalist played out in the use of nativist rhetoric over citizenship, military service, and the proper role of faith in politics. Many of these ideological battles found expression a short time later, when some of the Irish militia units that the nationalists had organized, like the 69th New York Regiment, fought in the Civil War. Although the nationalists failed to sway large numbers away from the Church, their attention to militias resonated with Irish immigrants for decades to come.

Return of the 69th (Irish) Regiment, N.Y.S.M. from the Seat of War, by Louis Lang (1862-1863).

Return of the 69th (Irish) Regiment, N.Y.S.M. from the Seat of War, by Louis Lang (1862-1863).

Glen Olson is a doctoral candidate at The Graduate Center, CUNY, and develops social studies curricula for an educational technology company. He is a regular contributor to Teaching United States History.


[1] Recent work has shown just how important the Know Nothings and other contemporary nativists were to future immigrant restriction. See Hidetaka Hirota, “The Moment of Transition: State Officials, the Federal Government, and the Formation of American Immigration Policy,” Journal of American History (March 2013): 1092-1108.

[2] New York Daily Times, April 20, 1855.

[3] New York Daily Times, August 14, 1854.

[4] New York Daily Times, August 26, 1854.

[5] New York Daily Times, August 26, 1854.

[6]The Citizen, January 20, 1855.

[7] The Citizen, January 24, 1854.

[8] Irish-American, November 18, 1854.

[9] For good coverage of this and other phases of Mitchel’s life, see Bryan P. McGovern, John Mitchel: Irish Nationalist, Southern Secessionist (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2009).