Though Massachusetts created the first statutes in America establishing African slavery, Catholics were found to be far worse and unwanted strangers prior to the Civil War. A power-base for the nativist Know-Nothing party of the mid-1800s, the Massachusetts legislature desegregated its public schools in order to exclude Catholics, with one observer commenting that “the legislature might appear to have acted inconsistently, opening Massachusetts schools to one minority group while proposing discriminatory statutes against another. However, blacks were Protestants and native-born, and posed no threat to the Protestant curriculum that Know-Nothings found so important.” By 1856, the Know-Nothing party was absorbed by the new Republican party.
Catholics and Know-Nothings
“As Irish Catholic immigration to New York City and other northeastern cities skyrocketed during the Irish potato famine (1846-1850), and prelates like [Archbishop of New York, John] Hughes began to succeed in obtaining State funds for Catholic schools, nativist political resolve increased. Another factor that increased nativist hostility was the Catholic hierarchy’s refusal to condemn slavery and its [later] apparent support for the Confederacy. In his recent book “Catholicism and American Freedom,” John T. McGreevy . . . argues that the acceptance of slavery among Catholic intellectuals “rested upon the pervasive fear of liberal individualism and social order that so shaped Catholic thought during the nineteenth century, along with the anti-Catholicism of many abolitionists.”
By 1854 the earlier political manifestations of the nativist movement had matured into a full-fledged political party. The American, or Know-Nothing,” party enjoyed short-lived success in the 1854 election, when it won six governorships and achieved majorities in the State legislatures of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and California. Despite the low concentration of immigrants in western Pennsylvania, the Know-Nothings did well there . . . attributed to the high percentage of Anglo-Saxon residents in that area combined with “the belief that the Know-Nothings would advance the temperance and anti-slavery movements.”
The main object of Know-Nothing State legislatures was to introduce legislation that would prevent Catholic immigrants from voting. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maine passed laws prohibiting State judges from naturalizing immigrants . . . [and] including the first literacy tests for voting, were passed in order to disenfranchise the Irish.
The party’s platform focused on voting rights . . . and requiring the exclusion of foreigners and Catholics from public office. In Massachusetts, where Know-Nothings were strongest, they passed legislation which prohibited the disbursement of public funds to private schools, required that all public school children, including Catholics, read daily from the Protestant King James Version of the Bible, and desegregated the public school system.”
(Breach of Faith: American Churches and the Immigration Crisis, James C. Russell, Representative Government Education Press, 2004, excerpt pp. 26-27)