The Know Nothing Party, originally known as the American Party, came into prominence in 1853. Yet, thanks to Abraham Lincoln insisting on the basic principles the Founding Fathers, this “hate group” was thwarted in its designs to rid the country of anyone — including Catholics — who didn’t fit their idea of “America.”
Know Nothing Party members supported the deportation of beggars and criminals, a 21-year naturalization period for all immigrants, and the elimination of all Catholics from public office. It was a secret society, with secret passwords and hand signs. Members were not allowed to talk about their society and when asked about it, they would reply, “I know nothing” — hence their name. At the height of its power, in the 1850s, the party claimed more than 100 elected congressmen, eight governors, a controlling share of half-a dozen state legislatures from Massachusetts to California, and thousands of local politicians.
Between 1845 and 1854, some 2.9 million immigrants poured into the country, many of them Catholic. The intensely xenophobic Know Nothing Party went into action. Posters in the Boston area proclaimed, “All Catholics and all persons who favor the Catholic Church are ... vile imposters, liars, villains, and cowardly cutthroats.” Catholic churches were burned and Know Nothing gangs spread to a number of major cities including Boston, New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, St. Louis, and San Francisco. Lincoln’s commitment to the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, however, prevailed.
“As a nation,” Lincoln declared in an 1855 letter to his close friend Joshua Speed, “we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ 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 pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”
Lincoln knew exactly what the Know Nothings were up to and stood firmly in their way. Lincoln, and other men of principle, were instrumental in seeing the dissolution of the Know Nothing Party in 1860, the year he was elected President.
America is now besieged by a nameless group that is striking against the very principles of freedom and human rights for which one of her greatest presidents fought and died. As the Know Nothing Party sought to thwart Catholics in their life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, so too, today, the new “Know Nothings” include Catholicism among their targets, as indicated by their rancorous destruction of statues to famous Catholics such as St. Junipero Serra and Christopher Columbus.
But some are paying attention and seeking to remind the country of its better angels. On July 3, 2020, President Donald Trump delivered his most patriotic speech in the shadows of Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, where Lincoln’s image, along with those of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt, are carved in stone. At the same time, this same nameless group was demeaning these four titanic figures as representing “White Supremacy.”
History tends to repeat itself, though names may change. But history also teaches us hope. America is extraordinarily resilient. The Know-Nothing secret society is no longer with us although its operating principle of rejecting the poorest and most vulnerable has re-surfaced in various guises from the Ku Klux Klan to Planned Parenthood. Remnants of the party itself may have metamorphosed into the plague against which America is now defending itself.
The president made it clear in his speech that the figures carved in Mount Rushmore stand for the founding spirit of America which is also its lasting legacy: “Today, we pay tribute to the exceptional lives and extraordinary legacies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt. I am here as your president to proclaim before the country and before the world: This monument will never be desecrated, these heroes will never be defaced, their legacy will never, ever be destroyed, their achievements will never be forgotten, and Mount Rushmore will stand forever as an eternal tribute to our forefathers and to our freedom.”
On that same occasion, Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota strongly advised Americans not to forget the Founding Fathers. People are “paralyzed by the present and defeated about the future,” she said. But rather than destroy history, she encouraged people to learn from it.
Gutzon Borglum is a name that is familiar to very few American, but the presidential faces he carved on Mount Rushmore is something that they are not likely to forget. The lifelike figures of Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lincoln stand 60-feet tall from a mountain height of 5,725-feet high and can be observed from miles away.
The project required the assistance of 400 workers and the blasting away of 450,000 short tons of rock. Granite was the canvas and dynamite was the chisel. It took a dozen years, from 1927 to 1939, for Borglum and his assistants to complete the work. The more than 2 million tourists who visit the site in the Black Hills of South Dakota annually no doubt scratch their heads and think, “How on earth did human ingenuity manage to carry out such a colossal project while compromising neither beauty nor accuracy?”
Borglum was fascinated with heroic nationalism (he named his only child Lincoln) and creating artistic works on a gigantic scale. He chose Washington to be the most dominant figure. It was an appropriate way, according to his thinking, of incarnating the following words of America’s first president:
“The preservation of the sacred fire of Liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” Liberty was thus carved in stone. And no security guards would be needed, as they are at the Louvre, to prevent theft. For President Lincoln, liberty and democracy “shall not perish from the earth.”
Like the Ten Commandments, the faces on Mount Rushmore are immortalized in stone. As such, they symbolize a lasting tribute to liberty and human rights — principles which speak as much to the Catholic experience in America as to America itself. If the presidents these faces on Mt. Rushmore personify were not perfect in life (and what mere human being is?), who, then, is without sin and morally justified in hurling the first stone?
Once again, the United States must reinforce its principles of liberty and equality, and reaffirm its gratitude to the heroes who stood fast for these sacred values. If the bizarre rush to judgment on the part of the new Know Nothings were to be realized, everyone would be disgraced and no one would be left to guide America back to the greatness and prosperity she once enjoyed.
Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is professor emeritus as St. Jerome’s University, Ontario, and adjunct professor Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Connecticut. He is a regular columnist for the St. Austin Review. His latest three books, How To Navigate through Life, Apostles of the Culture of Life, (posted on amazon.com), and soon to be published, A Moral Compass for a World in Confusion.