Can you believe such a crude “know-nothing,” immigrant-bashing, trash-talking, fickle rich guy exploiting working man nativist white prejudices could advance so far politically? He was one of those partying brats with a strict father who turned serious after college, yet still struck many as a candidate “as ridiculous as satire could invent.” But immigration arrivals had quintupled in ten years. Crime and poverty relief budgets soared. The system was so broken down that, as one senator acknowledged, “The people were tired of the old parties and they have made a new channel.” So, this market-savvy businessman shrewdly shifted from peddling to politics—adjusting key positions to maximize popular disgust.
Yes, in 1854, the once-wayward youth, Henry Gardner, stopped selling wool and started spinning political yarns, stoking the anti-establishment anger identified by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. On Election Day, Gardner won a HUUUGE victory in the Massachusetts gubernatorial race, attracting 63 percent of the vote along with the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s contempt. The “new legislature consisted of one Whig, one Democrat, one Republican,” the historian David Herbert Donald wrote “— and 377 Know-nothings.”
Surprisingly, the Know-Nothings saddled themselves with their unflattering name. This anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-liquor, protest party originated in organizations protecting Protestant prerogatives as Catholics streamed into the cities. This was the time of NINA—No Irish Need Apply. Harvard hosted annual Dudleian Lectures devoted to “detecting, convicting, and exposing the idolatry, errors and superstitions of the Romish Church.”
Groups like The Sons of Sires, The Druids, The Order of United Americans, came and went, while The Order of the Star Spangled Banner built a nationwide coalition into The American Party. Delighting in secret passwords and elaborate handshakes, members initially dismissed questions about their party—code named Sam—saying “I know nothing.”
Since 1846, more than 100,000 poor Irish Catholics had immigrated to Massachusetts alone. Worcester became 25 percent Irish. Boston became majority Irish. And Henry Gardner’s promise to “Americanize America” became relevant.
Born in Dorchester in 1818, educated—and entertained—at Bowdoin College, this dry goods merchant abandoned the Whig Party, joining what one abolitionist called the battle of “freedom, temperance and Protestantism against slavery, rum, and Romanism.” Surprisingly, his appeal—sweetened with populist, progressive reforms—worked.
This inexperienced demagogue became Governor of Massachusetts. The Whig orator Edward Everett considered Gardner “a man of some cleverness, but no solidity of character.” Surely, “Anything more low, obscene, feculent, the manifold heavings of history have not cast,” the former Whig Congressman and Boston Brahmin Rufus Choate wrote. “We shall come to the worship of onions, cats and things vermiculate”—worm-infested.
Gardner kept his word, enacting some odious plans—and lovelier reforms too. He deported over 1000 “illegal” aliens. He banned foreigners from the police force. The Massachusetts Constitution still has an “Anti-Aid” amendment, updated in 1917, outlawing public subsidies to schools run by “any religious sect.” Gardner and his legislative allies also ended imprisonment for debt, lightened bankruptcy laws, limited child labor, curtailed alcohol sales, mandated children’s vaccinations, let women own property, democratized more state offices, and invested in infrastructure.
Gardner’s bill forcing immigrants to wait 21 years before voting failed. Instead, immigrant-voters had to be citizens for two years and residents for seven. Eventually, Gardner overstepped, as bigots do. An investigation into convents and Catholic boarding houses triggered Americans’ characteristic decency after the lead investigator insulted nuns and hired prostitutes. Gardner served three one-year terms, with waning legislative strength.
As with Joe McCarthy’s libels in the 1950s, and Donald Trump’s racism today, some political allies feared confronting the demagogue. The fiery Senator Charles Sumner, who saw Gardner angling for his Senate seat and approved the Know Nothings’ anti-Slavery stance, initially kept quiet. Sumner even submitted to the Congress, without comment, a petition demanding a tax of $250 per immigrant.
Sumner finally attacked in 1855, when Gardner sought re-election: “I am not disposed to place any check upon the welcome to foreigners,” Sumner proclaimed. “Ourselves the children of the Pilgrims of a former generation, let us not turn from the Pilgrims of the present.” Still, Gardner won. And in 1856, the new anti-Slavery Republican Party was guilty, some Republicans charged, of “dabbing in the dirty pool of Know-Nothingism,” pursuing “a cautious, timid, and time-serving policy.”
Abraham Lincoln also avoided attacking Know Nothings publicly because he sought anti-Slavery nativists for his fledgling Republican Party. Yet Lincoln was “not a Know-Nothing—that is certain,” he wrote a friend on Aug. 24, 1855. “How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, 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 equals, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to that 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.”
The Know Nothing Party soon fizzled. The Republicans’ anti-slavery fight upstaged nativism. Know Nothings used the party as a way station in drifting toward Republicanism. In Massachusetts and elsewhere, the American Party’s success also defeated itself, as the ideological movement became a political machine. By 1857, Senator Sumner sneered: “You have no real principles on which you stand. You are nothing but a party of Gardnerites.” Gardner lost after three terms, retiring in 1858 into obscurity until he died in 1892.
This summer, former Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn and the Pioneer Institute demanded repeal of the “anti-Aid” amendment and the removal of Gardner’s portrait from the Massachusetts Statehouse. The repeal is a nonpartisan no-brainer: Conservatives object that the amendment blocks vouchers and other government financing of charter schools, while they and liberals detest this symbol of bigotry.
However, while making necessary legal changes makes sense, sanitizing our history doesn’t. Progress progresses progressively not directly. Gardner’s portrait should remain, demonstrating Lincoln’s insight. Those five words—“all men are created equal”—sparked a second American Revolution. The meaning of “all” and “men” and “equal” have expanded exponentially. Better to remember and learn from our temporary wrong turns, than to tell a Disneyfied story that doesn’t prepare us to fight the demagogue, the bigot, who hasn’t learned from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, from Sumner and Lincoln—at their best.