Religious bigotry is all the rage in some political circles these days as everyone from candidates for state office right up to Presidential candidates contend that Muslims are born terrorists. And I have to say that since the goal of the actual terrorists is to terrorize, they seem to have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, at least among the right wing here in the U.S.
One of the real downers for those of us who enjoy reading and writing about history is that it seems no one ever learns a thing from it these days. And since learning from past mistakes is one of the major reasons for studying history in the first place, it is extremely frustrating.
The current rampant fear-mongering on the right is a good case in point. In fact, it’s several cases in point. There hasn’t been a national crisis in years that the right hasn’t used to sow fear to create panic and dissension. Last week’s shooting rampage, the one out in California by a couple of unhinged Muslim malcontents, seems to have driven more than a few folks right over the edge, something that didn’t happen, for some reason, with the recent rampages by the Christian terrorists who gunned down Baptist prayer meeting attendees in South Carolina and people unlucky enough to be near a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado.
Hate, when you get right down to it, is pretty ecumenical. Time was, the in folks to hate were Catholics, the Irish, and Germans. There was enough hate percolating around, in fact, to settle out and create the basis of an entire political party.
In the 1840s and ‘50s, the United States was experiencing a strong surge of ethnic and religious rancor and fear, with Catholics bearing the brunt of the hate of the dominant Protestants. The fear arose from the increasing numbers of Irish and Germans who were immigrating to the U.S. to escape everything from famine to war. Most of those new immigrants were Catholic and as their numbers increased, they posed a potential political challenge to the Protestant establishment.
As the number of Catholics continued to grow, so did the conspiracy theories about why they were immigrating, chief among those theories being that the Pope was planning to subjugate the nation by increasing the Catholic vote. To combat the perceived threat, a number of secret societies were founded with names like the Order of the Star Spangled Banner and the Order of United Americans. Society members worked to establish political parties that would champion their views—the existing Whig and Democratic parties were considered far too cozy with foreigners—and the end result was the American Party. Because of its secret society foundation, members of the new party were encouraged not to divulge its stands on the most contentious issues, but instead were instructed to reply to questions with “I know nothing.” It didn’t take long for opponents to dub party members the Know Nothings.
The American Party ran candidates for state and local offices in the 1856 election with platforms that promised to crack down on crime, enforce Sunday saloon closings, encourage the use of the Bible and prayer in public schools, and appoint only American-born citizens to government positions. The party was strongest in Massachusetts and New York, but American Party candidates ran in many states.
In 1856, voters here in Illinois, had the opportunity to vote for American Party candidates for President and Governor. Former Whig President Millard Fillmore was their Presidential candidate while Buckner Stith Morris, a former mayor of Chicago and sitting Lake County circuit court judge, ran for Governor of Illinois.
In Kendall County, the appeals to religious and ethnic bigotry didn’t get much traction. Stith only polled 10 votes for Governor, while the GOP candidate, William Henry Bissell, not only swept Kendall with 1,615 out of 1,954, but became the first Republican Illinois Governor.
Fillmore, too, was crushed in Kendall County, polling just 13 votes out of 1,969 cast for President.
Unfortunately, the winner of the 1856 Presidential election, Democrat James Buchanan, proved to be one of the nation’s worst Presidents, whose incompetence sped the country’s march towards civil war.
Which, strangely enough, brings us to Seward Township here in Kendall County. In 1850, the Illinois General Assembly allowed counties to adopt the township form of government as opposed to the former commission form. Under the commission form of government, three commissioners formed the entire county board. Under the township form, the supervisors from each township in the county formed the county board.
Since so many of Kendall County’s new residents came from states back east where township government was the norm, it was quickly adopted by the voters here, meaning the county’s townships needed official names. The folks living in Seward Township decided to name their township after Benjamin Franklin, and the name appeared on the township’s official U.S. Census returns for 1850. But there was a conflict with another Illinois township and so residents, so many of whom emigrated from New York State, decided to change it to Seward, after William H. Seward, former governor and U.S. Senator from New York—and Abraham Lincoln’s future U.S. Secretary of State.
Seward was born May 16, 1801 in Orange County, N.Y. He was admitted to the New York bar in 1822, and quickly became involved in state politics, including, in the late 1820s, with the anti-Masonic movement. He was elected to the New York State Senate in 1830. After an unsuccessful campaign for governor in 1834, he ran again in 1838, and was elected.
He was an early anti-slavery advocate, a popular position in New York outside of New York City, and in 1848 his stand against slavery got him elected to the U.S. Senate under the Whig Party banner.
As Seward rose in New York’s political hierarchy, he came into constant conflict with the state’s nativists, who eventually turned into the Know Nothings. He was never sympathetic to the growing nativist movement, and after that brief fling with the anti-Masonic movement, he seems to have developed both ethnic and religious tolerance unusual for his day.
By the early 1850s, Seward’s Whig Party was beginning to disintegrate, split by the slavery issue into the “conscience” and “cotton” wings, and the Know Nothings were eagerly waiting to step in and pick up whatever pieces they could grab. Oddly enough, many northern Know Nothings, while rabidly anti-foreigner and anti-Catholic, were also anti-slavery. As a result, they worked hard to convince anti-slavery “conscience” Whigs to join the American Party at the expense of the then-brand new Republican Party.
Seward, by then a political power in his own right, decided the Know Nothings were both wrong and dangerous, and he determined to fight them for political control of New York. Even so, in 1852—nearing the height of their power—Know Nothings took virtual political control of the state. But just two years later, Seward won a resounding and overwhelming victory, gaining reelection to the U.S. Senate, this time as a Republican.
What had happened during those few years? Just as had happened to the Whigs, the northern and southern wings of the Know Nothings split over both slavery and Catholicism. Many Louisiana Know Nothings were Catholic, something northern party members couldn’t abide. Nor could southern party members abide the northerners’ anti-slavery position. After managing to run a Presidential candidate in 1856, the Know Nothings pretty much collapsed.
The Know Nothings’ residue drifted to either the new Republicans, or the Democrats—who themselves were beginning to splinter into slavery and anti-slavery wings. During Buchanan’s disastrous Presidency, slavery became the premier sectional issue, one that eventually split the entire nation, temporarily dampening nativist and religious bigotry as the nation was engulfed in war.
Seward Township’s name is a reminder of that unfortunate era of American history when bigotry was formalized into a national political party. Today’s politicians, especially Republican Presidential contenders, would do well to take heed of what happened to the Know Nothings when political bigotry got out of hand. The question is, will there be another William Seward waiting in the wings to save the GOP from itself.