Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Know Nothing / American Party Foxboro 1854-1855

In 1854, a new political party, shrouded in secrecy and campaigning only within the confines of a network of member-only lodges, empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by Irish Catholic immigrants, who were often regarded as hostile to American values and controlled by the Pope in Rome, scored its greatest triumph in Massachusetts.
The origin of the "Know Nothing" term was in the semi-secret organization of the party. When a member was asked about its activities, he or she was supposed to reply, "I know nothing."

In the 1854 state elections the Know Nothing Party, officially known as the American Party, won complete control of the executive and legislative branches of the Commonwealth. It took the governorship, all the state offices, all congressional seats, and all the state Senate seats, and won all but three House seats. Foxboro elected two residents to this Know Nothing legislature, Jedson E. Carpenter and John Litttlefield. State Senator Carpenter was the son of a prominent local family, a school committee person and insurance agent. Representative John Littlefield was a local surgeon dentist. History records that it was Carpenter who "introduced this [American] party into the town and was one of the most earnest in procuring for it numerical strength and party power."

The secret oath sworn by Know Nothing Members included the phrase, "To defend our Republican Institutions against the encroachments of the Church of Rome…and its ignorant and deluded followers….we are associated on a secret Military Order…. Raise your right hand up before the floating flag of your country [and] place your right foot on the emblem of the Church of Rome."

On January 22, 1855, Littlefield and Carpenter presented to the Massachusetts General Court the Foxboro petition of local business magnate, Erastus P. Carpenter and 225 male residents, the three selectmen among the signers, the following petition, "The Undersigned Petitioners believing that no person should be deprived of Liberty without due process of law and believing also that in certain institutions within this state, known as convents, nunneries or by whatever name they may be designated, persons who once enter them and take upon themselves certain vows are forever debarred from leaving them however much they may desire to do so, and believing that acts of villainy, injustice, and wrong are perpetrated within the walls of said institutions with impunity as a result of their immunity from public inspections. Therefore your petitioners earnestly and respectfully pray your honorable bodies, to enact such a law as will bring all such institutions under the inspection of the Civil Authorities of the state."

On a motion of Mr. Littlefield the petition was referred to a joint special committee. The committee was named the Special Committee on the Inspection of Nunneries and Convents with John Littlefield as the chairman. The committee, with Senator Carpenter as a guest, visited the Academy of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Roxbury, Holy Cross College and a Catholic school in Lowell. The conduct and actions of some of the members came under question and the committee quickly lost its credibility.

Unfortunately Carpenter, Littlefield and by association the signers of the Foxboro petition, the misbehavior of the committee was exposed in the Boston papers and resulted in a published investigative legislative report that was an embarrassment for the town. The opening statements of the report stated that "...gentleman from that town appear to have a singular sensitiveness on this subject of nunneries and convents...none of these are so near Foxborough that the people of that town have any particular faculties for knowing their character. They may call them ‘convents’ and they may call the sisters ‘nuns,’ if they choose; but the name does not make the thing. There is this very important difference which the rest of mankind outside Foxborough may choose to regard."

Fortunately for Foxboro, and the rest of the Commonwealth, the Know Nothing legislature lasted only a year. The national issue of slavery soon took prominence over immigration. But the local interest of anti-immigration continued on in Foxboro. The slavery issue lead to the formation of the Republican Party. In 1856 the Know Nothing Party ran former president Millard Fillmore for president.

The American Party in Foxboro supported the candidacy of Fillmore and held several rallies in support of their candidate. The constitution of the Foxboro Fillmore Club, established in September 1856, with John Littlefield as president and Jedson Carpenter as vice president stated, "We hold that these preferences should be sustained by the members of the American Party throughout the Union, on the ground that the evils which caused the formation of the party are still among us. A corrupt 'foreign influence' still sways its scepter over the sanctity of our ballot box. The same designs to pervert our government by a foreign priesthood, and the predominance in civil power of an Ecclesiastical Hierarchy."


Post a Comment

<< Home