Legacy of the ‘Know-Nothings’

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“The Irish are perhaps the only people in our history with the distinction of  having a political party, the Know-Nothings, formed against them,” wrote John F.  Kennedy in his 1958 book, “A Nation of Immigrants.” Today, few people realize  that the Massachusetts Constitution has two Know-Nothing-style amendments, which  still thrust their mid-nineteenth century bigotry into our world.

Massachusetts in the 1850s was a bustling, disjointed, and rapidly growing  state. The Yankee Commonwealth and its cities were undergoing seismic industrial  and social transformations. New and powerful railroads, factories, telegraph  lines, and banks ruled the day. The mass immigration of tens-of-thousands of  souls fleeing the Irish Potato Famine fueled this mighty engine, which would  drive the Commonwealth’s historic economic growth.

Despite comprising one-quarter of the population in Boston and many other  cities in Massachusetts, Irish emigrants were confronted by ethnic, religious,  and economic prejudice from urban Yankees. The Irish only sought what all  immigrants look for in America: refuge from tyranny, religious freedom, and  jobs. Regrettably, wrote author Jack Beatty, “in the 1850s…[t]he grammar of  Massachusetts politics was being laid down.”

The American Party, or Know-Nothings, code-named “Sam,” plotted their  anti-immigrant rise in fraternal lodges one historian called, “cocoon[s] of  secrecy.” They assured clandestine party membership with peculiar handshakes and  the password, “I know nothing.” Charles Francis Adams, the anti-slavery  statesman whose grandfather drafted the Massachusetts Constitution, rebuked “Sam,” stating that the “essence of the secret obligations which bind these men  together…[was] productive of nothing but fraud, corruption, and treachery.”

In 1854, the Know-Nothings rode a cunning platform of anti-Catholic nativism  and progressive reforms to the largest electoral landslide in Bay State history. “Sam” had unmasked itself in the voting booths and swept every constitutional  office in the state and won all but three legislative seats. Led by their  governor, Henry J. Gardner, and a legislative super-majority, the Know-Nothings  promulgated a flood of appallingly anti-constitutional laws designed to “Americanize America.” Properly understood, Know-Nothingism was not so much a  political movement, but an anti-Irish-Catholic cult.

More than 150 years later, Governor Gardner’s nativist “Anti-Aid” amendment,  which prevents disbursement of state funds and local tax revenues to parochial  schools, is an infamous legacy that still endures. In 1917, a revised “Anti-Aid” amendment was passed, and together these two constitutional sons of “Sam” continue to insult the integrity of both our educational system and state  laws.

These Anti-Aid Amendments serve today as legal barriers to improving our  children’s education. The Know-Nothing amendments prevent more than 100,000  urban families in Massachusetts with children in chronically under-performing  districts from receiving scholarship vouchers that would grant them greater  school choice.

Removal of these amendments, which were conceived in prejudice, would help  revitalize the urban educational landscape in Massachusetts. In essence, school  funding from the state could follow the student, as it does in higher education  across America, and all parents could choose from a wide variety of different  private, public charter, vocational-technical, and parochial school options for  their children.

Critics of school choice frequently claim that having a choice would draw  religion into the public domain. However, individual parents, and not the state,  utilizing scholarship vouchers to select the most appropriate schools for their  children, respects the highest spirit of Thomas Jefferson’s desire to keep “a  wall of separation between church and state.” By self-selecting their  communities and schools, wealthy families have had these options available to  them for decades. Presently, many poor children are walled off from the same  educational opportunities.

Authored by John Adams in 1780, the Massachusetts Constitution, the oldest  written constitution in the world, just celebrated its 232nd anniversary. Yet,  today, Governor Gardner’s State House portrait still hangs unsuspectingly next  to the main entrance of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Likewise,  the Know-Nothings’ bigoted amendments continue to reside cozily within our  state’s Constitution.

This St. Patrick’s Day, we should honor the Commonwealth’s Irish heritage by  appealing to America’s best aspirations regarding religious freedom and  schooling. We can accomplish this by lawfully expelling the Know-Nothings’ anti-Irish-Catholic amendments from our realm. Then, once and for all,  Massachusetts can finally declare to constitutionally-protected discrimination, “No, nay never no more.”

Deedham Transcript, Shrewsbury, Shudbury Town Crier, Education News, Topix and Bloomberg.