"Dangerous Immigrants"? Kentucky's heard it before

Bruce Maples (bruceinlouisville@gmail.com)
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Swarms of immigrants loyal to an “inflated … despot” are threatening our country.

Determined to force their “false religion” and its “anti-Christian” law on America, these foreigners are “a foe to the very principles we embody in our laws, a foe to all we hold most dear.” They are “the chief source of crime in this country,” too.

All that bigoted baloney might sound like President Donald Trump. But it’s Know-Nothing boilerplate from the 1850s.

Trump, who reportedly called El Salvador, Haiti, and African nations “shithole countries,” has resurrected the hate and fear-mongering legacy of the Know-Nothings. They were a white, Protestant, anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic party that cut a wide swath in many parts of the country, including Kentucky, in the mid-19th century.

Trump belatedly denied he said “shithole countries” in a White House meeting with six Republican lawmakers including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and David Perdue of Georgia, and a lone Democrat, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois.

Durbin flat said he heard the president say it. Graham confirmed it, if indirectly. In a joint statement, Cotton and Perdue said, “we do not recall the President saying these comments specifically.” Now Perdue is claiming Trump didn’t use the word “shithole.”

On the campaign trail last year, Trump promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington. Yet his comments and actions show a different philosophy, one we’ve seen before. He continues to dredge deeply from the muck and mire of Know-Nothing nativism.

Kentucky Know-Nothings and Bloody Monday

Trump evidently seldom reads. So, maybe he’s never heard of the Know-Nothings, who were officially the American Party.

The party faithful were nicknamed “Know-Nothings” because they were supposed to reply — like Sgt. Schultz on Hogan’s Heroes — “I know nothing” if asked about the party by a possibly hostile newspaper reporter or a suspicious stranger.

The party swept the election in the Bluegrass State on Monday, Aug. 6, 1855. In Louisville, which was a Know-Nothing bastion, party hooligans roamed German and Irish immigrant neighborhoods, killing, shooting, beating, burning, and pillaging.

The historical marker in Louisville commemorating Bloody Monday
The historical marker in Louisville commemorating Bloody Monday

A state historical marker stands at the site of the rampage. “BLOODY MONDAY” headlines the gold-lettered inscriptions on the olive-green plaque at 1011 Main St.

The marker explains: “…Attacks on German immigrants east of downtown and Irish in the west caused at least 22 deaths, arson, and looting. Catholic Cathedral of the Assumption & St. Martin’s Church were threatened with destruction.”

Racist, neo-Know-Nothing Trump today focuses his xenophobia on non-white immigrants. But back then, white Catholic German and Irish immigrants were the chief objects of Know-Nothing disaffection. (Trump’s grandfather was a German immigrant, though a Protestant.) Know-Nothings pledged “Eternal hostility to Foreign and Roman Catholic influence!”

Louisville newspaper drove the racism

Some historians blame Bloody Monday, at least in part, on editor George D. Prentice of the Louisville Journal, the state’s chief Know-Nothing paper. A statue of Prentice is a landmark outside the public library in downtown Louisville.

He had authored vicious editorials against “the Pope of Rome, an inflated Italian despot who keeps people kissing his toes all day.”

On election day, the Journal urged, “Rally to put down an organization of Jesuit Bishops, Priests, and other Papists, who aim by secret oaths and horrid perjuries and midnight plotting to sap the foundation of our political edifices — state and national.”

The Know-Nothings disappear, but the racism continues

More than a few Trump supporters are Catholics of German, Irish, Italian and Slavic descent. First Lady Melania Trump was born in Slovenia, in eastern Europe.

Most southern and eastern European immigrants came to America after the Civil War. The Know-Nothings were gone by then. But similar xenophobic organizations crudely disparaged the “new” immigrants.

In 1924, a Republican-majority Congress approved legislation sharply restricting immigrant from southern and eastern Europe and stopping all immigration from Asia.

“The racial theories at play in the [immigration] legislation, wrote the immigration historian Roger Daniels, would later become the first draft of ‘the official ideology of Nazi Germany,’” Vivian Yee pointed out in the New York Times.

“Refuse the refuse!” the nativists and racists cried. They vilified the southern and eastern Europeans as a “turgid stream of offscourings; the scum, the offal, the excrescence of the earth; human scrubs and runts and culls; indescribably filthy, twisted, ignorant and verminous.” They demonized Chinese and Japanese immigrants as “the yellow peril.”

And today, the racism continues

Prentice’s vitriol was popular with his readers; the Journal was the state’s most widely-read Know-Nothing organ.

Likewise, Trump’s vulgar bile is playing well with his most ardent backers, especially his unabashedly white supremacist fans, including David Duke, the former KKK grand wizard.

“Trump’s supporters rushed to his defense in an effort to distract from the simple reality at the heart of this latest White House scandal: The president of the United States is a racist man pursuing a racist immigration agenda,” Nick Wing wrote in The Huffington Post.

“Right-wing extremists and white supremacists welcomed Trump’s comment,” Jenna Johnson, Vanessa Williams and Marc Fisher wrote in the Washington Post. “…David Duke said on Twitter that the president ‘restores a lot of love in us by saying blunt but truthful things that no other President in our lifetime would dare say!’”

And what of the election of Bloody Monday?

In that election in 1855, Kentucky elected a Know-Nothing governor, Charles S. Morehead. Know-Nothings captured both houses of the General Assembly and claimed six of the state’s 10 U.S. House seats. In the spring, 1855, municipal elections, the party had taken control of city governments in Louisville, Lexington and Covington, The Kentucky Encyclopedia says.

History records that seven other states elected Know-Nothing governors. Beyond Kentucky, 37 more Know-Nothings were elected to Congress, and five won U.S. Senate seats. Several mayors and dozens of city officials and state legislators belonged to the party.

But one Republican stood against the hate

In 2016, Trump bloviated, race-baited, and immigrant-bashed his way to his party’s nomination and to the White House. Yet on the presidential campaign trail in 1860, another Republican denounced anti-immigrant bilge in no uncertain terms. He won the White House, too.

“I am not a Know-Nothing,” Abraham Lincoln declared in a famous 1855 letter to his friend, Joshua F. Speed of Louisville. “That is certain. 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 begin by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’”

The future Great Emancipator added, “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 pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

Trump is more proof, as if proof were needed, that the GOP of that president seems long gone.

The trash heap of history

Regrettably, Trump did not suffer the same fate as ex-President Millard Fillmore (endorsed by the Louisville Journal) who sought the presidency on the Know-Nothing ticket in 1856 and lost in a landslide. Fillmore even came up short in Kentucky.

Ultimately, the Know-Nothings ended up on the trash heap of history, where they belong.

As we listen to the President, let us say clearly: There’s plenty of room for Trump’s bigotry in history’s landfill, too.

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