The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Know-Nothings, Old and New

Posted on | May 1, 2019 | Comments Off on Know-Nothings, Old and New

Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks.

Let’s revisit some relevant history:

“Immigration during the first five years of the 1850s reached a level five times greater than a decade earlier. Most of the new arrivals were poor Catholic peasants or laborers from Ireland and Germany who crowded into the tenements of large cities. Crime and welfare costs soared. Cincinnati’s crime rate, for example, tripled between 1846 and 1853 and its murder rate increased sevenfold. Boston’s expenditures for poor relief rose threefold during the same period.” . . .
In spring 1854, the Know Nothings carried Boston, Salem, and other New England cities. They swept the state of Massachusetts in the fall 1854 elections, their biggest victory.

What is seldom recognized — because our schools don’t properly teach history — is the extent to which the rise of the Republican Party was inspired by anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment, especially in New England, where the American Party (“Know-Nothings”) actually captured a majority in the Massachusetts legislature in 1854. Teachers of history generally wish to portray a simplistic understanding of the political conflict that preceded the Civil War. “North good, South bad” is a fair summary of this theme, and so most Americans have never been acquainted with the actual history of those years and the political forces involved. What had happened, in the first five decades since the Constitution was ratified, was that the Democrat Party had consolidated a nationwide majority, which had the effect of marginalizing the political influence of the New England elite. From the election of Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson in 1800 through the presidency of Tennessee’s Andrew Jackson, Southerners occupied the White House for 32 of 36 years, interrupted only by the four-year term of John Quincy Adams. Given that federal jobs (including local postmasters) were then a matter of political patronage, the Democrats were able to staff these offices with their adherents, which had the effect of excluding their antagonists from federal employment. As can be shown from, e.g., the Hartford Convention of 1814, this ascendancy of Democrats especially provoked opposition in New England, where the Adamses had supplied the only two presidents from the North prior to the election of Martin van Buren from New York in 1840 (and Van Buren was a Democrat).

What had been the old Federalist Party in John Adams’s day was eventually reassembled, in the Jacksonian era, as the Whig Party, with a platform emphasizing a national bank, protective tariffs and “internal improvements” (i.e., taxpayer-funded public projects). There were Whigs in every region — North, South and West — but the party’s bulwark was Massachusetts, where the Whig presidential candidate Daniel Webster got 55% of the vote against Van Buren in 1836 and the Whig candidate William Henry Harrison got 57% in 1840. The election of Harrison made him the first of two Whig presidents, the second being Zachary Taylor, both of them being war heroes and natives of Virginia.

During an era when there was little or no agitation over slavery, an issue that had seemingly been settled by the Missouri Compromise of 1820, political divisions mainly involved economic policy (e.g., free trade vs. tariffs), and this might have continued indefinitely had it not been for developments in Europe. First, the potato famine in Ireland brought an influx of impoverished Irish immigrants, and then the European revolutions of 1848 brought another influx of refugees from Germany and other continental countries, many of them adherents of radical causes.

Most of these immigrants immediately settled in the coastal cities of the Northeast, particularly in Boston and New York, and this gave rise to the anti-immigrant “Know Nothing” movement, which among other things had the effect of breaking up the Whig Party coalition. Among the ex-Whigs who subsequently flourished in politics were an Illinois congressman named Abraham Lincoln, and a Georgia congressman named Alexander Stephens, who subsequently became vice president of the Confederacy. As history as now taught, the division between North and South is made to seem inevitable — an impersonal trend of history — but this division was produced by the labors of flesh-and-blood politicians, including those who led the Know Nothing movement.

We have been taught that politicians of the past were idealistic statesmen, patriotic humanitarians concerned with great causes, but how does this interpretation fare when we examine the rise of the Know Nothings in the decade preceding the Civil War? Consider the career of Nathaniel Banks, a Massachusetts Democrat-turned-Know Nothing, who was eventually appointed a general by Lincoln. His erratic career in politics began after Banks lost a federal patronage job, as a customs officer in the port of Boston, following the Whig election victory of 1848. Banks eventually drifted along with the tide of events into the Republican Party, which explains why Lincoln made him a major general despite his absolute dearth of military training or skill. During the Civil War, his supply trains so often got captured by the Confederates that Stonewall Jackson’s men took to calling him “Commissary Banks,” and his role in the catastrophic Red River campaign of 1864 secured his ignominious reputation.

It should be obvious that, whatever his devotion to any particular principles might have been, the political career of Nathaniel Banks was at all times motivated by his own personal ambition — not unlike most politicians in our own age. Well, what of statesmanship? What about the commonly taught “North good, South bad” belief that Lincoln and the Republicans of 1860 were idealists inspired by humanitarian sympathy for the oppressed slave? How can this myth be reconciled with the facts concerning Banks and the Know-Nothing movement of the 1850s?

One of the most interesting interpretations I’ve ever encountered was by Georgia Sen. Robert Toombs, in his declaration of the causes of Georgia’s secession in 1861. “The party of Lincoln,” Toombs declared, “attracts to itself by its creed the scattered advocates of exploded political heresies, of condemned theories in political economy, the advocates of commercial restrictions, of protection, of special privileges, of waste and corruption in the administration of Government.” Toombs went on to locate the reasons for the disruption of the Union in a long series of controversies regarding tariffs, in particular, the Walker Tariff of 1846, which reduced the rates on imports and (in an early demonstration of the Laffer Curve effect) produced an increase in total revenues. Various interests in the North, however, remained devoted to protectionism (i.e., “condemned theories of political economy”) and, after their defeat in 1846, “cast about for new allies,” Toombs said: “The anti-slavery sentiment of the North offered the best chance for success. An anti-slavery party must necessarily look to the North alone for support, but a united North was now strong enough to control the Government in all of its departments, and a sectional party was therefore determined upon. Time and issues upon slavery were necessary to its completion and final triumph.”

What Toombs was saying was that advocates of protectionism — what today would be called “special interests” — exploited controversies over slavery for their own selfish reasons, in much the same way as Nathaniel Banks followed the trends of politics, going from Democrat to Know-Nothing to Republican in the span of a single decade. And why should we imagine that politicians of 150 years ago were more motivated by humanitarian idealism than are politicians of the 21 century? We can look at the results and realize that, much like our recent policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, the North in the Civil War won the war and lost the peace. Having begun the war with no aim other than the restoration of the Union, and having emancipated some 4 million slaves in the process, the North was deeply divided over what to do with the conquered South. The result was about a decade’s worth of so-called “Reconstruction,” a radical policy of military occupation that increasingly lost support in the North until, in the so-called “corrupt bargain” following the 1876 election, Republicans agreed to withdraw troops from the South in exchange for obtaining the presidency for Rutherford B. Hayes. Short-term partisan advantage ultimately mattered more than anything else.

Opportunistic selfishness in politics manifests itself in different ways at different times. Consider one recent event:

A group of white supremacist neo-Nazis interrupted an author discussion Saturday at the popular Washington, DC bookstore Politics and Prose.
Author Jonathan Metzl, director of Vanderbilt University’s Center for Medicine, Health, and Society, was discussing his book “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland,” when about 10 men thought to be from a group called the American Identity Movement — formerly known as Identity Evropa — barged into the bookstore with a megaphone and began chanting white supremacist slogans.
One of the men said, “You would have the white working class trade their homeland for handouts.” He added, “But we, as nationalists and identitarians, can offer the workers of this country a homeland, their birthright, in addition to health care, good jobs and so forth.”
As they walked through the bookstore and out the door, the men chanted, “This land is our land.” The incident lasted about 10 minutes.

What good can result from such “activism”? Well-meaning people concerned about the problems caused by our current out-of-control immigration situation are discredited by association with such people as Patrick Casey, Justin Peek and Peter Diezel, to name three of the “American Identity Movement” activists identified at this protest.

Because their rhetoric and tactics are self-evidently helpful to the Left — making it easy to smear conservatives as neo-Nazis — what could possibly explain this kind of behavior? Over the years, I’ve noticed that fringe movements on the right tend to attract people whose ambition is to be a Big Fish, and who prefer the Small Pond of the extremist fringe as the best venue for that ambition. Denouncing mainstream conservatism as ineffective and/or inauthentic, they advocate a radicalism that puts their followers outside the political system. They can’t elect a single congressman or state legislator, nor even a county commissioner, who shares their fringe beliefs, and apparently do not see their lack of political success as a problem. America is never going to embrace Nazism, and therefore neo-Nazism is a waste of time. There is, however, a canary-in-the-coal-mine aspect to this kind of “white identity” fringe. Would otherwise promising young men devote their time to such efforts if there were no actual problems with racial issues in contemporary America?

If young people want to do something useful to confront these problems, perhaps they should focus their energies on something besides obnoxious protest tactics. Consider the case of Noah Carl, a 28-year-old British sociologist who has become the target of a witch-hunt because he has defended academic freedom. Although his own work has been widely published and cited, and he has never written anything about the subject of race, he is being denounced as a promoter of “racist pseudoscience” because he defended scientific research on the subject:

It is often asserted that, when it comes to taboo topics like race, genes and IQ, scholars should be held to higher evidentiary standards or even censored entirely because of the harm that might result if their findings became widely known. There is held to be an asymmetry whereby the societal costs of discussing certain topics inevitably outweigh any benefits from doing so. This paper argues that no such asymmetry has been empirically demonstrated, and that stifling debate around taboo topics can itself do active harm.

Carl notes that concerns about political correctness tend to be a predictor of support for Donald Trump; ergo, the perception that academia is “stifling debate around taboo topics” contributes to a rightward shift in politics that is the exact opposite of what proponents of suppression wish to achieve. Truth must ultimately win, although the enemies of truth can inflict lasting social harm while they hold power, as was the case in the Soviet Union, or more recently in Venezuela. Truth deserves to be defended by the best people, employing the wisest methods, so as not to be brought into disrepute by association with irresponsible idiots.



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