“They” might have wondered whether five male judges sitting on the United States Supreme Court of 2014 are wearing black robes or cassocks. “They” were the Know-Nothing Party of the 1840s-1850s America, the driving force of a Nativist movement that loathed not only the Irish and other immigrants, but also, and especially, all things Roman Catholic. They feared that if too many Catholics flooded “Anglo America,” the pope would soon be calling the shots in the United States on political, religious, cultural, and social matters. Perhaps historical irony doesn’t fit the question neatly, but a historical playback does offer food for thought: How would the anti-Catholic Nativists of yesteryear grapple with the fact that some 160 years after their heyday high court justices who are both conservative and Roman Catholic are laying down the law of the land – literally so?
One thing that would likely have them scratching their heads is that only one of the five justices has a surname synonymous with Nativist nightmares – a distinctly Irish moniker. Justice Anthony McLeod Kennedy has green in his bloodlines, but what of the others? Chief Justice John Glover Roberts has a name that at one time would have sounded quite Protestant to the Know Nothings, but today that is the name of a man who wears his Catholicism on his black sleeve. The sight of African-American Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas – a black jurist and a Catholic – might well have sent the rabidly anti-Papist Know Nothings into apoplectic fits.
Justices Scalia and Alito, Catholics both, would have fueled another Nativist nightmare: Not only was an Irish-Catholic “invasion” hitting America’s shores, but here come waves of papists from Italy itself, home of the Vatican.
Conversely, the Supreme Court’s recent decisions that hint of dogmatic Catholicism in entrenched and archaic attitudes toward women might actually have appealed to Nativists, who staunchly believed – as did most men of the era – that a woman’s place was in the home, having babies, and practicing obeisance to their husbands. Still, the specter of five male justices handing down such landmark anti-abortion, anti-contraception decisions as the “Hobby Lobby Case” in a manner that, depending upon one’s view, hints or screams of the most conservative Catholic dictates is exactly what the Know Nothings feared.
One only has to look back at the Know Nothing credo to hypothesize that they would have viewed six Catholics on the Supreme Court (including the liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor) with alarm and horror. In the middle of the 19th century, the hate-infused Know-Nothing Party seized power at the ballot box. They loathed anything Irish, anything Catholic, anything immigrant, anything they deemed “un-American.” The Nativist Movement had gathered steam in the 1840s, as rising waves of immigrants – especially Irish Catholics – evoked long-held antipathy towards anything smacking of Rome (the papacy) and the “ould sod.” The men who joined Nativist organizations throughout the country viewed themselves as “real Americans” – Anglo-Protestants.
In Boston and elsewhere, these groups operated at first in secret. Anti-foreigner, anti-Catholic activists formed secret groups, offering their support and votes to political candidates who shared their views either covertly or overtly. Members swore an oath of secrecy, and if they were asked about their views by anyone except a fellow Nativist, they were instructed to answer, “I know nothing.”
The movement attracted many men in and around Boston, and in the spring of 1854, the Know Nothings carried elections in Boston, Salem, and other cities. With the fall Massachusetts legislative and gubernatorial races looming, the Know Nothings had their collective eye on higher office, where they could enact laws targeting foreigners and Catholics. They did grandly statewide, winning every congressional seat, every constitutional office from governor on down, and full control of both houses of the Legislature. Across the nation, the movement’s ranks swelled to over a million in 1854, their confidence leading them to anoint themselves the “American Party.”
The ascendancy of the Know-Nothings proved mercurial. In 1856, the American Party ran Millard Fillmore in the presidential election. The onset of the Civil War would shove the Know-Nothings into history’s backwaters. Still, their prejudice toward immigrants has sadly endured in various political incarnations, as the current immigration controversy reflects.
No matter what, the vision of five Catholic men pronouncing from on high what is and what is not the “American Way” would have baffled and infuriated the Know Nothings as much as the recent decisions of five male Catholic justices have enraged legions of American women.