The Know-Nothings are reborn, fueled by an anti-immigrant fever

Every so often, a tide of bigotry, fear and xenophobia washes over our country.

There’s always someone new to hate.

Africans. Irish. Italians. Chinese. Jews. Japanese.

Politicians point to the newcomers as threats, bent on our country’s destruction.

Each time, they are proven wrong, the risk overstated for political gain.

And each time, our country falls short of the grand ideals upon which it was founded.

Today, conservative and Republican politicians are pointing a finger at Syrian refugees, blaming them for the terrible attacks in Paris with little or no evidence to support the claim.

Last year, other refugees, largely from Africa, were attacked and scapegoated for electoral gain. Remember Gov. Paul LePage’s attack ads and the Ebola panic? They focused on new arrivals to Maine who came to escape death and persecution in their home countries.

My wife and I visited Ellis Island last week where we found her great-grandfather’s name on a wall of immigrants who came through during a period of mass immigration.

Vincenzo Andrighetti arrived from Italy in 1913, a young man, abled-bodied as they say, on his way to building a life in America.

While he wasn’t a refugee, because he was Italian, he faced repression and bigotry. His religion and his motives were questioned.

And perhaps his life was even put at risk.

In 1891, just a few years before his arrival, New Orleans was the site of a horrible mass lynching, one of the largest ever.

A mob brutally executed 11 men.

Nine were accused of murdering a police officer. Of those, six had been acquitted by a jury and a mistrial was declared for the other three. The last two victims weren’t involved. They were swept up with the rest because of their religion and country of origin.

All 11 men were Italian, and the lynchings were driven by hatred and stereotypes of the new immigrant community and distrust of their Catholic faith.

An article in The New York Times three days later said the lynchings were “just the thing that should have occurred.”

“The Italian colony in New Orleans … is a menace to American citizenship and good government,” the article reads. “They are treacherous, revengeful and seek their revenge in the most foul and cowardly manner. They have no regard for the truth, and the Mafia is all powerful to them.”

Another Times article referred to Italians like this: “Here was a society which was a continuous conspiracy against everything that is righteous and civilized.”

Change just a few words, add refugees or Syrians or Muslims or ISIL, and we hear the story repeated today.

At the turn of the century, Catholic churches weren’t allowed in some places; others were burned. Today, the argument is about closing mosques and adding a religious litmus test for new arrivals.

Such suggestions are downright un-American.

We don’t have to go so far away as New Orleans for context. John Bapst, whose name lives on today through John Bapst High School, was a Jesuit missionary in the Ellsworth area.

His preaching captured the attention of the Know-Nothings, a political party that formed largely to oppose immigration and the Catholic Church.

Bapst was tortured — tarred, feathered and ridden out of town on a rail.

Today’s Republican Party has become the heir to the Know-Nothings of the 1840s and 1850s. Its brand of anti-immigrant sentiment is hurting our country and targeting innocent people.

The flag of the Know-Nothing Party, circa 1850.

The flag of the Know-Nothing Party, circa 1850.

Never has the name of a political party been more appropriate.

The Know-Nothings dressed up their hate. They attacked the cost of educating new immigrants, who needed to learn English. They were worried about competition for jobs and the impact on taxes.

But the prejudice came through: “The new immigrants are beaten men from beaten races representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence,” said one Know-Nothing leader.

America is the strongest, most prosperous country in the world. We live in a time that is demonstrably safer and more secure than ever before. Fewer people are dying in war, from disease or violent crime.

And yet, we react with fear, stoked by a new generation of Know-Nothings who benefit when we forget who we are and what we stand for.

In 1954, CBS legend Edward R. Murrow stood up to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the Know-Nothing fear monger of the day: “We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men – not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.”

We forget our history, and we repeat it. We are not a fearful country. We should remember that and act accordingly.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at