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January 25, 2018


The Pioneer Institute is touting a privatization movie couched as a challenge to anti-Catholic bigotry dating to the Know Nothing Party. The Know Nothings disdain for Catholic education, especially Irish Catholic education, might be only one reason for Pioneer’s contempt. A more important one could be that the Know Nothings were – the horror! – progressive on labor, consumer, and economic issues.

That is the case made by John Mulkern in The Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts: The Rise and Fall of a People’s Movement. Of course the Know Nothings were anti-Catholic, but that isn’t all they were. They engaged in class warfare on behalf of workers and against the business elite that controlled the two major parties, the Whigs and the Democrats.

As historian Douglas Kierdorf wrote in the Boston Globe’s “Ideas” section in 2016, Getting to know the Know Nothings, “Yes, they were militantly anti-immigration, but they were also quite progressive on issues of labor rights, opposition to slavery, and the need for more government spending.” (In Massachusetts politics at the time, many of the most anti-slavery elements were also the most anti-Catholic; it was complicated). Kierdorf continues:

The Know-Nothings broke the business stranglehold on legislation. They initiated large infrastructural works, laid in gas lines and sewage systems, and passed ordinances to increase the safety of the railways. They enforced standard weights and measures in markets in order to eliminate fraud. They set up commissions to regulate banks and insurance companies, measures that the businessmen abhorred. They abolished imprisonment for debt, and, at the urging of the Free-Soilers, they forbade state officers to comply with the Fugitive Slave Act. They also built a state hospital for the insane and a state school for mentally disabled children, and raised by a third the state subsidy for the Perkins School for the Blind. In other words, they addressed many of the social problems that had been ignored by the other parties.

A review of Mulkern’s book in The Journal of American History credits him for recalling that Know Nothing amendments to the state Constitution provided the most significant expansion of democratic rights in the history of the commonwealth. They also regulated “railroads, insurance companies, harbor traffic, grocery stores and public utilities—all in the interest of the people.”

The Know Nothings surely overdid it by imposing six month jail terms for selling someone a bottle of beer! As a descendant of immigrants from the original shithole country, Ireland, I’ve never had a warm place in my heart for them.

Still, taking a whack at the anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment is boldly opposing a sentiment that no one supports. Instead, how about a film in which the Pioneer Institute opposes government spending to improve the lives of ordinary people and forthrightly attacks the rights of consumers and workers in favor of the interests of the wealthy and corporations.

Now that would be an anti-Know Nothing film worth watching. I’ll buy the popcorn. And the beer.

The Washington Post recently adopted a new slogan: “Democracy dies in darkness.” I agree.

[Full disclosure: as an educator in the UMass system, I am a union member. I write about dark money (and other things). I don't write about education policy.]

Know Nothings, Pioneer Institute, privatization

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