“The Irish are perhaps the only people in our history with the distinction of having a political party, the Know-Nothings, formed against them,” wrote John F. Kennedy in his 1958 book, A Nation of Immigrants. Today, few people realize that the Massachusetts Constitution has two Know-Nothing-style amendments, which still thrust their mid-19th century bigotry into our world.
Massachusetts in the 1850s was a bustling, disjointed, and rapidly growing state. The Yankee commonwealth and its cities were undergoing seismic industrial and social transformations. New and powerful railroads, factories, telegraph lines, and banks ruled the day. The mass legal immigration of tens of thousands of souls fleeing the Irish potato famine fueled this mighty engine, which would drive the commonwealth’s historic economic growth.
The book The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849 illustrates that the Catholic Church’s relief efforts and even some of the despised British landlords provided passage for Irish immigrants to lawfully enter Canada and the United States.
Despite comprising one-quarter of the population in Boston and many other cities in Massachusetts, Irish emigrants were confronted by ethnic, religious, and economic prejudice from urban Yankees. The Irish only sought what all immigrants look for in America: refuge from tyranny, religious freedom, and jobs. Regrettably, wrote author Jack Beatty, “in the 1850s…[t]he grammar of Massachusetts politics was being laid down.”
The American Party, or Know-Nothings, code-named “Sam,” plotted its anti-immigrant rise in fraternal lodges one historian called “cocoon(s) of secrecy.” They assured clandestine party membership with peculiar handshakes and the password, “I know nothing.” Charles Francis Adams, the anti-slavery statesman whose grandfather drafted the Massachusetts Constitution, rebuked “Sam,” stating that the “essence of the secret obligations which bind these men together … [was] productive of nothing but fraud, corruption, and treachery.”
In 1854, the Know-Nothings rode a cunning platform of anti-Catholic nativism and progressive reforms to the largest electoral landslide in Bay State history. “Sam” had unmasked itself in the voting booths and swept every constitutional office in the state and won all but three legislative seats.
Led by their governor, Henry J. Gardner, and a legislative super-majority, the Know-Nothings promulgated a flood of appallingly anti-constitutional laws designed to “Americanize America.” Properly understood, Know-Nothingism was not so much a political movement, but an anti-Irish-Catholic cult.
More than 150 years later, Gov. Gardner’s nativist “Anti-Aid” amendment, which prevents disbursement of state funds and local tax revenues to parochial schools, is an infamous legacy that still endures. In 1917, a revised “Anti-Aid” amendment was passed, and together these two constitutional sons of “Sam” continue to insult the integrity of both our educational system and state laws.
These Anti-Aid Amendments serve today as legal barriers to improving our children’s education and are found in 37 other states. In Massachusetts, the Know-Nothings’ amendments prevent more than 100,000 urban families with children in chronically-underperforming districts from receiving scholarship vouchers that would grant them greater school choice.
Removal of these amendments, which were conceived in prejudice, would help revitalize the urban educational landscape in Massachusetts. In essence, school funding from the state could follow the student, as it does in higher education across America, and all parents could choose from a wide variety of different private, parochial, public charter, vocational-technical, and religious school options for their children.
Critics of school choice frequently claim that having a choice would draw religion into the public domain. However, individual parents, and not the state, utilizing scholarship vouchers to select the most appropriate schools for their children, respects the highest spirit of Thomas Jefferson’s desire to keep “a wall of separation between church and state.” By self-selecting their communities and schools, wealthy families have had these options available to them for decades. Currently, many poor children are walled off from the same educational opportunities.
Authored by John Adams in 1780, the Massachusetts Constitution, the oldest written constitution in the world, just celebrated its 235th anniversary. Yet, today, Gov. Gardner’s Statehouse portrait still hangs unsuspectingly next to the main entrance of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Likewise, the Know-Nothings’ bigoted amendments continue to reside cozily within our state’s constitution.
This St. Patrick’s Day, we should honor the commonwealth’s Irish heritage by appealing to America’s best aspirations regarding religious freedom and schooling. We can accomplish this by lawfully expelling the Know-Nothings’ anti-Irish-Catholic amendments from our realm. Then, once and for all, Massachusetts can finally declare to constitutionally protected discrimination, “No, nay never no more.”
Jamie Gass is the director of the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.