My brief take on the Pilgrims, Squanto and the first Thanksgiving is in Chapter 7 of A Little History of the United States. The chapter is currently up on this website beginning on the Home page, if you don't have a copy.
Or if you'd like an interesting Canadian perspective, an old friend and long-time correspondent of mine, Susan Felsberg of Happy Valley, Labrador, this morning pointed me to a post by Larry Dohey, archivist at the Provincial Museum and Archives in St. John's, Newfoundland. As I mention in Little History, Squanto's famous assistance given the Pilgrims—regarding fertilizing their crops with dead fish—was almost certainly not Indian lore but a European technique. Dohey provides more detail about Squanto's odyssey, which takes him from America to the slave markets in Spain, to England, and finally back to America by way of Newfoundland. Because of that journey, Dohey notes, Squanto was able to teach the Pilgrims "how to plant corn in hills, using fish as a fertilizer as he had seen in Newfoundland."
Note, too, that it was the Indian crop of corn which helped the Pilgrims pull through. Three-hundred years later, in 1917, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was promoting the use of corn over wheat (citing the Pilgrims' example) due to the devastation wrought in Europe during World War I, which the United States had just entered. "Wheatless Wednesdays" (complementing "Meatless Mondays") were meant to wean Americans still hooked on European grains at a time when wheat, oats and barley were hard to come by. Few in those days could have foreseen the degree to which corn would conquer the world's dietary habits, not only in products made directly from it but also as an omnipresent sweetener (corn fructose) and as a food given to livestock and farm-raised fish.
Happy Thanksgiving! And don't make your feast entirely corn-based.
The week after the election, “I know nothing” strikes home as a slogan to be embraced with a kind of sardonic dismay. Like so many others, I was blindsided by Trump’s victory.
I recall, four years ago, the rise in prominence of Nate Silver’s 538 polling website, with its increasingly sophisticated coverage of the Obama-Romney race. Silver nailed the final percentages then, state by state, with uncanny accuracy. That, despite continual carping from the right that 538 was skewing its totals unfairly. Silver’s subsequent popularity led him to leave the position he had taken as the New York Times’ lead polling analyst to set up his own shop; and after he departed, the Times replaced him with a new regular feature on statistical matters, “The Upshot,” while the Washington Post began its own similar operation. These sites and virtually all other pollsters gave the edge in 2016 to Clinton—until around 8:45 or 9:00 pm election night, when the inflow of returns led television pundits to become increasingly subdued over the next hour. During those same vertiginous minutes, the Times’ live blog began to discount its earlier predictions of a Clinton success, from the 80 percent range to the 70s, then the 50s…then (gulp!) to odds favoring Trump. The bicoastal elites’ collective embrace of precise statistical projection swirled downward into the abyss. And what remained in the bubbling froth was the reluctant and inescapable conclusion: “I know nothing.”
Given that ignorance, can anything be said about what’s ahead on the political scene? I’d like to adopt the historian’s traditional posture of looking forward by looking back. Because the slogan I know nothing points toward an older political movement sharing uncanny similarities with our present troubles.
Consider the following scenario. A sharp influx of immigrants prompts many Americans to rage against the influence of foreigners. Not only do they take jobs that home-grown citizens might have filled, but their strangeness itself renders them suspicious. Furthermore, these immigrants are accused of spreading crime and disorder. Worse, a foreign religion threatens the republic, a religion whose autocratic values are antithetical to democracy. Meanwhile, across the globe revolutions and environmental disasters only increase the flood of unwanted strangers.
In the face of such pressures, a new political movement spreads like wildfire, seeming to coalesce out of nowhere, upending the traditional system of political parties. The New York Times condemns the movement, noting that “bigotry and hostility to foreigners as such have had much to do” with the new party’s success. Still the movement grows. Its mem- bers particularly loathe old-style politicians and the corrupt deals they engineer. And finally, the new party’s most effective organizer is a New York merchant pursuing a fortune in real estate. He does not sell branded steaks but he is indeed also in the dry-goods business.
Welcome to the 1850s and the Know-Nothing Party, aka the American Party, aka The Supreme Order of the Star-Spangled Banner.
Earlier in the nineteenth century, immigration had proceeded at a modest pace. Between 1820 and 1840 only about 700,000 newcomers arrived on American shores. But that number jumped to 1.7 million during the 1840s. The sharp rise was fueled by difficult conditions in Europe, including a potato famine in Ireland and the failure of political revolutions in Germany which drove thousands of refugees across the Atlantic.
Anti-foreign sentiments were strongest in urban areas like Boston and New York, where the new immigrants crowded. James W. Barker, the New York real estate entrepreneur who did most to organize the new party, was described as having “an abiding faith in American nationality” and a great “energy of character.” Under his leadership the American party grew throughout the North and Midwest. By the end of 1854 Know Nothing councils had been established in every northern state. Despite a smaller immigrant population in the Midwest, the Know Nothings were popular there too. In Indiana, one observer noted, “the ‘Know nothings’ are thick as the Locusts in Egypt.” Another commented, “the native citizens of the Northern Middle & Western States are so completely disgusted with the conduct of our leading politicians in bidding for the foreign vote…they are determined to make a strong effort to place the government of the country in the hands of those to whom it rightfully belongs.”
The party organized itself as a secret society, as was the practice with many other splinter parties and reform movements of the era. Before the American Party formed, nativist organizations included the Native Sons of America, the United Daughters of America, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner and the Order of United Americans. To keep its doings secret, party members were advised, when asked about the movement, to simply reply, “I know nothing”—hence the nickname.
In addition to its anti-immigrant bias, the American Party was openly anti-Catholic, viewing the hierarchical organization of the church as a threat to democratic values. When Archbishop Gaetano Bedini (above) came to the United States as a personal repre-sentative of the Pope, his “good-will” tour through the northeast was disrupted by mobs in Boston, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Feelings ran so high in New York City that the archbishop had to be smuggled on board his ship departing for Italy. Just as many of Trump’s supporters distrust Muslims and count Sharia law as dangerous threat to American sovereignty, Know Nothings charged that “the liberty we grant to aliens of becoming American citizens has been grossly abused,” and that “the Roman Catholic vote has been held in a compact, disciplined mass, under the immediate and supreme control” of priests and bishops.
Furthermore, like so many Trump supporters, the Know Nothings looked down on established politicians of any party as all too willing to feather their own nests and cut corrupt deals. As one nativist newspaper put it, the people ”saw parties without any apparent difference contending for power, for the sake of power. They saw politics made [into] a profession, and public plunder an employment…They beheld our public works the plaything of a rotten dynasty, enriching gamblers, and purchasing power at our expense.”
Young American men, buffeted by the dislocations of industrialization and forced to compete with immigrants for work, were the movement’s prime supporters. An idealized portrait of one such, “Citizen Know Nothing,” appeared in 1854 (below). The elections of that year swept Know Nothings into power in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Massachusetts. The Whig Party, once preeminent rival to the Democrats, tumbled toward oblivion as voters deserted it in droves. By 1855 over a million Americans had joined Know Nothing lodges and party leaders were boasting that in 1856, even the American presidency would be within reach.
There is indeed some comfort to be taken from this historical parallel, for in the end, the Know Nothings failed to create a party with staying power. It collapsed after little more than another year, due in no small part to lack of experience. Those who disdained politics suddenly discovered that governing proved more difficult than expected and, when the party’s extravagant promises went unfulfilled, its members were voted out of office. As of this writing, the transition process underway in Trump Tower seems to have been similarly roiled by battling factions and lack of governing know-how. Though the kinks may be eventually ironed out—they must be, one way or another, by inauguration day—Trump will surely find it far more difficult to govern atop an administration riven by infighting and lacking a coherent, overarching vision. Several columnists have predicted that the quarreling, lax ethical standards, potential legal scandals (the Trump Foundation, Trump University) and the hidden conflicts of interest arising from yet unknown foreign investments will lead either to impeachment or resignation within a year or two. The precipitate fall of the Know Nothings provides at least some comfort, however cold, on the order of “this, too, shall pass.”
But the past never repeats itself precisely. Barker, the New York realtor who raised the Know Nothings to prominence, was outmaneuvered and defeated even though he helped seal the doom of the Whig Party. Trump has not started a new party, he has taken over an old one. And Republican members of Congress, who spent most of the election distancing themselves from what appeared to be an oncoming train wreck, are now eagerly pulling on red caps to Make America Great. The party will control Congress and the White House, with a Supreme Court nomination soon to cement a conservative majority there too. Trump may be untutored and incompetent, but he has amassed a lot more power than the Know Nothings ever did. He has the potential, in this world of nuclear rivalries and instabilities, to inflict a world of hurt.
Moreover, it was not mere incompetence and infighting that brought the Know Nothings down. The end of the U.S.-Mexican War in 1848 reignited the question of slavery in the United States, as vast new territories were brought into the Union. Would these lands become slave or free? That debate stirred even deeper passions and interests than the issue of immigration; and the new Republican Party siphoned off more supporters than the American Party had ever mustered. As disjointed and divisive as today’s political scene appears, the 1850s were even more unstable. By decade’s end, the controversy over slavery and sectionalism led to the ultimate failure of the political system: outright civil war.
So the most disheartening side of this historical comparison is not whether Trump, riding an anti-immigrant wave, will suffer a fate similar to that of the Know Nothings. It’s whether the forces unleashed by a demagogic charlatan in pursuit of power will destabilize a political system whose shared values of freedom and equality are already under siege. As before the Civil War, there are large social forces at work in American society whose interactions are hard to predict: the increasing inequality of wealth, growing global instabilities, a free press compromised by social networks promoting fake news, elections influenced by hackers from foreign nation states, a hyper-partisan political atmosphere where extremism is encouraged by the primary system and the gerrymandering of districts. Thus far in the twenty-first century two presidential elections have produced a winner losing the popular vote. Add to these variables a faux populist leader stoking ethnic and racial resentments, and you have as frightening a scenario as the prospect of civil war in the 1850s. It is distinctly no comfort to remember that during that decade, almost all Americans found it impossible to imagine the carnage and destruction to come.
Could it happen here? Do we really face the prospect of civil war or some equally mortal threat to the republic? After the unexpected fallout from this most recent election, the unsatisfying and profoundly humbling conclusion may be, “I know nothing.”
This blog has been quiet for some weeks, due to textbook deadlines but also, more pleasantly, because of a ten-day trip to the Philippines, where my wife’s father, Valentine Untalan, celebrated his hundredth birthday. Readers of A Little History of the United States will be familiar with his service as a Philippine Scout in World War II, where he joined thousands of other prisoners in the Bataan Death March. On that grueling trek, he attempted escape four times, finally succeeding and working his way back from Bataan to his home in Pangasinan province. He eventually became an American citizen and served tours of duty with the American army in Europe, Japan, Korea and Vietnam before retiring and returning to live in the Philippines. He remains active and engaged in farming mangoes and mahogany as well as bananas and fish.
History measured in biographical terms seldom encompasses 100 years. When it does, the events bracketing such a lifespan astonish. As Val Untalan’s daughter Virginia pointed out during his birthday celebration, in 1916 the Philippines remained under American rule. Woodrow Wilson was president, World War I was raging. The Filipino population stood at a little over 9 million; today, it’s over 100 million. Val grew up in a world where petroleum-filled lanterns lit the homes in his hamlet of Doyong, where one traveled in a calesa or ox-pulled cart, rode a bicycle if you could afford one, or simply walked barefoot along the dirt roads. There was not yet a radio station in the Philippines. When Val was still a young toddler, the flu pandemic of 1919 left him an orphan, to be raised by his grandparents. Now well into the twenty-first century, he has his own great-grandchildren who, if they share his luck, will live to navigate the early years of the twenty-second century.
And look back with astonishment to remember what? That people in 2016 got around in automobiles that still required drivers? That Miami and New York back then were not regularly plagued by flooding? That the United States, before Trump, was still a republic as well as the most powerful nation in the world?
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors