Sunday, March 4, 2018

Eagle Quilts #4: The American Party

Center of a quilt with 13 star blocks dated 1852
Unknown Source

This quilt is similar to an 1853 quilt I showed a few days ago,
more examples of the abundance of eagle quilts in the 1850s
The eagle quilts indicate a surge of nationalism, which we may be able to attribute to the American Party, also known as the Native American Party and the Know Nothings.

What was the Know Nothing Party?
A couple of people who lived through the 1850s will tell you:

Sidney George Fisher from Philadelphia explained it in his diary in 1844:
"The Native American party, a party got up here in consequence of the success of a similar movement in N. York last year, where they carried the elections. The object of this party is the exclusion of foreigners from a share in the political power of the country."

The Whig party's raccoon and Democrat's rooster 
alarmed by the Native American party's skull and crossbones marching flag
hung with their carcasses in this illustration from sheet music.

Library of Congress collection

By 1853 the Native American party was powerful enough to run a viable third party candidate for President with former President Millard Fillmore running as a nativist. Although she couldn't vote, Mary Todd Lincoln of Springfield, Illinois would have cast her ballot for Fillmore and the Know Nothings. She wrote her sister in 1856:
"My weak woman's heart was too Southern in feeling, to sympathize with any but Fillmore, I have always been a great admirer of his, ... [he]feels the necessity of keeping foreigners, within bounds. If some of you Kentuckians, had to deal with the 'wild Irish" as we housekeepers are sometimes call upon to do, the south would certainly elect Mr. Fillmore next time."
 Husband Abraham had other opinions. As he wrote a friend in 1855:
"I am not a Know-Nothing. How could I be?...When the Know-Nothings get control,[ the Declaration of Independence] will read that all men are created equal, except Negros, and foreigners, and Catholics."
You get it. It sounds familiar. Americans had welcomed many immigrants in the 1840s fleeing famine and political repression. But people with foreign ways and different religions inspired a backlash among the mean spirited. Who were the despised foreigners?

Irish Whiskey & Lager Beer
If allowed to vote drunken Irish & Germans would
run away with the ballot box.

As Mary and Abraham Lincoln indicated, Irish and Catholics were unwelcome. Germans were also hated.
"Eternal hostility to Foreign and Roman Catholic influence"

Know Nothings were quite successful at a local level in the mid '50s. In 1855 forty-three members of the U.S. House of Representatives were acknowledged party members. Elections were accompanied by riots and violence against immigrants by mobs of young men. 

Rare remembrance of Know-Nothing killings in Louisville Kentucky

As usual, bigotry was justified in the name of economics.
Foreigners were believed to be stealing good American jobs.

McPope landing on American shores. Brother Jonathan, the man on the right,
 was a symbol of the Know Nothings, also known as Sam.
 Uncle Sam is one long time legacy of that nativist
movement but most of it is unrecalled history.

Lewis J. Valentine, son of Irish & German immigrants, being
sworn in by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia as police commissioner of
New York City in 1934. The seated Irish immigrant is his mother
my Great Grandmother Elizabeth Daly Valentine.
She looks like she's crying but she must have been awfully happy.

We've forgotten the Know Nothings but they were a face of the 1850s patriotism.
Tomorrow: The Know Nothings & Quilts

Read more here:


  1. I recently came across your blog, and love reading about the America's history in quilts! It's so fascinating! Thank you for the continuous, mostly unknown, history you share with us all. It is a huge task you've taken upon yourself, and should, without a doubt, be commended. I enjoy each and every bit of knowledge you share. Please know, your work is enjoyed by many, and the amount of time it takes and research you do to educate the rest of us is a blessing beyond words. Thank you so much!

  2. I have learned sooo much about American history that I applaud you for your diligence in continuous6 new insights.

  3. Thank you for presenting the information about the "Know Nothings" among the patriotic/political quilts series. I was aware of this movement but not a quilt reference. My family origins are Irish Catholic and German Protestant. Not sure when the Irish portion arrived but our first German ancestor was an 18th century rascal who skipped his indenture and made it to the wilds of western Virginia. Nothing survives......utility and large families were the norm....except a crazy top pieced my my maternal grandmother of print dress material (1930-40ish). Ladies didn't have the vote but they certainly expressed their political opinions.