By Lawrence Phillip Knight, Ph.D.
Texas A&M University-Kingsville
DEFINING AMERICAN IN POLITICS: THE KNOW-NOTHINGS IN SAN ANTONIO, THE FIRST ELECTION, AUGUST 1855
The advent of the American party in San Antonio in 1855 both politicized the city and made the leaders and the people of San Antonio ponder what it meant to be an American, and therefore what America was, and was to be. The American party, more commonly termed the Know-Nothings, was a result of many forces in the nation. Primarily the Know-Nothings were a reaction to the inability of any organization, church, government, political parties, or business, to stop the growing rift, caused largely by slavery, which ultimately led to disunion. The hope of many in the American party was to create a party that would reunite the nation; reunification, however, required some common enemy, some scapegoat on which to blame the nation's troubles. A ready enemy was at hand--those who were different--recent immigrants and Roman Catholics. Many of the immigrants did not speak English and could therefore easily be identified as un-American, and the Roman Catholics were assumed to be loyal to the Pope in Rome--a foreign potentate--and could easily be accused of disloyalty to America. That this new party would have rough sledding in San Antonio was obvious. No other city in the South, except perhaps New Orleans, was more "un-American" in its population than was San Antonio. The city's population was evenly split between German, Mexican, and American, and almost all of the Mexicans (as well as the Irish and French and some of the Germans and Americans) were Roman Catholics as well. It would be poor strategy indeed to attack two-thirds of the electorate. Yet the Know-Nothing platform was openly anti-foreign and anti-Catholic. Despite these obstacles, the American party attempted to gain control of politics in San Antonio. The attempt failed, but not before it had caused a great deal of fear and excitement and had caused the Democratic party to organize for the first time in the city. The attempt also made it necessary for the leaders and citizens of San Antonio to ponder the questions of America and Americans: what was America, and what was an American, and who would define those terms?
Although San Antonio was becoming an American city by 1855, for San Antonians American meant a mixture of faiths, ethnicities, languages, and cultures. What was defined as American in San Antonio was probably not true for any other settlement in the United States--certainly no other American city of size had the same Hispanic background. True, the dominating influence was Anglo, but it was dominant not predominant, and that dominance was moderated by the large number of Mexican citizens and the large and growing number of German citizens. In 1855, however, the America Party arrived in San Antonio with its own definition of "American." This caused the Democrats to counter with their own definition of American, and caused both sides to recognize that the Germans and the Mexicans of San Antonio had to be taken into account.
The Know-Nothings called themselves the American Party, because they believed that their platform identified who Americans were, and how America could remain American. The party's definition of an American was stated in its Philadelphia Platform. An American was one born in the United States or in an area within its jurisdiction. The Know-Nothings also believed that only native born Americans should hold federal or state offices or serve in the armed services during a time of war. They opposed voting by aliens, supported religious liberty for American citizens and immigrants, supported the separation of church and state, and opposed all 'higher law' doctrines by which the Constitution was voided. But the reality of religious liberty and separation of church and state was revealed by the Know-Nothings' desire to make everyone take a strict oath voiding all allegiance to any foreign power or potentate (the Pope was the obvious target). The party maxim best stated the ideas of the Know-Nothings: "Americans Shall Rule Their Country."
The Philadelphia Platform (and most news about the Know-Nothings) was reported to San Antonians by the San Antonio Herald, the only San Antonio newspaper that supported the American Party. The Herald also carried an address which further explained the position of the party, given in Seguin by Judge William E. Jones of Guadalupe County. Jones began by saying that as a native American he had moved to "Old Gonzales" County in 1841, where he ran for office (the contradiction of his running for office where he was not a native but denying that opportunity to others apparently escaped him). Jones was a Whig when he came to Texas but had become an American Party man. Part of Jones' defense of the party concerned the secrecy of the Know-Nothings. The reason for secrecy, he reported, lay with the founders of the party; they founded the party, watched it grow, and when it attained national stature they tried, through secrecy, to win the party's nominations. In this they suffered defeat from the newer and more numerous members. The defeated founders left the party and spread lies about it, but the party was no longer secret, its principles were open for all to inspect.
Jones then addressed the question of religion. First he defended what the opponents of the Know-Nothings called proscription based on religion. As a Whig he stated that he had been proscribed from office while in Texas--that was politics, each party proscribing the other--but as to religion, the proscription only applied to Roman Catholics if they put the Pope above the Constitution in temporal matters.
But we all understand, in this protestant country, that the Pope of Rome, who is the head of the Church, and not only its head as a Church, but as a temporal prince, claims by virtue of his power as head of the Church, the right of supreme control in temporal as well as spiritual matters. In other words, it is the policy of that church to blend spiritual and political power together. Now I understand the platform of the American party to be this, that if there is any man professing the Roman Catholic religion, who believes that he owes to the Pope an allegiance superior to that which he owes to the government and constitution of the United States, then he comes under the inhibition of our article.
Jones made it clear, however, that any Catholic not obligated to the Pope in temporal matters was welcomed in the party, or, turning the term on its head, he stated, "We proscribe no man."
Jones also defended the party's belief that the only native born should hold office and reviewed the desire of the American Party to increase the residency requirement for naturalization from five years to a higher number (though the twenty-one years usually reported had not been decided upon) But, Jones declared, even twenty-one years was not enough to become an American. In defense of those positions, he argued that no party believed that a man only five years removed from a foreign land was worthy of office (although he offered no proof for his statement), and he reviewed that even enlightened France, which had more than once established a republic, had never maintained it, nor had the Germans after 1848, nor had the Mexicans, although they had suffered no foreign invasion. The French, Germans, and Mexicans were simply incapable of self-government. Why? "The Anglo-Saxon is not there." An American, then, was a native born Protestant either of Anglo-Saxon stock or reared in a society dominated by Anglo-Saxons, and thus imbued with the Anglo-Saxon spirit.
Further defense of the party platform came from the Herald which supported the idea of demanding that party members swear to the ideas of the party. This was necessary to wash away the bad ideas of the two dead parties that were running and ruining the country. One of the old ruinous ideas that was prevalent in San Antonio was the prominence of foreign influence in city leadership. The Herald reported that of the sixteen local leaders of the Democratic party (or "Bombshellocracy" as the Know-Nothings termed the Democrats) only six were native Americans--this was later changed to eight; the editors were livid--by what right and with what knowledge of America did these ten foreigners think they could lead an American city?
Are not these beautiful subjects to lecture American citizens on Democracy, and hypocritically prate about 'the preservation of those sacred rights and privileges secured by the blood of OUR revolutionary ancestors....Where and when did the ancestors of the ten defend the sacred 'rights and privileges' secured by our Revolutionary struggle? Perhaps it was on the other side!
The local leaders of the party, however, were not as strict in their demands as the Philadelphia Platform or Dr. Jones. The local Know-Nothings printed a pamphlet in which they assured the voters of San Antonio that they did not wish to abridge the rights of any American citizen, native or naturalized. True, they believed that the probation period of citizenship was too short, but they would not propose legislation that would curtail the rights of previously naturalized citizens. However, they added, they would not vote for a Roman Catholic or a naturalized American citizen. The pamphlet ended with the defining party slogan, "AMERICAN BORN CITIZENS SHALL RULE AMERICA!!" Twenty-eight men signed the pamphlet; as would be expected, none of the signers was of Mexican or German origins. What was surprising was that neither the leading American Party official in San Antonio nor any of the local candidates signed the document.
A progression was observable among the Know-Nothings. In Philadelphia, in Seguin, and perhaps even at the state convention, the Know-Nothings were strict in the interpretation of their platform. In San Antonio, however, the local leaders of the party hedged somewhat--they supported the platform but only after stating that they did not. Finally, the leading party official in the city and the individual Know-Nothing candidates who lived in San Antonio avoided the platform--at least its controversial parts--altogether. It was not easy to be a Know-Nothing in San Antonio, and the closer one got to the business end of the party the more hesitant one became.
Ira Leslie Hewitt, as the Third Vice President of the Texas American Party, was the highest ranking Know-Nothing in Bexar County, and he perhaps best represented the Know-Nothings of San Antonio, because he well illustrated the conflicts faced by a citizen of San Antonio who supported the Know-Nothings. Hewitt's wife, Maria, a native of San Antonio, was of Mexican descent. To be a Know-Nothing, then, meant that Hewitt supported the disfranchisement of his wife's family. However, the Herald which reported on every aspect of the Know-Nothings, never produced any support for the Know-Nothing platform from Hewitt. Not only was Hewitt silent, at least publicly, on the platform; one piece of evidence showed that he likely did not support the major policies of it. In 1850 both Maria and Charlotte Seguin, women from one of the most prominent Mexican families in Bexar County, lived in the Hewitt household. Though the proof is circumstantial, it is not unreasonable to assume that a man who, through marriage, was related to Mexican citizens of San Antonio and who had prominent Mexican citizens residing in his house, would not vigorously support the Know-Nothing platform. If he did, he did it silently; no record of his defending the Know-Nothing platform in speech or writing, at least as reported by the city's newspapers, is available.
Hewitt's silence was imitated by the only two Know-Nothing candidates who stated their positions prior to the August election. Dr. James H. Lyons and T.G. Gardiner were each running for one of the four state representative positions of Bexar County. When Lyons announced his candidacy for state representative, the only concern he voiced was about voter registration, because he was concerned with the voting of "transient persons" on the border with Mexico. Similar was the position of T.G. Gardiner. Despite his statement that he supported the Philadelphia platform "from the bottom of my heart," he did not mention the controversial portions of the platform. Like Lyons he merely stated his support for a voting registration law so that those not qualified to vote could not do so. The silence of Hewitt, Lyons, and Gardiner on the critical issues of the election, immigration and religion, was most eloquent in describing the difficulties faced by the Know-Nothing party in San Antonio.
However, because the Know-Nothing party had a definition of what an American was (however lukewarm their local representatives might be), the Democrats of San Antonio were forced to do the same. San Antonio was becoming increasingly American, and despite some exceptions and compromises, that generally meant becoming Anglicized. Thus, unconsciously perhaps, the past actions of the city leaders were more in line with the Know-Nothing platform than were the pronouncements of the local Know-Nothings. In fact, a constant theme of the Know-Nothings was that the Democrats were not true friends of the Mexican citizens but were merely pretending friendship in order to retain power. The accusation was given some credence by José Antonio Navarro, an ardent Democrat, when he stated that the Mexican citizens of San Antonio were in a "prostrated condition." Certainly the newly arrived Know-Nothing party had not caused that condition. It had been caused or at least allowed by those already in power. Thus, the Democrats, who had never considered themselves a party of proscription (had hardly considered themselves a party at all) had to define what an American was, and, if they were to refute the accusations of the Know-Nothings, they would have to create a definition that was not the exclusive property of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.
A good start was an editorial in the Ledger that compared America to the Washington Monument. The materials and craftsmanship for the monument were from throughout the United States and its territories, and the craftsmen were American citizens whose origins were worldwide. The monument, like the country, was still being built, but it foundations were under attack by the Know-Nothings, and all the voters must be vigilant or the whole structure would come down.
Sam Maverick made his views on America and Americans known in a response, printed in the Ledger, to a query posed by the Democratic Committee of Correspondence. Maverick stated that an American citizen was an American citizen regardless of nativity, that one's conscience was one's business, and that public questions ought to be discussed in public and not in secret, which was the style of the Know-Nothings.
America, the model republic, will still ever be the model of justice and humanity. Her gates are open to all the world, and who would shut them. We do not even claim to be the exclusive proprietors here. This continent is to become, under God, the field for the regeneration of all mankind. Come on come on; from all the ends of the earth come, come and learn to do as you would be done by. Come and learn here that men are still friends though they do not think alike. We hold this great estate not for ourselves alone, but for the whole human family, who are our brethren and whose temporal and eternal welfare are our dearest interest our greatest pride. Come and be Americans and 'rule America.'
Maverick simply scoffed at the Know-Nothings' attempt to disfranchise many who were already Americans. How, he wondered, would the Know-Nothings actually take the country? Did they think the Catholics would simply give up their liberty? Would the Mexican citizens, who had paid not in gold for their liberty but in steel and blood, part with their liberty for a lesser price? Finally, Maverick mocked the Know-Nothings use of a heart as their symbol. The heart was depicted as suffering because so many offices were filled by non natives, that there were not enough offices for native Americans. Maverick believed that the Know-Nothing heart was too small; it should include all in the world who wanted to come to America regardless of background.
If a man have the right principles, the American Heart will cherish and adopt him as a dear son, though he, poor fellow, may have been picked up out of a pig-pen or a manger on either side of the sea. This Heart has no respect for mere class. It is full of faith, hope, and charity; but there is no proscription in it, nor intolerance. It is not self-righteous, but liberal as the boundless Providence--commanding men to worship God as conscience would direct. It suffereth all things, it hopeth all things. It is good as it is great; and it is infinitely deep, infinitely broad--without center or circumference.
Thus, Maverick's America was broad enough for Mexicans and Germans, Protestants and Catholics. It was a free land, where any man who loved freedom was welcomed. (There was one exception, of course, the African Americans.)
J.M. Devine, always argumentative and often mayor, stated his views in a letter also printed in the Ledger. Devine declared his opposition to the Know Nothings and his denial that he had "declared that the American party was composed of gamblers, floating vagabonds, and that class of individuals." He stated that his opposition to the Know-Nothings was not with their membership but with their ideas--that to be an American one had to be native born and Protestant. Himself a Protestant, he held out special rebuke to the Methodist ministers--most of whom he found to be for the Know-Nothings. He finished by stating that he had no quarrel with Mr. West, the editor of the Herald who had printed the accusation, "for he, at least, knows, that with ample provocation, I have never molested him."
J.C. Wilson, who recently had moved to San Antonio from Matagorda Bay, made his views know in a public speech at a meeting attended by both Democrats and Know-Nothings. When called upon to speak, Wilson initially declined because of the controversy stirred up by the Know-Nothings against men like him--non-native citizens. He dwelt only briefly on himself, and then as only one of many who were of foreign birth, but who had fought in the Texas Revolution. At that time, he noted, no one had questioned if immigrants were fit to shed their blood for freedom. He ended his discourse on those not privileged to be born Americans with a final illustration.
Many years ago, in a loathsome prison of the Acordado, I saw through his prison bars the wasted form of a Texas patriot and hero, in shackles and solitude, mewed up like a dangerous beast, forbidden the society and even the speech of his fellow men. And why? Because he was too good an American; because he would not abandon the cause of struggling Texas, the cause of freedom, the cause of American liberty, he was persecuted, punished, and threatened with death. Neither love of personal liberty, the promise of rich rewards, the fear of death, nor the priestly influence which you fear so much, could induce ANTONIO NAVARRO to become a traitor. For years he was retained the living inmate of the tomb after his fellow prisoners were released and finally bore away as an evidence of his constancy, a shattered constitution disease[sic] that has brought premature old age; and what is his reward?
That he, thus proven and found eminently worthy--he whom his fellow-citizens should delight to honor--he upon whose name the breath of calumny has never blown a taint, must be proscribed, disfranchised, reduced to a sort of decent serfdom.
Even Navarro's enemies, Wilson remarked, "did not ask him to forsake his religion." Navarro had seen no conflict in being an American and a Roman Catholic--a combination considered dangerous by the Know-Nothings. Wilson's America was like that of Maverick's and Devine's, but when called upon to paint a portrait of an American, his portrait was José Antonio Navarro.
Navarro was also held in high esteem by the Ledger.
WHAT A CONTRAST.--A few years since, and the people of Texas, from the sea-board to the Alamo, gave one long, deep, and heart-vibrating welcome to Jose Antonio Navarro, returning from a long and painful captivity. A public meeting, and a festival, gave a new welcome to the honored citizen of San Antonio de Bexar. His beloved county was about to be united to that Union of which Texas is now the southern star in the great political constellation. Col. Navarro was elected a member of the Convention that framed our present State Constitution.
But yesterday he spoke for the preservation of that civil and religious liberty won through his aid, and illustrated by his manly constancy. He warns his friends and co-religionists,--descendants of the first civilized men who trod this land,--against all political affiliation with a new political association, emanating from the region where the annexation of Texas was most bitterly opposed up to the last hour of the admission of our State to the Union. He who favored America, and sought the Star-Spangled Banner's protection warns his fellow-citizens to discountenance the party self-styled American.
But how did Navarro, who to Wilson was the epitome of an American and to the Ledger an America of high esteem, define an American? At a "Democratic Meeting of the Mexico-Texas Citizens of Bexar County," reported on by the Ledger, a letter written by José Antonio Navarro was read. Navarro began the letter by praising both the organizing efforts and the ancestry of the Mexican citizens.
At last you have arisen from the slumber of indifference, and remembered that you are the sons of those noble Spanish pioneers, who discovered our beloved country, founded our lovely city, and erected the venerable edifice in which you elevate to God the tribute of your adoration.
Further, Navarro admonished the Mexican citizens to be good Americans; that Texas had become American was an act of God and the Mexican citizens must realize that their convictions and interests were American and that they must "frame [their] actions after the necessities of America." To be an American meant standing firm in one's freedom. Only through supporting the Democratic Party, "the most popular and liberal in our country," could the Mexican citizens protect their freedoms from those who claimed superiority through place of birth and religion. Navarro closed, however, on a subtly discordant note. "Be kind and polite, but also firm and incorruptible toward your opponents, thus you will be respected, and redeem our race from its prostrated condition." The paper reported that Navarro's letter was received with "unbounded applause," but the paper did not comment on the prostrated condition of the Mexican citizens. Navarro, consciously or not, clearly stated that past conditions and leaders (and the failure of the Mexican citizens to act) had prostrated the Mexican citizens. Now was the time for the Mexican citizens to reclaim their rightful place in San Antonio, as worthy citizens of the city and of the United States. Like Maverick, Navarro's vision of America was one large enough for all people who desired to be free. However in contrast to Maverick, it was a vision that had not yet been fulfilled. Maverick cried "come on," to an America he saw as already free, while Navarro cried out for America to "come on" and be free.
Maverick, Devine, Wilson, and Navarro each had a vision of America that included freedom for all men, with, of course, the exception of those of African descent. It was easy, however, to admit that a man of Navarro's gifts and stature was an American. But what of the other Mexican citizens of San Antonio?
There was dissension in the Know-Nothings ranks concerning the Mexican citizens. The Philadelphia Platform and Judge Jones stated that in most cases the Mexican people of San Antonio were not Americans. The Mexicans could be Americans because of the unusual circumstances of being born in what, by 1855, was part of the United States, but since most were Catholics, they could not be Americans. In contrast, however, the Herald went to great lengths to show that both Mexicans and Catholics could be Americans.
The Herald, unlike Judge Jones and many local Know-Nothings, ignored the Philadelphia Platform and blamed the "Unterrified Democracy" for the impression that the Know-Nothings were against Mexicans and Catholics. The election was not, the Herald assured the Mexican citizens, between "Mexican Catholics and Americans." The paper, with wishful thinking, even spoke for the Mexicans. They were not opposed to the Know-Nothings, the Herald assured its readers, but had been coerced into supporting the Democrats. Even Navarro was a true Know-Nothing: "old man Navarro was turned against the party with which he has always acted, by base misrepresentation." The Herald insisted that the Democrats were themselves no friends of the Mexican Catholics; they only appeared to befriend the Mexican citizens because the Democrats needed their votes. A cursory look at the past, however, revealed (in unspoken agreement with Navarro) that these were the same men who raised the taxes of the Mexicans and stole their lands "wherever flaws could be found in the titles;" these were the men who had "prostrated" the Mexican citizens. The true friends of the Mexicans were the men who had been their friends prior to the recent campaign--those in the American party.
Up to this point the Know-Nothings were on defensible, if somewhat shaky, ground, but the Herald then revealed the darker side of the party. If the Mexican citizens voted Democratic they would be short sighted in doing so. San Antonio, the Herald asserted, might remain a Democratic stronghold, but it would be a small island in a sea of Know-Nothings, because the Know-Nothings were going to sweep the state elections, and then it would be too late for the Mexican citizens to support the Know-Nothings.
To insure that the Mexican citizens did not miss the point, the Herald simply threatened them.
You Mexicans who join it (the Democrats) on account of the misrepresentations of false-hearted friends, have already admitted into your breasts a feeling very nearly akin to personal hatred to every one who belongs to the American party. True, it is but a small spark, but being surrounded by a combustible material, it will require but a slight breeze to fan it into a flame. Your business relations bring you in daily contact with the men whom you are advised to oppose as your bitter political and religious oppressors and persecutors. A slignt [sic] misunderstanding may lead to open hostility. Should such unfortunately be the case, none but the omniscient eye can forsee the end.
The article continued: "We warn those who are 'sowing the wind,' beware the harvest."
The greatest appeal of the Know-Nothings was to the Anglicized citizens of San Antonio; therefore, the Democrats greatest opportunity to win the election was to garner the Mexican, German, and Catholic voters, who were thus welcomed with open arms by the Democrats.
The actions of the Mexican citizens, therefore, suddenly became important news to the Democrats and the Ledger. A letter signed by nine of the leading Mexican citizens of the city was read at a meeting of the Democrats of Bexar County. The Mexicans leaders resolved to unite with the Democrats to defeat the Know-Nothings, and offered ten resolutions. Three of the resolutions mentioned the Know-Nothings attack upon the rights of Catholics to be both Catholics and exercise the rights of free citizens. Three others stated support of the Democratic party and its candidates at all levels. Another resolution committed the leading "Mexico-Texan" citizens "to warn our fellow citizens, who speak the Spanish language, of the character and mode of proceeding of this bad party who KNOW NOTHING GOOD." Resolution four was, however, most telling in opposition to a party that claimed nativity as its right.
"[W]e have no other feeling than a desire to witness the honor, glory and happiness of the land of our birth and the home of our affections--and we challenge a comparison of our obedience to law, and our interest in the welfare of Texas, with those who seek to deprive us of our inalienable rights--the greater number of who [sic] are strangers of not over four years residence in our State."
In what seemed an attempt to show unity with the Mexican citizens, the Ledger also published a letter from Pedro Rodriguez who had been roughed up at a ranch in the vicinity of Coleto by J.J. Golman. Golman had threatened to kill Rodriguez over a dispute involving money and livestock. Neither politics nor race was mentioned in the letter, but for the same paper that had opined fairly recently that the Mexicans were lower than the Comanches to now offer a venue for those same Mexicans to air their woes, likely was not unrelated to the political events of the day.
In defense of the Mexican citizens, the Ledger refuted the threats of the Know-Nothings when they stated that a vote by the Mexican citizens for the Democrats was tantamount to violence. The Ledger viewed this as a blatant threat against a people who were guaranteed the right to vote their consciences by the Constitution. But the Ledger went much farther in defending the Mexican citizens, calling them "in every respect equal and, in social kindness vastly superior to the midnight office-hunters who so shamelessly threaten the Mexican population." The paper also stated that the Mexican citizens, both native and foreign born, were "an industrious, peaceable, and worthy class," characteristics which only months earlier were reserved for the German immigrants, and which the Know-Nothings Judge Jones attributed only to the "Anglo Saxon."
Even past sins against Mexican citizens were atoned for. Wilson, who had spoken so eloquently about Navarro, explained his apparent anti-Mexican actions in Matagorda County. He was asked, "Were you one of those who agreed to notify all Mexicans living in Matagorda county, that they must leave within a number of days or that force would compel them?" Wilson answered that he was not in the county when the action was taken, that when he returned to the county he told those supporting the measure that he "freely expressed [his] general disapprobation of tumultuous and violent measures, while I could not deny the existence of the evil complained of." Therefore he agreed to the removal of a few nomadic Mexicans who were "too lazy to work and [had] no means of support," and who were suspected of stealing cattle and horses in the area. However, Wilson did not take an active part in the removal of the nomadic Mexicans, nor did he consider those removed typical of most of the Mexican citizens of Texas.
Because most Mexican citizens were also Roman Catholics, both parties had to state their position on religion. Because of their platform, the Know-Nothings were in an extremely weak position. All they could do was state that they were not against Catholics, but were merely for the separation of church and state.
The Democrats, represented by the Ledger, relentlessly attacked the Know-Nothings for trying to deceive the people on its anti Catholic stance. The Know-Nothing platform, the paper reminded its leaders, spoke for the party. To clarify the Know-Nothings stand, the Ledger printed some questions asked of prospective Know-Nothings.
"Were you born within the limits or under the jurisdiction of the United States of America?...In religious belief are you a Roman Catholic?...Are, or were either of your parents Roman Catholics in religious belief?...Are you willing to use your influence and vote only for native born American citizens for all the offices of honor or trust in the gift of the people, to the exclusion of all foreigners and aliens, and of Roman Catholics in particular, and without regard to party predilections?"
The Ledger then listed three sections of the Constitution involving freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and due process to show that the Know-Nothings platform was not only against Catholics but against the law as well. The paper also noted that when a naturalized citizens took the oath of allegiance to the United States, they forswore their allegiance to all foreign powers and rulers, which, of course, included the Pope. Finally, the Ledger showed that Catholics had a centuries old love of freedom.
Three hundred years before the Reformation some stout barons of England met at Runnymeade, and forced from the boldly bad King John the Great Charter of English Liberty. Pretty fair act, considering the barons were all Catholics! There was some freedom for mankind, after all, before 'the glorious Reformation!'
The Germans were a different story. Until the Know-Nothings arrived, the Germans were looked upon as ideal immigrants: they were frugal, clean, hard working people who loved freedom--in short, they were Americans, or at least what Americans wanted to be. To the Know-Nothings, however, the Germans were a natural enemy. While the Know-Nothings ran into few, if any Mexicans, prior to coming to San Antonio, they had run into many Germans, most of whom, of course, were opposed to the Know-Nothings platform. The Know-Nothings, therefore, wasted no time courting the German vote (as they did the Mexican vote) but instead attempted to turn German opposition to the Know-Nothings to their advantage. The Know-Nothings accused the Germans of being abolitionists, which put them outside the pale of being Americans in the South. Then they attempted to link the "abolitionist Germans" to the Democrats to prove that the Democrats were abolitionists, or at least supporters of abolitionists, and, therefore, not true Americans. None of the verbal sparring that occurred prior to the August 1855 election was as vicious as that concerning the Germans, slavery, and abolitionism. Ironically, slavery was the only major issue upon which both parties, at least in San Antonio, absolutely agreed. But it was also an issue the Know-Nothings hoped to use to their advantage. Thus the Germans, slavery, and abolitionism became intertwined in the August election campaign.
Certainly some of the Germans were abolitionists, and none more so than the editor of the San Antonio Zeitung, Adolf Douai, who moved to San Antonio in 1852. Shortly after his arrival he was convinced by C.N. Riotte and Gustav Thiessen, two of the city's leading German citizens, to publish a German language newspaper . Douai remarked that he would follow the "social-democratic ideals" in publishing the paper; he would also oppose slavery. Douai, correctly or not, believed that most German natives in Texas agreed with his stand on slavery. Proof that they might not was their vote on the annexation of Texas by the United States; most Germans had voted for annexation even though it entered the Union as a slave state. Douai believed the Germans were coerced into that vote. The slaveholders, according to Douai, convinced the German natives that if they voted against the annexation of Texas as a slave state, they would never become citizens.
In May 1854, Douai led the move to turn the Sangerfest into a political movement. Because over 1,000 Germans were at the festival, Douai and like-minded compatriots called a political convention. Although those who attended the political convention were almost unanimous in their call for opposition to slavery, their numbers were few; only 54 of the 1,000 Sangerfest attendees showed up. Nevertheless the call for an end to slavery, or for making Texas a free state, created a stir, a stir which Douai increased through articles in the Zeitung. His most controversial article concerned a free state of Western Texas. Actually Douai only noted that northern newspapers were hopeful that such would be the case, hopes based on the number of Germans in the region. Were a free state so created in a cotton growing region, the prosperity of free labor versus slave labor would gain undeniable proof.
Proving a political enemy was an abolitionist was not enough, the Know-Nothings needed to prove that they were not abolitionist. Rejection of abolitionism was achieved by the Know-Nothing platform and its denial of the idea of obedience to a "higher power" as an excuse to disobey the Constitution. This referred to opponents of slavery who used obedience to one's conscience as a reason to disobey the Fugitive Slave Act. The Know-Nothings were opposed to such reasoning and were, therefore, clearly not abolitionists. Further the Herald wondered why, when both the Know-Nothings and the Democrats had northerners in their ranks who were avowed abolitionists, only the Know-Nothings were considered abolitionists?
When Judge Jones spoke for the Know-Nothings in Seguin, the first question he discussed was abolitionism. He refuted the notion that the Know-Nothings were abolitionists. At Philadelphia where the party met, the abolitionists were escorted out of the party. True, there were abolitionists in the Know-Nothings, but they were not welcomed there. The same could not be said for the Democrats who welcomed abolitionists into their ranks not at some far off national meeting, but locally.
Where, on the first Monday in August,--in whose ranks will the editor of the San Antonio Zeitung be found! I will guaranty with my life that not one of those connected with that press will vote for the party with which I am associated. If they vote for the candidates of the American party, I will give you any consideration you may call for.
The editor to whom Judge Jones referred was, of course, Douai. Jones' statement, "not one of those connected with that press" implied that most Germans (and certainly the leaders of the German community) were abolitionists and supported the Democrats and were supported by them. To further castigate the Germans, the paper warned that if immigration into Texas continued, those immigrants (the Germans were not named but were certainly implied) would demand that Western Texas be made a separate and free state.
But the Know-Nothings, as in all other areas, were outgunned on the slavery issue. Because the Democrats had long been in San Antonio, their credentials on slavery were solid. Many leaders of the Democrats, including Maverick and J.M. Devine, were also slave holders. Though the Know-Nothings tried to label the Democrats as abolitionists, the Democrats had an easier time putting the abolitionist label on the Know-Nothings. The Herald was in part responsible for the hard time the Know-Nothings had on the slavery issue. Prior to its full fledged support for the Know-Nothings, the Herald reported that the nation would be better off without slavery; however, since slavery was not going to disappear, discussion of the question was fruitless. Before Judge Jones' speech appeared in the Herald, the paper had supported the right of the abolitionist Douai to print his abolitionist ideas. Such heresy, however, had long been out of favor in the South, and when the Herald became the paper of the Know-Nothings, their soft stand on slavery, though now abandoned, was remembered. Thus, the Know-Nothings were an easy target on an issue in which they differed not at all from the Democrats.
Partisan politics then as now was not worried about the truth, and the Democrats, like the Know-Nothings, used the accusation that the Know-Nothings were abolitionists, to gain votes. In an article that reported thirteen "facts" about the Know-Nothings, one "fact" was that the Know Nothings were all abolitionists. Every Know-Nothing official elected in the free states was an abolitionist, and had worked to repeal the Fugitive Slave Act and the Kansas-Nebraska Act--they had also worked to prohibit slavery from the nation's capital. Not only were the Know-Nothings abolitionists, they were the worst kind of abolitionist. They worked to deny the right of foreign born Americans and non-Protestants to vote, but they "were in favor of civil liberty for all FREE NEGROES," which included the right to vote, an action the Ledger believed was wrong. Slavery, not freedom, was the answer for those of African decent. The Ledger challenged anyone to compare the conditions of the "shining, ebony-faced laborers" of the South with the wage slaves of the North.
But attacking the Know-Nothings was not enough, the Democrats had to prove that the Germans were not abolitionists. There were, the Ledger reported, a large number of German settlers who had lived in Maryland and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia for over 200 years. Those Germans were slave holders, and, therefore, obviously not abolitionists. Closer to home the editor mentioned that the Germans population had been accused of being abolitionists because of the writings of the San Antonio Zeitung which was admittedly abolitionist. The Ledger reminded its readers that the German newspapers of New Branufels and Galveston both condemned the "wild theories advanced by the San Antonio Zeitung."
In the eyes of the Democrats, the Germans, like the Mexicans, were good, law abiding citizens, and could be trusted on the slavery issue, therefore, they were Americans, and the Democrats intended to add their votes to those of the Anglos and Mexicans. Sometimes this alliance took a natural form. On the Saturday night prior to the election, the Democrats held a rally for all who opposed secret political organizations. At the rally speeches would be given in "German, Spanish, and English." At other times, linking the groups together was contrived. Such was the case in an article concerning textbooks. The article was about the textbooks used in southern, and San Antonio, schools. The books were written and published in New England and were critical of the South. However the article began with a quote from José Antonio Navarro, "Public things are valued in honor, reputation, and a good name," which had little to do with the article. The article ended with a reference to the Anglo John Smyth. Smyth had stated that hard work was a virtue. The Ledger reported that John Smyth "would probably indorse [sic] the Teutonic energy of our industrious fellow-citizens of German." True, the article was awkward, but it managed to link the most famous Mexican citizen of San Antonio with the Germans, who were, termed "fellow-citizens," and all were tied together with the quote from the Anglo John Smyth.
The parties entered the election agreeing that slavery was good and American, but beyond that the message was blurred. The Know-Nothing platform and Know-Nothings from outside of San Antonio stated that America was a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant country, though locally the message was diluted. The Democrats countered with an alliance of Anglos, Germans, Mexicans, and Catholics. The voters of San Antonio would decide what an American was in San Antonio.
The voters overwhelmingly chose the Democratic version of American, which was not unusual since the Know-Nothing platform alienated a majority of the voting citizens of San Antonio. The results were quite simple, the Democrats won the Know-Nothings lost, but each party interpreted the results differently.
The Ledger provided little interpretation of the results, perhaps because the election was a landslide and little interpretation was needed. The paper merely reported the numbers. At the local level, Maverick received 1,556 votes to 556 for Nat Lewis for state senator; for the four representative slots for Bexar County the Democrat William H. Cleveland beat the Know-Nothing M.G. Anderson 1,621 to 554, the Democrat Morgan L. Merick beat the Know-Nothing Dr. J.H. Lyons 1,596 to 567, the Democrat Jacob Waelder beat the Know-Nothing T.G. Gardiner 1,615 to 538, and the Democrat James L. Trueheart beat the Know-Nothing A. Cooley 1,621 to 557--the Democrats won all the statewide races in Bexar County as well. Worthy of note was that German-born Waelder fell only five votes shy of the Democratic maximum and beat his opponent by the largest margin of the four. Waelder immigrated from Germany to Pennsylvania in 1833, where he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1845. He married in 1848 and his wife's poor health caused him to move to San Antonio in 1852. He set up shop as a lawyer, was on the Board of the San Antonio and Mexican Gulf Railroad, but was most successful as a Democratic politician. He was elected to three consecutive terms as state representative from District 71 which was composed of Comal, Gillispie, and a portion of Bexar counties. Certainly his German nativity made him popular in those counties--all of which had large German populations, and he maintained his ties with the German community in part as a member of the German sponsored Casino Club. Despite the overwhelming Democratic victory, there were precincts where the Know-Nothings won. In Cibolo, Lewis won 45-8, and the Know-Nothings won each of the races in that precinct; at Jett's Rancho Lewis beat Maverick 38-2, and the Know-Nothings won all but one race there; in Atascosa Lewis won 37-18; at another Cibolo precinct Lewis won 14-5; at Salado Lewis won 44-0; at Leona Lewis won 20-6; at Hill's Lewis won 24-12; at Sabinal Lewis won 10-5; and at Martinas Lewis won 16-1; however at Calaveras Maverick won 131-2; and at Navarro's Maverick won 62-1. Except for the vote totals and some election news from other states, the Ledger was almost silent on what had been the only item of news in the paper in the issues previous to the election. The Ledger rejoiced in victory, but offered little reflection. The election was over; the Democrats had won. The Know-Nothings, however, were neither quiet nor gracious in defeat.
The Know-Nothings interpreted their defeat as proof that their ideas were correct. They were defeated by "an unholy and unnatural alliance" of those who had no religion and those who would believe that theirs was the only religion. The alliance, the Herald reported, could not last because it was without principle. The loss was the result of "direct interference of the Catholic clergy." The Mexicans had failed to recognize the truth. Their religion had so blinded them that they voted against their own self interest. Nothing could better prove the horrible effects of allowing the Pope to have power in politics than the vote of the Mexicans in the election. Thus the Know-Nothings turned to the Germans.
Will you then, Germans, who have fled from oppression, lend a helping hand to those despots from whom you have fled, to extinguish the last rays of light to which benighted man can cast an eye, and aid and abet your tyrants in their deep-laid schemes of villainy?...If the constitution and laws of this country were good enough to bring you here...leave the government in the hands of Americans and your children who will be Americans by birth, education and feeling--will be as unwilling to have their rights interfered with as are the present race of Americans with theirs.
The election showed that the Democratic alliance of Anglos, Mexicans, Germans, Protestants, and Catholics worked. Because it worked, the Know-Nothings shifted their focus. No longer would the party refrain from attacking the Mexicans, though they would do so indirectly through their obedience to the Catholic Church, but they would attempt to gain some support from the Germans.
Richard H. Douai Boeker (trans.), "The Autobiography of Adolf Douai," 108 (quotation), 109-114, Douai (Adolf) Papers (Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin); San Antonio Zeitung, Feb. 10, 1855.
Ibid., August 4, 1855; Ron Tyler et al. (eds.) New Handbook of Texas (6 vols.; Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1996), 6, 783; San Antonio Zeitung, Feb. 24, 1855; Julian P. Greer, Jr., "The Antebellum History of the San Antonio and Mexican Gulf Railroad" (M.A. thesis, Southwest Texas State College, 1968), 74, 77.