CHAPTER XVIII. Origin of the Constitution - The Executive - Congress - Local Legislatures - The army and navy - Justice - Slavery - Political corruption - The foreign element - Absence of principle - Associations - The Know-nothings - The Press and its po
While the avenues to distinction in public life are in great measure closed against men of honour, wealth offers a sure road to eminence, and the acquisition of it is the great object followed. It is often sought and obtained by means from which considerations of honesty and morality are omitted; but there is not, as with us, that righteous censorship of public opinion which brands dishonesty with infamy, and places the offender apart, in a splendid leprosy, from the society to which he hoped wealth would be a passport. If you listen to the conversation in cars, steamboats, and hotels, you become painfully impressed with the absence of moral truth which pervades the country. The success of Barnum, the immense popularity of his infamous autobiography, and the pride which large numbers feel in his success, instance the perverted moral sense which is very much the result of the absence of principle in public life; for the example of men in the highest positions in a state must influence the masses powerfully either for good or evil. A species of moral obliquity pervades a large class of the community, by which the individuals composing it are prevented from discerning between truth and falsehood, except as either tends to their own personal aggrandisement. Thus truth is at a fearful discount, and men exult in successful roguery, as though a new revelation had authorised them to rank it among the cardinal virtues.
These remarks apply to a class, unfortunately a very numerous one, of the existence of which none are more painfully conscious than the good among the Americans themselves. Of the upper class of merchants,
manufacturers, shipbuilders, &c., it would be difficult to speak too highly. They have acquired a world-wide reputation for their uprightness, punctuality, and honourable dealings in all mercantile transactions.
The oppression which is exercised by a tyrant majority is one leading cause of the numerous political associations which exist in the States. They are the weapons with which the weaker side combats the numerically superior party. When a number of persons hit upon a grievance, real or supposed, they unite themselves into a society, and invite delegates from other districts. With a celerity which can scarcely be imagined, declarations are issued and papers established advocating party views; public meetings are held, and a complete organization is secured, with ramifications extending all over the country. A formidable and compact body thus arises, and it occasionally happens that such a society, originating in the weakness of a minority, becomes strong enough to dictate a course of action to the Executive.
Of all the associations ever formed, none promised to exercise so important an influence as that of the Know-nothings, or the American party. It arose out of the terrific spread of a recognised evil - namely, the power exercised upon the Legislature by foreigners, more especially by the Irish Romanists. The great influx of aliens, chiefly Irish and Germans, who speedily or unscrupulously obtain the franchise, had caused much alarm throughout the country. It was seen that the former, being under the temporal and spiritual domination of their priests, and through them under an Italian prince, were exerting a most baneful influence upon the republican institutions of the States. Already in two or more States the Romanists had organised themselves to interfere with the management of the public schools. This alarm paved the way for the rapid extension of the new party, which first made its appearance before men's eyes with a secret organization and enormous political machinery. Its success was unprecedented. Favoured by the secresy of the ballot, it succeeded in placing its nominees in all the responsible offices in several of the States. Other parties appeared paralysed, and men yielded before a mysterious power of whose real strength they were in complete ignorance. The avowed objects of the Know-nothings were to establish new naturalization laws, prohibiting any from acquiring the franchise without a residence of twenty-one years in the States - to procure the exclusion of Romanists from all public offices - to restore the working of the constitution to its original purity - and to guarantee to the nation religious freedom, a free Bible, and free schools; in fact, to secure to Americans the right which they are in danger of ceasing to possess - namely, that of governing themselves.
The objects avowed in the preliminary address were high and holy; they stirred the patriotism of those who writhed under the tyranny of an heterogeneous majority, while the mystery of nocturnal meetings, and a secret organization, conciliated the support of the young and ardent. For a time a hope was afforded of the revival of a pure form of republican government, but unfortunately the Know-nothing party contained the elements of dissolution within itself. Some of its principles savoured of intolerance, and of persecution for religious opinions, and it ignored the subject of slavery. This can never be long excluded from any party consideration, and, though politicians strive to evade it, the question still recurs, and will force itself into notice. Little more than a year after the Know-nothings were first heard of, they came into collision with the subject, in the summer of 1855, and, after stormy dissensions at their great convention, broke up into several branches, some of which totally altered or abandoned the original objects of their association.