Know nothing party

A visit to the Ashfield Historical Society Museum will uncover a great deal of history about events related to the town. One interesting item that a visitor may overlook is the white door with a round hole placed at approximately the height of an average sized person on the Museum's second floor. This door was once on the second floor of a store which became Rice's Meat Market in the early 1900's. It was used by members of the Know-Nothing Party of Massachusetts. This secret order first met in Ashfield in the Cross Hotel in 1853-54.

Although the Know-Nothing party or the American Party was a national political organization, it was strongest in Massachusetts. This party was based on nativistic beliefs and its members were native born male Protestants who were opposed to immigrants being able to vote or hold political office. They considered the enemies of the republic to be the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church.

Because they were a secret order, often termed the dark lantern society, they caught state politics by surprise. These men were successful in enlisting many members who ran for state and local offices. One of the most influential party members was Henry J. Gardner who was elected as the Commonwealth's Governor in 1854. Most of the party's members were from the working class and wished for many reforms that would affect their lives. Gardner, however, was a wealthy wool merchant and a member of the so-called Boston Brahmins (a small elite group of families who were extremely wealthy and well-educated).

During the period in which the Know-Nothing Party possessed power in the state legislature, they instituted many reforms for the working class. In fact, they attracted many members to their party in response to what they considered a corrupt and inattentive government. Such reforms as abolishment of imprisonment for debt and safety measures for railroad crossings were submitted by the Know-Nothing Party. On the other hand, they passed laws that were against the Irish immigrants such as disbanding Irish militia groups and worked to extend the residency requirements for naturalization from five to twenty-one years and limited public office to native-born individuals. In Ashfield, because the order was secretive, mystery surrounded who belonged, however, Dr. Charles L. Knowlton ran as a candidate for representative as a Know-Nothing Party member. He lost by one vote. In the 1854 election, this party carried the town.

For more information, read The Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts: The Rise and Fall of the People's Movement, by John R. Mulken, Northeastern University Press, 1990, and check out the History of Ashfield and also documents at the Museum.

(This article was written by Patricia Silver and is reprinted from the Summer '98 Newsletter of the Ashfield Historical Society.)