Streets of Washington, written by John DeFerrari, covers some of DC’s most interesting buildings and history. John is the author of Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C.: Capital Eats, published by the History Press, Inc. and also the author of Lost Washington DC.
In 1857, radical conservatives of the “Know Nothing” party in Washington, imbued with contempt for Roman Catholics, mounted an extraordinary attempt to forcibly prevent the naturalized citizens of Washington from voting in local elections. The result was the infamous Election Day Riot on June 1 at a polling station just south of Mount Vernon Square. The New York Times called it “one of the most daring insurrectionary riots of bloodshed and murder that ever disgraced a city.” Six people were killed by a Marine detachment that was called in to quell the disturbance. While the troublemakers ultimately failed in their attempt to prevent voting by Catholic immigrants, the incident was deeply embarrassing for 19th century Washingtonians and gave them a tangible sense of the tragic consequences of religious intolerance in political affairs.
Marines firing on the mob at Northern Liberties Market, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 29, 1857. (Source: Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 24, 1922).
Upheaval overseas—including the Irish potato famine and the Revolution of 1848 in Germany—led to large numbers of Irish and German immigrants to the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. These desperate people, willing to making the arduous journey to America in hopes of a better life, would enrich the country immeasurably in years to come, and many were happy to see them come. But to Anglo American “nativists,” they were foreign transgressors bent on destroying American society as the Anglos knew it. The nativists pointed to the increasing numbers of destitute and homeless immigrants crowding the nation’s cities—Washington’s notorious Swampoodle was an example—as evidence that the newcomers were bringing the country down. They began organizing themselves in secret to resist the immigrants and all they stood for, especially their predominant religion, Roman Catholicism. Supposedly if a member of this secret group were asked anything about the organization, he was supposed to reply “I know nothing,” and so they became known as the Know-Nothings. Secretly calling themselves the “Supreme Order of the Star Spangled Banner,” the group foreshadowed the growth of the Ku Klux Klan later in the 19th century. (more…)