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What came in the end was only a small war and a quick victory; when the farmers and the gentlemen finally did coalesce in politics, they produced only the genial reforms of Progressivism; and the man on the white horse turned out to be just a graduate of the Harvard boxing squad, equipped with an immense bag of platitudes, and quite willing to play the democratic game… Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform

For the people : American populist movements from the Revolution to the 1850s Ronald P. Formisano Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, c 2008 Hardcover. viii, 315 p. ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. [217]-298) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

formisano001A bust portrait of a young man representing the nativist ideal of the Know Nothing party. He wears a bold tie and a fedora-type hat tilted at a rakish angle. The portrait is framed by intricate carving and scrollwork surmounted by an eagle with a shield, and is draped by an American flag. Behind the eagle is a gleaming star. The flag hangs from a staff at left which has a liberty cap on its end. The Citizen Know Nothing figure appears in several nativist prints of the period and is probably an idealized type rather than an actual individual. The publishers, Williams, Stevens, Williams & Company, were art dealers with a gallery on Broadway.

For the People offers a new interpretation of populist political movements from the Revolution to the eve of the Civil War and roots them in the disconnect between the theory of rule by the people and the reality of rule by elected representatives. Formisano seeks to rescue populist movements from the distortions of contemporary opponents as well as the misunderstandings of later historians.

formisano002An anti-Catholic cartoon, reflecting the nativist perception of the threat posed by the Roman Church’s influence in the United States through Irish immigration and Catholic education. The “Propagation Society” is probably the Catholic proselytizing organization, the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. At right, on a shore marked “United States,” Brother Jonathan, whittling, leans against a flagpole flying the stars and stripes. “Young America,” a boy in a short coat and striped trousers, stands at left, holding out a Bible toward Pope Pius IX, who steps ashore from a boat at left. The latter holds aloft a sword in one hand and a cross in the other. Still in the boat are five bishops. One holds the boat to the shore with a crozier hooked round a shamrock plant. Pope: “My friend we have concluded to take charge of your spiritual welfare, and your temporal estate, so that you need not be troubled with the care of them in future; we will say your prayers and spend your money, while you live, and bury you in the Potters Field, when you die. Kneel then! and kiss our big toe in token of submission.” Brother Jonathan: “No you dont, Mr. Pope! your’e altogether too willing; but you cant put ‘the mark of the Beast’ on Americans.” Young America: “You can neither coax, nor frighten our boys, Sir! we can take care of our own worldly affairs, and are determind to “Know nothing” but this book, to guide us in spiritual things.” (“Know nothing” is a “double entendre,” alluding also to the nativist political party of the same name.) First bishop: “I cannot bear to see that boy, with that horrible book.” Second bishop: “Only let us get a good foot hold on the soil, and we’ll burn up those Books and elevate this Country to the Same degree of happiness and prosperity, to which we have brought Italy, Spain, Ireland and many other lands.” Third bishop: “Sovereign Pontiff! say that if his friends, have any money, when he dies; they may purchase a hole, for him in my cemetery, at a fair price.” Fourth bishop: “Go ahead Reverend Father; I’ll hold our boat by this sprig of shamrock.” The Gale catalog lists another, smaller print issued by Currier in 1853, entitled “The Propagation Society–More Freedom than Welcome.”

From the Anti-Federalists to the Know-Nothings, Formisano traces the movements chronologically, contextualizing them and demonstrating the progression of ideas and movements. Although American populist movements have typically been categorized as either progressive or reactionary, left-leaning or right-leaning, Formisano argues that most populist movements exhibit liberal and illiberal tendencies simultaneously. Gendered notions of “manhood” are an enduring feature, yet women have been intimately involved in nearly every populist insurgency. By considering these movements together, Formisano identifies commonalities that belie the pattern of historical polarization and bring populist movements from the margins to the core of American history.

formisano003A sheet music cover illustrated with an ornamental vignette and motifs alluding to the Know Nothing party. In the center a nocturnal procession of men in tricornered hats, holding bayonets and a banner with a skull and crossbones. From the crossbar of the banner hang a raccoon and a cock. The scene is framed by a grouping of American flags with a liberty cap and an eagle and shield (above) and by two trees. A raccoon crouches on the limb of a tree at left. Below are pumpkin vines and a rooster standing on a ledge near cornstalks. The raccoon, pumpkins, and cornstalks, all indigenous to North America and distinctly non-European, symbolize the xenophobic orientation of the nativist party. Winner & Shuster were prolific Philadelphia music publishers.


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