Nine men crept onto the construction site of the Washington Monument in the wee hours of March 6, 1854, on a mission to rescue America. They were looking for “The Pope’s Stone,” a marble block sent by the Vatican, originally from a Roman temple. One of hundreds of stones donated to the project by countries and individuals around the world, The Pope’s Stone had excited a fever of conspiracy theories. Many were convinced that its placement in the magical obelisk would trigger an Irish uprising to replace American democracy with a Catholic dictatorship.
First, they broke the marble into chunks with a sledgehammer. Then they carried the bulk down to the Potomac, where they rowed out into the deep and dumped it overboard. Laugh all you want, but you have to admit that the Catholic uprising never happened. Coincidence?
Before there was QAnon, the target of our persistent, seemingly innate “Satanic baby-killing sex cabal” archetype were Catholics, especially Jesuits. Ireland in our mid-19th century imagination was what Latin America or the Middle East are for Americans today, a distant, incomprehensible hellhole of violence and instability, pouring forth destitute masses who “don’t share our values.” As Europeans had done from time immemorial, Americans applied the strange archetype of the blood libel to these menacing aliens, painting onto them a pattern of sexualized terrors. By the mid 19th century, the Anglo-Saxonist mythology which had prevailed in the Northern states was failing, too rigid to accommodate millions of new arrivals who did not fit within its notion of “us.”
Americans’ failure to expand our notion of usness in ways that could incorporate this wave of European immigrants lead to the near complete collapse of the political order in the North in the 1850’s. The Whig Party, which had been the most promising anti-slavery rival to the Democrats, split apart completely after the 1852 election. Its abolitionist caucus formed the Republican Party while those more concerned with nativism organized the American Party, the “Know-Nothings,” and the Constitution Party at different times and in different parts of the country.
The collapse of the Whigs destroyed the political firewalls around the slavery question, a matrix of compromises and containments which had prevented the issue from erupting into war. Anglo-Saxonist mythology was disintegrating in the Northern states while a similar breakdown in the Cavalier mythology was accelerating in the South. It is very difficult to hold a country together without a unifying mythology. The Civil War remains the deadliest conflict in our history.
It all started with porn.
A popular new genre of porn captured the attention of America’s prudes in the 1840’s. A Canadian, Maria Monk, published in 1836 her Awful Disclosures: A Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed (A True Story of the Brutality and Murder of Nuns and their Children and the Lime Pits Below Nunneries). Her story was untrue, which upset her Canadian neighbors, so her handlers moved her to the US where her account would be more warmly received, even after she herself was cast aside.
In a country where any depiction of sexual activity was forbidden, Monk’s lurid story took off like wildfire. Afterall, it was a public affairs expose, so even though it was chock full of highly imaginative priest-on-nun sadomasochism it was “legitimate reading material.” At the heart of her tale was her claim that women were being deceived/kidnapped into convents where they became sex slaves for priests. Children born of these illicit encounters were discarded in lime pits that reached unplumbed depths beneath the abbey, a vision of hell and satanic sacrifice. Nuns who tried to defend their virtue against the ravishing priests were subjected to 50 shades of clerical discipline, laid out in stroke-by-stroke detail.
Monk quickly faded away but her book inspired a flood of similar works, a whole industry of gothic porn for prudes, loaded down with anti-Catholic hysteria. That sexualized, blood libel paranoia, identical almost down to the word to the tropes in today’s QAnon, fueled waves of violence. Major outbreaks of mob violence led to deaths in Irish neighborhoods in Philadelphia in the 1840’s and German neighborhoods in Louisville and Cincinnati in the 1850’s. Smaller scale incidents were common all over the North. By the 1850’s stories like Monk’s were taken as gospel among hardcore Protestants, merged with insecurity over the future of American democracy.
A popular tract published in 1854 by HM Hatch, Popery Unmasked, was a rollcall of anti-Catholic tropes. The author explained:
In the first place, every nun is bound to the will of the Priests; she is to live for their own use, whenever they choose. Strangling and putting to death infants is common in nunneries throughout this country; it is not known that this is done systematically, according to Popish instructions. Thus we see that the virtue of nuns is to live in criminal intercourse with priests, and their charity is to murder infants.
Thomas Whitney, in A Defense of the American policy, in 1856, sounded the battle cry.
It is the foe of all liberty, the foe of the Protestants, the foe of our government, and yet we sleep while it is insidiously but rapidly fastening its deadly coils about us, and all that is dear to us! Americans! Protestants! Ye who have been cradled in the lap of freedom, shake off the sluggish torpor of your souls, cast away the partisan traitors who have bargained away your inheritance, look about you, read, think, hear, believe and act for yourselves!
Sane, reasonable political figures were at a loss. The nativist parties captured large state-level majorities in the 1854 elections, making them a political force that could not be ignored. Thanks to this hysterical wave of nativism, the Congress elected in 1854 was split among six different political parties. Abraham Lincoln expressed his frustration with this crisis in 1855.
As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.”
Fracturing the Anglo-Saxonist mythology that held Northern politics together broke the back of the republic. Without any agreement on who was “us,” it became nearly impossible to assemble a competent governing coalition. As violence swept the Kansas territory thanks to an incompetent federal approach to slavery, there was no force in Washington capable of responding.
Ironically, this failure in the Northern states to adapt their mythology to accept new Catholic immigrants would bring slavery to the fore as a national issue. A wave of anti-Catholic porn in the North would kick off a chain of events that would eventually doom slavery in the South.