The visit of Pope Francis this week has stirred up political debate. But it is nothing compared to the reaction another pope set off with a simple act of charity more than 160 years ago.
In 1852, Pope Pius IX contributed a block of Italian marble to the United States, for use in building the Washington Monument. This seemingly beneficent gesture — the gift of a stone recovered from the ancient ruins of the Temple of Concord — sparked a political firestorm, and the resulting agitation helped consolidate a once amorphous nativist movement into a political force. Rallies were held, pamphlets were distributed and funds were raised with the ostensible purpose of purchasing a “Protestant” marble that would sit next to the Pope’s Stone in the obelisk that was then under construction honoring George Washington.
The outrage culminated on the night of March 5, 1854, when nine men broke into the base of the monument, tied up the night watchman and spirited the stone away, rolling it several blocks to a boat in the Tidal Basin, breaking it into smaller pieces along the way. Most of the pieces — some were kept as souvenirs and would turn up decades later — were dumped into the Potomac.
It was a 19th century Keystone Cops operation, but it served as a rallying point for nativists, who had been agitating for more than a decade to restrict immigration and to impose lengthy waiting periods — as long as two decades — before new immigrants could become citizens, and to bar the foreign-born from holding office.
These policies were actually aimed more at foreign Catholics than all foreigners — many anti-Catholic organizations that provided the organizational seed for the nativist movement welcomed Protestant Irish and German immigrants.
The nativist movement blossomed in the wake of the soaring immigration that followed the potato famine. Three million Irish and Germans came between 1846 and 1854, most of them Catholic. But even before that, in local controversies over state-financed parochial schools and the use of Catholic Bibles in public schools, passions rose and violence flared. Every time it did, more recruits were brought to the banner.
A pair of riots in the spring and summer of 1844 rocked Philadelphia, sparked by a battle over the use of Bibles in schools. Opportunistic politicians of all stripes seized on the controversy and opposing rallies led to violence. Gun battles broke out in May and July that resulted in dozens of deaths. One of the leaders of Philadelphia's nativist movement, Lewis Levin, was indicted for inciting to riot. He was never convicted, but he was elected to Congress in 1844.
In 1850, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner was founded in New York. The Order was a secret society dedicated to quiet action to reduce the political influence of immigrants. It was not yet a political movement, but it was skulking around the edges.
Philadelphia nativists, some of whom were likely members of the Order, attempted to recruit Daniel Webster to lead a presidential campaign in 1852, but the great man died soon after and the movement splintered in the absence of an immediate crisis.
Then the Pope’s Stone arrived, and suddenly, everything was about politics.
By the end of 1854, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner was evolving into the American Party, and claiming more than 1 million members. The movement was no longer a secret, but it preserved one element of its former being: Its members became known as Know Nothings — most likely as a result of the members’ habit of claiming to “know nothing” of any secret organization.
The American Party nominated former President Millard Fillmore for president in 1856. He won more than 20 percent of the vote and carried one state, Maryland, in the election won by Democrat James Buchanan over the first Republican presidential nominee, Western explorer John C. Fremont.
The mystery of the disappearance of the Pope’s Stone lasted for decades, until an anonymous witness told the whole story in the 1880s. No one was ever convicted of the theft. But a large piece of the stone was recovered by dredgers in the Potomac in 1892, only to be stolen again soon after.
In 1972, it reappeared again. Although the provenance of this latest find was undetermined, the Smithsonian displayed the 18-inch hunk of marble anyway. A replacement stone, inscribed “A Roma Americae,” has rested inside the Washington Monument since 1982.
John Bicknell is a former editor at CQ Roll Call and author of “America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation.”