Off-campus UMass Amherst users: To download dissertations, please use the following link to log into our proxy server with your UMass Amherst user name and password.

Non-UMass Amherst users, please click the view more button below to purchase a copy of this dissertation from Proquest.

(Some titles may also be available free of charge in our Open Access Dissertation Collection, so please check there first.)

Populism and public life: Antipartyism, the state, and the politics of the 1850s in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania

Mark Voss-Hubbard, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This is a study of popular political thought and its interaction with the culture of governance in three northern states before the Civil War. By putting matters of governance at the center of antebellum politics, this study differs from reigning society-based interpretations of the era. Drawing upon the polity-centered framework of Theda Skocpol and the broader cultural approach to the political public sphere pioneered by Jurgen Habermas, this dissertation emphasizes how political actors struggled to translate socially conditioned anxieties into political questions that bore fundamental relationship to governance. The story pivots on the rise and fall of the Know Nothing movement, a quintessential expression of nineteenth-century American populism. It argues that the movement's breathtaking fury and appeal flowed from a pervasive sense that governance was lacking in a broad moral purpose; that wire-pulling politicians, blinded by partisan calculation, had allowed dangerous special interests to threaten the public good. Like other populist movements, the Know Nothings framed their agenda with transcendent antiparty calls to eliminate office chasers and special interests from public life. While key differences distinguished the movement regionally, Know Nothings in each state cast the decade's principal issues--slavery, immigration, and economic insecurity--as crises of governance within a radically changing public culture. The decline of the Know Nothings suggests what happens to an antiparty reform movement once it becomes a formal political party. Though Know Nothing lawmakers in each state added a significant corpus of reforms to their prescriptive anti-Catholic agenda, this dissertation stresses the limits of populism--a combination of internal contradictions and cultural constraints that can be termed the third party dialectic. Despite the Know Nothings' rhetoric of patriotic unity, factionalism dogged the movement, while leaders undertook praetorian actions which contradicted the rank and file's antiparty designs. The study concludes by examining how the emergent Republican party established partisan loyalty at the grassroots in the context of sectional polarization. By the eve of the Civil War, the Republicans' antisouthern and herrenvolk appeals incorporated the popular ideal of governance devoted to the public good and the parallel fear of special interests in American public life.

Subject Area

American history|Political science

Recommended Citation

Voss-Hubbard, Mark, "Populism and public life: Antipartyism, the state, and the politics of the 1850s in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania" (1997). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9809409.