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This is the second installment in a special seven-part series “A Brief History of Nativism: Anti-Immigrant Bigotry in the American Past”, providing an overview of these major movements, as well as the accompanying shifts in American immigration policy and their consequences. The first installment,  “Colonial Dreams and Independent Reactions” is available here.

A Brief History of Nativism 

Part II: Knowing Nothing in Antebellum America

During the period of westward expansion beginning with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase during the Jefferson Administration, immigration issues receded from American political life. Ongoing strife with England and the rapid incorporation of vast new territories—along with confrontations with the native population—took precedence in the public imagination.

Expansion, however, led to conflict. Following the annexation of Texas in 1845, the United States went to war with Mexico. By the time the Mexican-American War ground to a halt in 1848, there were relatively few Mexicans living in what had just become the southwestern United States. This would change in the second half of the nineteenth century, as increasing numbers of people of Mexican descent began to settle in the territories that would become Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and the other states of the region. Though they often suffered discrimination in areas dominated by Anglo-Americans, there was no widespread movement to exclude them from settling in the region during this period.

European immigration was another matter. During the 1830s and 1840s large numbers of Irish and German immigrants began to arrive, many of them Roman Catholic. This influx of Catholic immigrants, combined with a flourishing Protestant revival movement, deep sectional divisions over slavery, and economic uncertainty helped to foster a nativist atmosphere. Protestant evangelists demonized Catholics as “Papists” who followed authoritarian leaders, imported crime and disease, stole native jobs, and practiced moral depravities—a list of anti-immigrant charges virtually identical to those heard in the contemporary movement.

The end result of this anti-immigrant agitation was violence. In 1844, mobs attacked and burned a convent near Boston. In Philadelphia, another group killed thirty and injured hundreds.

The antebellum nativists, however, did not limit their activities to inciting mobs and burning nunneries. As with their ideological descendants active today, they tried to mobilize workers and change public policy. Artisans and laborers complained bitterly that immigrants depressed wages with their willingness to work longer hours for less pay. Moreover, employers often resorted to employing those “fresh off the boat”—that is those with few prospects and urgent unmet needs—as scabs and strike breakers, thus increasing the animosity between native born and immigrant. As also happens today, the role of employers in setting worker against worker in pursuit of cheapest and most docile labor possible was often overlooked.

With both anti-Catholic evangelical furor and worker frustrations behind it, it is unsurprising that immigrant bashing became not just criminal but political in the period. Helped by the writings of men like Samuel Morse (the inventor), politicians with nativist leanings began to link immigration to Catholicism, which many saw as a threat, and to the plight of the country’s workers.

One of the first anti-immigrant political organizations, the Native American Democratic Association, nominated Morse for mayor of New York in 1836. Though he garnered only 6 percent of the vote, Morse’s candidacy opened the floodgates for anti-immigrant political activism. An increasing number of politicians adopted anti-immigrant positions, many of them as candidates for the American Republican party, which formed in 1844. In the few years of its existence, this party managed to elect six congressional representatives and dozens of local officials in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.

In the early 1850s, various secretive anti-immigrant organizations joined to form a new political party first known as the Order of the Star Spangled Banner. Eventually and officially called the American Party, the group was popularly known as the “Know-Nothings” because members were initially supposed to answer “I know nothing” when asked about this exclusive, native-Protestant organization.

It attracted over one million members by the mid-1850s, and the American Party met with considerable electoral success in 1854 and 1855. The Know-Nothings sent forty members to the New York legislature, captured the New York governorship, and gained control of all but two seats of the Massachusetts legislature. The American Party in Pennsylvania and Delaware swallowed the Whigs and carried their states. Nine of Indiana’s eleven congressional representatives belonged to the American Party in 1854. By the end of 1855, the Know-Nothings carried elections in a dozen states and elected more than one hundred representatives to Congress.

It was widely believed at the time that the Know-Nothings would elect the next President. However, emerging divisions over slavery drove many northern members into the new Republican Party. Know-Nothings tried to attract new members by promising that they would promote sectional harmony, but their 1856 presidential candidate Millard Fillmore captured just 22 percent of the popular vote and carried only the state of Maryland. This embarrassing performance—along with increasing North-South tensions—hastened the party’s decline. By 1860 the Know-Nothings, if not its nativist agenda, had all but disappeared.

Coming up next, Part III: Postbellum Realignment

Devin Burghart

Author Devin Burghart

is vice president of IREHR. He coordinates our Seattle office, directs our research efforts, and manages our online communications. He has researched, written, and organized on virtually all facets of contemporary white nationalism since 1992, and is internationally recognized for this effort. Devin is frequently quoted as an expert by print, broadcast, and online media outlets. In 2007, he was awarded a Petra Foundation fellowship. more...

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