July 12, 2018

THESE DAYS THEY KNOW EVEN LESS:

How the Know Nothing Party Turned Nativism into a Political Strategy  (MICHAEL TODD LANDIS, JULY 12, 2018, What it Means to be American)

Though the United States is a nation built by immigrants, nativism--the fear of immigrants and the desire to restrict their entry into the country or curtail their rights (or both)--has been a central strain in the national fabric from the beginning. Nativism waxes and wanes with the tides of American culture and politics, with some eras exhibiting more virulent anti-immigrant activism than others.

But few eras have exceeded the 1840s and 1850s, when a ferociously anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, and xenophobic secret society grew into a nativist political entity called the Know Nothing Party and briefly dominated the politics of a handful of states by stirring up violent outbursts before imploding over the slavery issue in 1855.

Though the United States always enjoyed robust immigration, it was not until the 1840s and 1850s that it became a divisive issue in politics. The highest level of immigration in U.S. history (as a proportion of overall population) occurred in 1854, in the wake of the massive influx of people from Ireland and the German states. The Irish were desperate to escape the infamous "potato famine," which struck in 1845, and the Germans were motivated by overpopulation and unemployment in their homeland.

Coastal cities, in particular New York, were the primary entry points for European immigrants, with Irish and Germans establishing their own neighborhoods, maintaining their ethnic identities, and becoming the new industrial working class. Many current residents, fancying themselves "natives" (with no sense of irony concerning actual Native Americans), were none too pleased, unfairly condemning the newly-arrived Americans as job-stealers, drunks, criminals, and--perhaps worst of all, to their way of thinking--Roman Catholics.

Religion was at the core of the fight over immigration in the 19th century. Though not all the Germans and Irish who disembarked in the antebellum period were Catholics, the majority were.

Not much of an excuse, but at least economics were less well understood then.



Posted by at July 12, 2018 4:00 AM

  

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