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Early Expressions
Although the United States has always portrayed itself as a sanctuary for the world's victims of oppression and poverty, anti-immigrant sentiment—known as nativism—has pervaded most of the nation's history. Though in the early colonial period there was a push for immigration, prejudice against Catholics was evident. In New England this was probably connected to the fact that Puritans had come to America to escape the Church of England's "Romish" trappings, but even southern colonists were known to have enjoyed a parlor game called "Break the Pope's Neck." Politics also played a part. For example, since many immigrants supported Thomas Jefferson's Republican faction, Federalists in Congress attempted to suppress the newcomers' political activity in 1798 by passing the Alien Acts, which curtailed the rights of unnaturalized immigrants. This idea was tried again a few decades later.

Early Nineteenth Century
A wave of nativism occurred after the huge migration of Irish Catholics into the U.S. during the Potato Famine of the mid 19th century. Petitions from the northeastern states to Congress, including the one featured in this lesson asked Congress to pass laws limiting the new immigrants’ right to vote.

Fear of the negative influence of “foreigners” on society, especially from Roman Catholics, was hardly new in the mid 19th century. The Protestants who had settled in the northeast differed in church management and policies but they heartily agreed in the opposition to the Catholicism. By the 1870s, Guy Fawkes Day, was celebrated in Massachusetts and other colonies by burning the pope in effigy. After the Constitution became the law of the land, Roman Catholics were barred from holding public office in many states until 1806.

Continued immigration caused the Roman Catholic population to grow rapidly even in this hostile environment. In 1784 there were only 30,000 Catholics in America but by 1820 this number grew to over 300,000. This rapid immigration of Irish and other Europeans created fears among some native born Americans that the “foreigners” would bring undemocratic ideas, and authoritarian government. Allegiance to the Pope was seen by many as allegiance to a foreign political leader with the power to subvert America’s institutions and liberties. John Adams wrote in 1821 that “a free government and the Roman Catholic religion can never exist together in any nation or country.”

By November of 1837 this anti-Catholic feeling had become organized into a national nativist movement. The petition from 97 electors in Washington County, New York, reproduced here clearly articulates the reasons for the anti-Catholic concerns of many Americans. Catholic immigration was viewed as a “foreign invasion” and a plot to establish “despotic” control over the U.S. Underlying this hysteria was a fear that Catholics loyal to a Roman Pope would not hold the needed loyalty to America and its political ideals. This lack of loyalty would undermine the system.

Anti-Catholic feelings increased during the wave of famine induced Irish immigration between the 1820s and 1850s. Anti-Catholicism reinforced social, political, and economic concerns in New York and other points of entry. Some thought that other countries were dumping their poor and problem people on America. They blamed the uneducated, unskilled immigrants for the poverty, crime, and disease in New York and other major cities. Competition for scarce jobs, low wages, crowded and expensive housing were blamed on the newcomers. The city of New York even complained in 1830 that its social services were being overwhelmed by the “foreign element.”

The Irish Catholic immigrants reacted to this prejudice by turning inward and toward the Church as their haven and support in the new society. The works of charity and education sponsored by the Church was instrumental in helping immigrants survive their new life in a hostile environment. Ironically, these efforts to help the immigrants were used as evidence of foreign “clannishness” and rejection of American customs and values.

Hate Campaigns
The accusations against the Catholics in the petition go beyond anti-religious feelings. There is an accusation of conspiracy by the Catholic Church against America’s liberties. Nativist writers such and Lyman Beecher and Samuel Morse were convinced that the Catholic leaders in Rome were using poor, unschooled immigrants to lead a plot to destroy freedom of religion in the U.S. by uniting church and state. They used this fear to create a sense of Protestant unity and lead a mission toward building a “Christian America.”

Nativists believed that American values and ideals were based on Protestant Christianity, insisting that republican governments require a virtuous, educated, and independent electorate. They perceived Catholic immigrants to be superstitious, ignorant, and dominated by their priests. Though their writing and speeches led to many worthy social reforms such as abolition efforts and expanded suffrage, it sometimes led to violence. For example in 1834 after several inflammatory speeches by Beecher in Boston churches, mobs burned the Ursuline Convent school in the city.

The growing hysteria built by the conspiracy theories led New York political leaders to organize an effort to block Catholic voting power. They saw the immigrants as uneducated and unqualified to vote and thus open to manipulation by unscrupulous politicians. In 1834 the New York Protestant Association was formed to “spread the knowledge of the gospel truth and to show wherein it is inconsistent with the tenets and dogmas of popery.” By 1835 the nativists had organized a political organization to run candidates for office and work to change naturalization laws.

Many petitions like the one from Washington County were sent to Congress in the 1830s. They asked for changes to naturalization laws to protect America from “foreigners of doubtful morals and hostile political principles. A select committee in the House of Representative made up of a nativist majority endorsed legislation that would have extended the waiting period for naturalization. Though this legislation did not pass, it set the stage for the American Republican Party of the 1850s.

In 1844 the nativist American Republican party, elected six congressmen and dozens of local officials in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Nativism reached its political zenith ten years later with the rapid rise of the "Know-Nothings." This secret fraternal organization, which sought to curtail the political power of Catholics and immigrants, probably derived its name from its members' pledge to feign ignorance if queried about the group. It originated in New York City in the late 1840s. In the wake of the collapse of the Whigs and the Democratic split over the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 and 1855 the Know-Nothings attracted more than 1 million members. Its supporters won several offices, including mayor of Philadelphia and control of the Massachusetts legislature. The party fell apart over issues of slavery and many of its anti-slavery proponents joined the new Republican Party.

Failure and Success
Although no nativist political organization comparable in size to the Know-Nothings appeared after the Civil War, nativists found that the existing parties were often willing to enact their proposals. A central item on the Know-Nothings' agenda, a law banning the immigration of paupers and convicts, passed Congress in 1882. Registration and literacy tests for voters (which Know-Nothings had supported as a way to prevent immigrant voting) also became common. After this period, maybe because the predicted pope led revolution had never occurred, the cause celebre for anti-immigrant factions, moved from religion to fear of communist, socialist, and anarchist labor movements.

Many believed that immigrants brought European radicalism with them to America, and they especially blamed the newcomers for fomenting the labor unrest that characterized much of the period. The first laws enacted to restrict immigration affected only Asians. Congress prohibited immigration from China for ten years starting in 1882 and banned it permanently in 1902. President Theodore Roosevelt concluded a "gentleman's agreement" with Japan in 1907 that excluded immigrants from that country.

Other restrictions soon gained momentum as well. Though Northwestern Europe had provided most of America's immigrants in the nineteenth century, by 1900 a majority hailed from Russia, Poland, Hungary, and Italy. Many Americans concluded that immigrants from these countries lacked the intelligence and motivation purportedly held by northwestern Europeans, so the "new immigration" provided renewed impetus to the nativist movement.

It is difficult to know the extent to which nativism still pervades American society. Contemporary outbreaks of hostility toward immigrants often bubble up in public outcry for new restrictions on immigration and/or increased border security. Whatever the case, it is clear that though immigration played an important role in almost every period of American history, nativism pervaded its past with equal persistence.

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Foner, Eric, and John Garrity, ed. Reader’s Companion to American History. Houghton Mifflin, 1991

Haynes, Charles P. Religion in American History: What to Teach and How. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1990.

Wilson, John F., Donald Drakeman. Church and State in American History. Beacon Press, 1987.