Anoted political figure unleashes a blistering attack against new immigrants who “swarm” into our neighborhoods without regard for our laws, customs and shared values. Why, he asks, should we suffer outsiders who prefer ethnic enclaves where they “establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours?” The painful truth, he adds, is that these newcomers are so culturally different from the rest of us that they will never assimilate like past immigrants, posing a grave threat to the society we cherish.
The latest rant on illegal Mexican immigration by Pat Buchanan or Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo? No–the political provocateur was Benjamin Franklin, and his unforgiving pen was aimed at Germans in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania. Franklin was convinced that his home had become “a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them.” Franklin later mellowed on the subject, recognizing the economic benefits of immigration, but we can hear echoes of his original animus toward immigrants in every age of the American experience.
Over the course of our history, xenophobic opinion has episodically crystallized into formidable nativist movements. Fueled by the economic stresses of working-class Americans, ethnic and racial animosities, security jitters and compelling demagogic leadership, earlier nativist movements underscore the Shakespearean insight that “what’s past is prologue.”
The first eruption came in reaction to unprecedented rates of Catholic immigration, especially from Ireland, from the 1830s through the 1850s. Anglo-American angst over the Irish Catholic influx, which soared during the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, was exacerbated by competition for jobs and housing in Northeastern cities. Anti-Catholic publications flourished, offering lurid accounts of sinister Roman Catholic crimes and plots that fed Protestant antipathy.
These dark tales spurred mob violence, from the 1834 burning of the Ursuline convent near Boston to the 1844 Bible Riots in Philadelphia, which led to twenty deaths and the destruction of more than 100 Catholic churches, schools and homes. As the ranks of anti-Catholic associations swelled in Seaboard cities, nativist leader Samuel Morse, newspaper editor and future inventor of the telegraph, organized an anti-immigrant party and ran strongly for New York City mayor in 1836. Morse also fed anti-Catholic venom through incendiary writings such as Foreign Conspiracy (1835), warning readers that “the evil of immigration brings to these shores illiterate Roman Catholics…the obedient instruments of their more knowing priestly leaders.”
Because of the nation’s insatiable appetite for immigrant labor–and the clout of Irish voters–nativists made little political headway until the 1850s. In 1849 secret nativist societies formed the Order of the Star Spangled Banner to furtively organize electoral support for an anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant agenda in cities around the country. The movement’s rank and file included Anglo-American workers, artisans and small entrepreneurs. Their secrecy led Horace Greeley to mock their members in the New York Tribune as “know-nothings”–a label that stuck.
The Know-Nothing movement formed the American Party in the 1850s, devoted to strict limits on immigrant admissions, twenty-one-year waiting periods for citizenship and restrictions on voting rights and officeholding. The party benefited enormously from a political vacuum created by the gradual demise of the Whig Party and balkanization of the Democrats over slavery. In the 1854 and 1855 elections the American Party elected seven Know-Nothing governors, gained control of eight state legislatures and established a strong presence in Congress. In 1856 the Know-Nothings tapped former President Millard Fillmore for the top of their national ticket, and he won 22 percent of the popular vote.