America had always been a land of immigrants, but the welcome accorded them had often been less than cordial. For many natives these waves of strangers in the land posed a threat of unknown languages and mysterious customs. The flood of Irish and German Catholics aroused Protestant hostility to "popery". A militant Protestantism growing out of the revivals in the early nineteenth century heated up the climate of opinion. There were fears of political radicalism among the Germans and of voting blocs among the Irish, but above all hovered the menace of unfamiliar religious practices. Catholic authoritarianism was widely perceived as a threat to hard-won liberties, religious and political.

In the 1830s nativism was conspicuously on the rise. Samuel F. B. Morse, already at work on his telegraph, took time out from his painting and inventing to write two books claming that Catholicism in America was a plot of foreign monarchs to undermine American liberty before its revoluationary message affected their own people. In 1836 he ran for mayor of New York on a Native American ticket, and his books went through numerous editions.

At times this hostility rekindled the spirit of the wars of religion. In 1834 a series of anti-Catholic sermons by Lyman Beecher, a popular Congregational minister who served as president of Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, aroused feelings to the extent that a mob attacked and burned the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts. In 1844 armed clashes between Protestants and Catholics in Philadelphia ended with about 20 killed and 100 injured. Sporadically, the nativist spirit took organzied form in groups that proved their patriotism by hating foreigners and Catholics.

As early as 1837 a Native American Association was formed in Washington, but the most significant such group was the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, founded in New York in 1849. In 1854 delegates from thirteen states gathered to form the American party, which had the trappings of a secret fraternal order. Members pledged never to vote for any foreign born or Catholic candidate. When asked about the organization, they were to say "I know nothing." In popular parlance the American party became the Know Nothing Party. For a seaon it seemed that the American party might achieve major party status. In state and local campaigns during 1854 the Know Nothings carried one election after another. They swept Massachusetts legislature, winning all but two seats in the lower house . That fall they elected more than forty congressmen. For a while they threatened to control New England, New York, and Maryland, and showed strength elsewhere, but the anti-Catholic movement subsided when slavery became the focal issue of the 1850s (it would be explited again by the new Republican party.)

The Know Nothings demanded the exclusion of immigrants and Catholis from public office and the extension of the period for naturalzation from five to twenty one years, but the party never gathered the political strength to effect such a legislation. Nor did Congress act during the period to restrict immigration in any way. The first federal law on immigration, passed in 1819, enacted only safety and health regulations regarding supplies and number of passengers on immigrant ships. This and subsequent acts designed to protect immigrants from overcrowding and unsanity conditions were, however, poorly enforced.

Na"tiv*ism (?), n.

1.

The disposition to favor the native inhabitants of a country, in preference to immigrants from foreign countries.

2. Philos.

The doctrine of innate ideas, or that the mind possesses forms of thought independent of sensation.

 

© Webster 1913.

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