This article is part of The Immigrants’ Civil War.
The Know Nothing Party sprang to life in the wake of the massive immigration from Ireland and Germany that began in the seminal Year of Revolutions, 1848. But it had its origins in hatreds bred before the founding of the Republic, before the first English ever settled in America.
Anti-immigrant movements have never been simply reactions to the arrival of newcomers. They form around a fear that a group of foreigners are so unlike ourselves that they threaten to destroy that which we hold dearest.
American Know Nothingism had its roots in anti-Catholic propaganda promulgated by the English crown from the days of Queen Elizabeth and transmitted by evangelical preachers in every corner of the British colonies.
Dangerous, delusional, and just plain different, Catholics were viewed as a breed of beings allied with Satan in his contest with Protestantism for the American wilderness. Although ten of the original thirteen colonies had virtually no Catholics at all, colonial legislatures sometimes seemed to occupy themselves for months in drafting bills to control the Catholic contagion. Massachusetts, for example, not only barred priests from the Bay Colony, it also banned the Irish from coming over. One of the few Irish in the early days of the colony was executed as a witch in the late 17th century.1
Maryland passed a law prescribing the death penalty for any priest converting a Protestant to Catholicism. In many of the thirteen colonies, Catholics were placed under severe civil disabilities, even though there were few actual Catholics around to discriminate against.2
Most large towns and cities held an annual Pope Day celebration during which an effigy of the leader of the Catholic Church was insulted and burned. This practice only ended during the Revolution when George Washington banned it from the Continental Army calling it a “ridiculous custom.”3
Even Washington’s liberalism did not stretch to every part of America. During the Revolution, New York enacted a naturalization law requiring Catholic immigrants to renounce their faith. It was widely believed that immigrants could not assimilate unless they adopted the culture of their new land, which was decidedly Protestant. At the time the Constitution was adopted, seven states barred Catholics from holding public office.4
After Washington left office there was a brief upsurge in anti-immigrant activity as new Irish immigrants became identified with radically democratic ideas and the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed to control them through deportation. With the ascension of Thomas Jefferson to the Presidency in 1801, this “reign of witches,” as he called it, ended, and American society began its great experiment of incorporating diverse immigrants into its evolving nation.5
The 1830s saw a revival of Protestant evangelism, a Second Great Awakening, during which the gradually secularizing country was abruptly put back on the path of religious fervor. Local newspapers like the newly minted New York Observer warned America about the threat posed by Catholic immigration, and on the national level, a newspaper called The Protestant took up the cause. Anti-Catholic books flooded in from England.6
There were still very few Catholics in America, but evangelical ministers worried that secular Americans were more willing to associate with papists than they were with fire-breathing Protestants. One symbol of this danger was a convent near Bunker Hill in Massachusetts.
The Ursuline School in Charlestown, Massachusetts, was patronized by liberal Unitarians who did not want their daughters educated in the harsh Puritanism then taught in Boston’s public schools. That’s right, early public schools often provided religious instruction, and instruction was not based on the student’s faith but on the beliefs of school board members. An alarm was raised that “infidel” Unitarians were, according to Boston’s nativist paper, about to unite with Catholics in “crushing Protestantism.”7
Rev. Lyman Beecher
The city’s congregational ministers met and issued a resolution that declared their dedication to save the “country from the degrading influence of Popery.” Lyman Beecher, one of Boston’s most prominent ministers, delivered a week of violently anti-Catholic sermons in 1834 at churches throughout the city. Rev. Beecher, whose daughter Harriet Beecher Stowe would write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was also a leader of the anti-slavery movement, as were other Boston ministers. New immigrants would soon come to identify the abolitionists with brutal anti-immigrant violence.8
Protestants were already angry at the Catholics when Beecher began his sermon series because the Catholic Church had violated a law banning the burial of Catholics in the city of Charlestown. The bishop of Boston had buried two young boys there in violation of a health ordinance allowing only Protestants to be buried inside the city. On August 11, 1834, a well-organized mob shouting “No Popery” marched to the Ursuline Convent and burned it. Over the next week, the mob roamed through Boston destroying Church property and burning the homes of poor Irish immigrants in the ghetto now known as the North End.9
Some of the participants in the anti-immigrant pogrom were put on trial. The judge allowed the defense counsel to refer to immigrant prosecution witnesses as “imported foreign testimony” and “Catholic testimony” and to appeal to the Protestant solidarity of the jurors with the accused. All but one of the defendants were acquitted.10
The acquittal sent a message to nativists everywhere that attacks on immigrants would not be punished. Anti-immigrant vandalism and mob violence became increasingly common.11
Propagandists learned that there was a ready audience for wild conspiracy theories linking immigrants to international plots. In the South, word spread that Catholic immigrants were working secretly with blacks to launch a slave revolt. German immigrant colonies in the Midwest were reputed to be links in a papal conspiracy, even though most of the colonies were Lutheran or Free Thinker. Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, announced ominously that Irish immigrants were planning to take over the Mississippi Valley and detach it from the United States. In Philadelphia, the rabidly anti-immigrant orator Lewis Charles Levin was elected to Congress in 1844. 12
The tide was rising against immigrants in the 1840s. Americans had expected new immigrants to give up their old ways and become fully American. What they found instead was that Germans continued to speak German and that the Irish refused to make the most basic concession and adopt an American religion. The actions of the leader of New York’s Irish immigrants, Bishop John Hughes, heightened the crisis.
Nativist flag from the years before the Civil War.
New York’s public schools instructed students in Protestant religious beliefs, which were then considered the beliefs of all true Americans. The Protestant King James Bible was used as a daily text and classes taught the evils of Catholicism. Irish parents resisted this effort at Americanization, and thousands of their children were kept home from school. Irish-born Bishop Hughes initially sought a compromise with Protestant New York. He asked that Catholic students be taught their lessons from a Catholic translation of the Bible, and that they be excused from Protestant religious instruction. When this was refused, he demanded the secularization of public education.
This outraged native-born Americans. If the bishop had his way, children would no longer learn the American religion in school. The bishop’s desire to ban the Bible was considered particularly outrageous and led to an enduring Protestant belief that Catholics did not read the central text of Christianity. Bishop Hughes’ proposal alerted Protestants to the danger posed by religious diversity—America could turn away from God. They united and Hughes was badly defeated. Catholics abandoned the public school system and established alternative parochial schools where their children could learn in an environment where they did not have a target on their backs. This alienation from the public schools would endure for a century.13
Until the late 1840s, native-born American apprehension of immigrants was largely based on ignorance and fear mongering, but by 1848 massive waves of immigrants began to arrive. And tens of thousands of the new arrivals were Catholics.
Famine drove emaciated, diseased, and illiterate Irish peasants, a third of whom did not speak English, to America. It was as though the nightmarish predictions of Puritan sermons had all come true. The ignorant slaves of a foreign potentate had arrived in the land of Washington and Jefferson and they appeared to be demanding that America change to accommodate them. It didn’t help that the Irish were followed by the Germans, many of whom were either Catholic themselves or, perhaps worse, religious agnostic veterans of the 1848 revolutions.
The changes the newcomers wrought were apparent every Sunday in any village in which they settled. Americans were used to celebrating the Sunday Sabbath with hours of worship in church followed by still more hours of quiet prayer and Bible study at home. Many Germans, however, observed the Continental Sabbath, meaning they might spend an hour at church (or sleep through services), but their main activity on Sunday was a combination of beer drinking and strange physical maneuvers called “gymnastics.” The Irish, on the other hand, rarely missed church, but followed religion with wild dances in which tribal music was played and men and women jigged, often in the company of blacks. This immigrant behavior disrupted the Sunday quiet decreed by the Bible – and it enticed young Protestants away from the faith of their fathers.
More than half a century ago the leading scholar of early anti-immigrantism wrote that by 1850 “many Americans believed that the influx of aliens threatened their established social structure, endangered the nation’s economic welfare, and spelled doom for the existing governmental system.”14
This fear was compounded by alleged criminality and sexual immorality among the foreign born.
Nativist activists began organizing mass meetings throughout the country attended by thousands of men. The meetings, rich in prayer, often ended with physical attacks on German or Irish immigrants or with the burning of a Catholic Church. Secret paramilitary societies were formed to fight the immigrant invasion and to beat back the cultural incursions of Ireland and Germany on America. They also provided security for preachers from angry immigrants who might try to disrupt nativist prayer meetings.
An attempt by New York Governor William Seward to stand up to the anti-immigrant tide would help lead to the founding of the first mass nativist party, the Know Nothings. In the next installment of The Immigrants’ Civil War, we’ll see how the Know Nothings launched a civil war against naturalized citizens. 15
Additional resources: An online archive of material about the burning of the Ursuline convent is available at The Ursuline Covent Collection.
1. The Protestant Crusade 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism by Ray Allen Billington, Quadrangle (1938) p. 8.
See also, In the Devil’s Snare by Mary Beth Norton for an intriguing discussion of the association in the Puritan mind of Satan, Catholicism, Native Americans, and the American wilderness. Norton argues that this view was a contributing factor to the Salem witch hysteria. In Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England, John Demos, discusses the possible association of the Irish with witchcraft in the minds of the Puritans.
2. The Protestant Crusade 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism by Ray Allen Billington, Quadrangle (1938) p. 11.
3. The Protestant Crusade 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism by Ray Allen Billington, Quadrangle (1938) p. 18.
4. The Protestant Crusade 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism by Ray Allen Billington, Quadrangle (1938) p. 35.
5. See generally: The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800 by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, Oxford University Press (1995).
6. The Protestant Crusade 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism by Ray Allen Billington, Quadrangle (1938) p. 43-46, 53.
7. The Protestant Crusade 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism by Ray Allen Billington, Quadrangle (1938) p. 69.
8. The Protestant Crusade 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism by Ray Allen Billington, Quadrangle (1938) p. 68-90.
9. The Protestant Crusade 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism by Ray Allen Billington, Quadrangle (1938) p. 68-90.
10. The Protestant Crusade 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism by Ray Allen Billington, Quadrangle (1938) p. 88.
11. The Protestant Crusade 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism by Ray Allen Billington, Quadrangle (1938) p. 89.
12. The Protestant Crusade 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism by Ray Allen Billington, Quadrangle (1938) p. 122-128. For more on Levin, see Lewis Charles Levin: Portrait of an American Demagogue by John A. Forman published in American Jewish Archives (Oct. 1960). Levin is often described as the first Jew elected to Congress, although his background and upbringing in Charleston, South Carolina is fairly obscure. He became a strong advocate for American Protestantism and the King James Version of the Bible and an opponent of immigrants and Catholics. In later life he was incarcerated in an asylum for the insane. Levin died in 1860 and, according to Foreman, his wife and son converted to Catholicism in 1880. An example of the propaganda issued by the early Nativists is this 1844 publication of one of the first anti-immigrant parties entitled The Crisis.
13. The Protestant Crusade 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism by Ray Allen Billington, Quadrangle (1938) p. 145-155.
14. The Protestant Crusade 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism by Ray Allen Billington, Quadrangle (1938) p. 322.
15. For a timely comparison of modern fear of Islam to 19th century Know Nothingism, see “Catholicism Has Always Been America’s Foreign Devil” by Sam Haselby in The Guardian, October 15, 2011
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites