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Posted Saturday November 4, 2006 07:00 AM EST

America’s Worst Immigration War

By Jon Grinspan

An 1850s ad hawks soap for people prejudiced against the foreign-born. (Library of Congress)

Americans are once again fighting over immigration, but our current dispute pales in comparison with past battles on the subject. A hundred and fifty years ago today, citizens not only debated immigration but voted, fought, and bled over it. And on November 4, 1856, a three-way presidential election pitted the Nativist “American” and Republican Parties against pro-immigration Democrats for control of our nation’s borders, tenements, and very identity.

Though we often think of our era as polarized, the political climate of the 1850s was far worse. At the center of that decade’s violence and vitriol were secret anti-immigration societies. Called “Know Nothings” because their members would play dumb if asked about the organizations, they considered themselves “Native Americans” opposed to increasing immigration. To combat “foreign” influence they tampered with elections, intimidated voters, and attacked immigrants. One popular Detroit Know Nothing even enjoined his readers to “carry your revolver and shoot down the first Irish rebel that dare insult your person as an American!” In the era before the Civil War, a startling number of Americans responded to the arrival of “Celt scoundrels” with firearms.

Know Nothings met in underground clubs because their beliefs went against traditional American attitudes toward immigration. At first the expanding republic broadly welcomed European refugees and fortune seekers, especially to help settle the Western territories. That began to change in the late 1840s, as conditions in Europe pushed many more poor people across the Atlantic. By 1856 three million Irish and German immigrants had arrived on American shores, driven by famine and unrest. With that many joining a nation of 23 million citizens, the proportion of foreign-born grew to be about the same as it is today.

Germans often took up farming on the frontier, but Irish immigrants congregated in the cities of the Northeast and Midwest. Exhausted by famine and oppression, few of them could afford life outside the slums. The Irish made up 30 percent of New York’s population and accounted for 70 percent of the city’s charity recipients and half its arrests. Life in midcentury American cities was grim, dirty, and tiring; most immigrants took jobs as day laborers, maids, and laundresses. The mortality rate in major cities actually rose by 33 percent between 1840 and 1855. As crowding, poverty, and violence soared in America’s tenements, the “natives” took notice.

They responded with a wave of evangelical Protestant resentment. This wave had been surging before the rise in immigration and to its credit had also inspired the movement to abolish slavery, but it swelled into a tempest where Catholic immigrants were concerned. Few Catholics had lived in America before the Irish arrived, and the nation was at heart fundamentally Protestant. This meant not only bias against Catholic foreigners but also a belief that they were inherently opposed to democracy. Many Protestants considered their Christianity a personal “republicanized” faith that could be applied to politics—to oppose slavery, to ban liquor—without appearing undemocratic. Catholics were seen as mindless “emissaries of bloody and bigoted Rome,” bishops’ pawns incapable of voting their individual consciences.

Some of this bigotry stemmed from genuine election abuses. Many Irish voters were persuaded to support the Democratic Party in exchange for jobs as police and firemen. Some states even ignored the five-year legal wait for naturalization so that Irish immigrants could vote Democratic straight off the boat. These abuses say more about a political machine’s manipulation of vulnerable immigrants than about the Irish themselves, but some Northerners began to see immigrants as a powerful tool of the mostly Southern Democratic Party. “Thrown upon our shores in swarms,” new Americans were supposedly “dragged to the ballot-box with a vote in one hand and a glass of rum in the other.”

By the mid-1850s gentlemen and thugs alike began to join the Know Nothings in droves. These “Natives” took the names of Indian tribes, calling their lodges the “Choctaws” or the “Oneidas” and their leaders “sachems.” They joined forces with street gangs—in New York the Plug Uglies and Rip Raps and Bowery Boys—and launched vicious attacks on immigrants. Gang members dressed in stovepipe hats, red shirts, and leather boots and vests and poured into slums brandishing revolvers, Bowie knives, and clubs. They battled Irish gangs, burned churches, and brutalized Catholic clergymen, especially on election days. For all the tension of our modern elections, imagine if each November the Bloods, Crips, and Latin Kings took to the streets to make war for the Republicans or Democrats.

The Nativists were most threatening when they struggled for “the purification of the ballot box.” They were too secretive to run directly as the Know Nothings, but their American party did extremely well in the 1850s. As the traditional Whig and Democratic parties grew weaker, elections became multiparty contests. The Americans ran on an openly xenophobic platform, calling for a 21-year waiting period before naturalization, literacy tests for voting, and a ban on Catholics serving in government.

In 1854 and ’55 the American party experienced great success throughout the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, and New England. Combining their hatred for Catholic immigrants with an evangelical drive against slavery, the Know Nothings claimed two thirds of the congressmen elected to oppose the slavery-accommodating Kansas-Nebraska Act. By 1855 more than a million voters were casting Know Nothing ballots, where just a handful had two years earlier. Leaders of other parties complained about their obsession with Irish immigrants, because, in the words of one Massachusetts Republican leader, “the people will not confront the issues we present, they want a Paddy hunt & on a Paddy hunt they will go.”

And the rise in Nativism was larger than the American party alone. Many in the nascent antislavery Republican party supported the Know Nothings’ xenophobia. Top Republican leaders, including Salmon P. Chase and David Wilmot, who wrote the antislavery Wilmot Proviso, either were Know Nothings themselves or owed their power to nativist backing. Abraham Lincoln and the future secretary of state William Seward were practically alone among the Republican leadership in their abhorrence of the Know Nothings.

Coming into the 1856 presidential election, American voters had three major parties to choose from, each intertwining the immigration and slavery issues. The American Party ran the proslavery ex-President Millard Fillmore, to the chagrin of its mostly antislavery base. The Republicans, in their first presidential election, ran John Frémont, a California adventurer who opposed slavery and privately endorsed the Know Nothings’ 21-year naturalization initiative. Frémont’s handlers cleverly kept his Nativism quiet, thus attracting the support of many Midwestern German immigrants. And the Democrats, unhappy with the shifting national discourse, ran James Buchanan, an ineffectual moderate who had the backing of proslavery and immigrant voters.

This fractured political climate became even more confused when northern Know Nothings, unhappy with Fillmore’s stance on slavery, formed the North American Party and nominated John Frémont as well. Now four parties squared off for the Presidency, two of them running the same man. That realignment, made in February 1856, marks the moment when slavery overtook immigration as the issue in American politics.

On November 4 each party trotted out its voters, with Know Nothing and immigrant gangs playing their parts. The results were predictable. Though the American Party did surprisingly well, winning a fifth of the popular ballots and Maryland’s electoral votes, Buchanan won 45 percent of the popular vote and Frémont just 33 percent. Counting both the sizable portion of Frémont’s support that came from Nativists and the American party’s 20 percent of the vote, probably more than a third of the electorate opposed immigration. Slavery split the nativist bloc; the American, North American, and Republican parties, working together, could have easily won the Presidency. Some Republicans kicked themselves for refusing to accept a Know Nothing as Frémont’s running mate, citing it as the “fatal error” that gave Buchanan the win.

The slavery debate had proved decisive, but American nativism was slow to disappear. In Massachusetts voters endorsed literacy tests for voting rights. Elsewhere gangs continued to persecute Catholics, burning the cathedral in Philadelphia and rioting in Baltimore. But as other issues seized the nation’s attention and Irish immigration slowed, the Know Nothings began to weaken. They could no longer count on millions of voters or control of two parties. Meanwhile Irish and Catholic citizens began to gain wider acceptance in American society. Catholicism is now America’s largest religious denomination. A majority of the current Supreme Court justices are Catholic. So much for “war to the hilt on Romanism.”

But immigration riles us still. Americans scream at one another, wave flags, build walls, and struggle to decide what place the foreign-born have in a nation of immigrants. What our recent debates have seen very little of is violence, outright bigotry, or secrecy on anything like the scale of past quarrels. Even the Minutemen who “patrol” our Southern border bear no comparison to the Plug Uglies or Rip Raps of the 1850s. Regardless of hurtful rhetoric, no one has raided Mexican neighborhoods or tried to enforce an impossibly long waiting period for citizenship or ban immigrants from public office. History can sometimes be uplifting in its bleakness, putting our own time in encouraging perspective. The simple truth of our tense struggle with immigration is that, 150 years on, we can all be proud to declare that we no longer “know nothing.”

—Jon Grinspan lives in New York City and writes for Military History magazine.

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