Immigration in the United States, plus ça change

August 7, 2014 § 8 Comments

I am doing a bit of research into the Know Nothing movement of the 1840s and 50s in the United States.  The Know Nothings were a secret society that eventually evolved into a political party, based on the premise that immigration was bad for the United States.  In short, the Know Nothings, who also formed one of the bases of the nascent Republican Party in the late 1850s, were nativists.  They believed in a United States for Americans only.  We could, of course, note the irony of that statement, given every person not of Native American heritage in this country is of immigrant stock.  But, we’ll leave that alone.  They were called Know Nothings not because they were ignorant (as my students always suppose), but because, as a secret society and asked about the society replied that they “knew nothing.”

I came across this list of things that Roman Catholics hate about the United States from the Boston Know-Nothing and American Crusader in July 1854.  The Know-Nothing and American Crusader was one of the main newspapers of the Know Nothings, and Boston was a major centre of the nativists.  Boston was ground zero, in many ways, in the ‘invasion’ of Irish immigrants and refugees in the years of the Famine and afterwards.  Here’s the list:

  1. They HATE our Republic, and are trying to overthrow it.
  2. They HATE the American Eagle, and it offends them beyond endurance to see it worn as an ornament by Americans.
  3. They HATE our Flag, as it manifest by their grossly insulting it.
  4. They HATE the liberty of conscience.
  5. They HATE the liberty of the Press.
  6. They HATE the liberty of speech.
  7. They HATE our Common School system.
  8. They HATE the Bible, and would blot it out of existence if they could!
  9. The Priests HATE married life, and yet by them is fulfilled the Scripture, to wit: ‘more are the children or the desolate, than the children of the married wife.’
  10. They HATE Protestants, and are sworn to exterminate them from our country and the earth.
  11. They HATE the name of Washington, because he was a Republican and Protestant.
  12. They HATE all rulers that do not swear allegiance to the Pope of Rome.
  13. They HATE to be ruled by Americans, and say “WE WILL NOT BE RULED BY THEM!”
  14. They HATE to support their own paupers and they are left to be supported by the tax paying Americans.
  15. They HATE, above all, the ‘Know Nothings,’ who are determined to rid this country of their accursed power.

The author of this wonderful list signed his name as “Uncle Sam.”  Newspapers in general allowed correspondents to use anonymous pseudonyms in the 19th century, so this isn’t surprising.  But the nom de plume of our correspondent is telling of the cause of the Know Nothings.

As I am doing this research, I’m thinking back to my experiences in June, when I was told by a table mate that the AP Reading I was at that I don’t belong in the United States because I “don’t love America” (I don’t “love” Canada, either, for the record).  And, thenthen, on the way home, at a layover in Dallas, another traveller, watching the news, told me that all immigrants should be rounded up and deported (this one didn’t know I was an immigrant).  And as I watch the drama unfold about the refugee children from Central America in this country, and see the horrible rhetoric coming from the right wing, I can’t help but think that, even if 170 years have passed since “Uncle Sam” published his list of things Catholics hate in The Know-Nothing and American Crusader, in some ways, nothing has changed.  The rhetoric of “Uncle Sam” echoes that of some far right politicians, commentators, and regular citizens I’ve seen on Twitter in the past month.

Of course, the Know Nothings were never a majority of Americans, any more than those so violently opposed and hard-hearted to the plight of children today are even close to a majority.  The overwhelming majority of Americans then and now do not have a problem with immigration and immigrants.  But, then as now, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

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§ 8 Responses to Immigration in the United States, plus ça change

  • Brian Bixby says:

    Which makes it funny that the substantial wave of illegal Irish immigrants in the 1990s met with no protests. Guess they were “white” by then.

    The jury’s still out on you Canadians. You look like us, but there’s this rampant socialism you’d bring into this country. (Please?)

    • Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but that whole argument about How the Irish Became White is a load of hokum. Ignatiev completely oversold his sources and his argument. It wasn’t a question of whiteness, it was a question of religion. As for the illegals in the 90s, well, yeah, they were white and they spoke English, even with those funny accents.

      Oddly, whenever people find out I’m Canadian, either they talk hockey, snow, or tell me about some guy they knew back in the day in Gander, NFLD, or Edmonton, AB, as if I know all 34,000,000 Canadians personally.

      • Brian Bixby says:

        Fair enough about religion: I’m told that’s why Massachusetts insisted on using the KJV for classroom Bible readings, to stiff the Catholics.

        I think that’s a common reaction people have to all sorts of “others:” to assume (or, more positively, to hope) that they will know the one other person we know in the same group. I’ve had it done to me with my home town and with the schools I went to.

      • I find it annoying to be told about Jerry in Edmonton or Wilbur in Gander. Especially when they’re stories from 45 years ago. It’s even offensive.

        But, yeah, the Bible, the KJV was used in Massachusetts and many other parts of both Canada and the US (and Ireland itself) in large part because it was offensive to Catholics.

      • Brian Bixby says:

        In contrast to your experience as a Canadian, we have a friend who is a Latvian animator. Latvia isn’t quite as obscure as, say, Kiribati, but it’s close. So she has to explain where Latvia is. When I asked her where her home town was, she replied, “Who cares? The country’s so small.” But she was pleased when it turned out we knew where her home town was, and had even passed near it on our trip there.

        Mind you, we never asked if she knew so-and-so who is also from Latvia.

      • I have been told, in all seriousness, that people don’t actually know where Montréal is.

        But, yes, you should’ve asked her if she knew my old friend Arturs, who is from Riga.

  • How do these people – either in 1854 or now justify this total nonsense. In effect ALL “Americans” are immigrants with the exception – of course – of those that lived here (Canada AND the USA). And we all know what has happened to the people who really “owned” and took care of this land long before Plymouth Rock….It amounts to tribalism but in this case the original tribes have all been marginalized.

    • Have they ever.

      How to people justify this nativism? Well, to them, America is for the Americans, all these other people are here to steal from them. They subscribe to this theory that there is only so much wealth, food, jobs to go around and competition for such isn’t fair.

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