America for the Americans!

It would be interesting to study just how the "Nation of Immigrants" myth was formulated and propagated. From what I've learned so far, it seems to have been concocted mainly by pushy Jews like Emma Lazarus and self-effacing Anglo-Saxons like John Higham. In any case, the reigning orthodoxy remains the same: everybody from everywhere comes to America and, despite the opposition of mean-spirited nativists, they immediately become 100% Americans while simultaneously transforming America into something wonderfully new and diverse and full of ethnic restaurants where rich smug self-congratulatory yuppies can have lunch of a different cuisine every day of the week. Well, when you look at real history, the picture's not so pretty and the nativists look pretty good after all.

Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s is truly superb -- historical research and writing of the highest quality. Tyler Anbinder provides a fascinating, in-depth, almost completely objective look at one of the most crucial periods in American history, from a most unusual point of view.

The American party started out as a secret society, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, intending to work covertly through both parties around at the time (Democrats and Whigs); hence they claimed to "know nothing" when asked about their organization. Similar small groups had been formed in the 1830s and '40s, centered in New York City. Thus history refutes the liberal notion that "prejudice" is caused by ignorance: nativism was strongest precisely where there were the most immigrants.

On May 30, 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act broke the Missouri Compromise and opened the Western territories to the expansion of slavery. The North reacted with a violent political backlash: the Democratic party was decimated, and the Whig party smashed to bits. In the midst of this turmoil the Know Nothings came out of nowhere to win spectacular victories in such states as New York and Massachusetts; in the latter, they took over the entire state government. Their success emboldened them to emerge as an overt party on their own account.

However, when the new party gathered for its national convention in 1855, they foundered on the same issue as the Whigs. When the party as a whole took the pro-slavery side to appease the South, most of its Northern wing bolted and gradually fell apart. In Congress, too, the Americans were split on sectional lines, and the North Americans eventually lined up with the Republicans after long and complicated political wrangling. The party's 1856 Presidential candidate, former Whig President Millard Fillmore, campaigned mainly on a plea for national unity; he carried only Maryland, running a close second in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Tennessee.

(Incidentally, it's worth pausing to refute the oft-heard assertion that the Republicans began as a "third" party. The GOP was founded in 1854; in the 1856 Presidential election, its candidate came in second out of three; four years later, its candidate won a plurality in a four-man race.)

The American party was both anti-foreign and anti-Catholic, which created internal tension, again on sectional lines. The Southern wing was relatively more anti-foreign (there being a lot of native Catholics in Louisiana and Maryland) and the Northern wing was relatively more anti-Catholic (there being a lot of foreign Protestants throughout the North).

Nativism alone was not the basis for its success. Part of the explanation was general disgust at the old parties, and nativism particularly inspired demands for political reform: the pro-immigrant Democrats were (then as now) especially prone to commit vote-fraud. The centerpiece of the Americans' program was to extend the naturalization period from five years to twenty-one, to make sure that the new citizens were thoroughly Americanized; they also believed that only native Americans should hold public office. They only advocated two restrictions on actual immigration: paupers and convicts.

The Northern Know Nothings embraced not only anti-slavery but prohibition of alcohol. These issues were crucial for expanding their base out of the northeastern cities and into rural areas. Yankees had gone in for temperance in a big way, and this was a major cultural divide between them and the whisky-sodden Irish and beer-swilling Germans. Anti-Catholicism, anti-slavery, and temperance were all causes championed by the Protestant ministry in the North, and its support for the Americans was a big boost for them.

Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925 is tendentious, but readable and informative. Though John Higham deliberately does all he can to show nativists in a bad light and foreigners in a good light, the very facts he presents tell a different story. Most telling is the fact that, by 1925, immigrants themselves were the only remaining opponents of immigration restriction -- which goes to show that they still thought their real compatriots were the ones back in the Old Country, not here in America.

Higham's basic story is of the ups and downs of nativism as a whole, and of the various elements comprising it: anti-radicalism, anti-Catholicism, anti-coolieism, and Anglo-Saxonism. This last ultimately got mixed up with half-baked pan-Nordic racial notions, but was fundamentally distinct from them. Anti-Catholicism was really not such a bad thing when the Pope was absolute temporal ruler of central Italy, fulminating against progress, liberty, and modern civilization; but of course it's irrelevant now. Mohammedans, though, are a grave concern on both religious and political grounds. No Papists, nor even Jacobins or Bolsheviks, ever attacked America the way the sand-monkeys did on 9/11.

Finally, I came away from this book with far greater sympathy for organized labor than for organized business. It's interesting to see how a cosmopolitan sentimentalist like Higham lines up with business interests greedy for cheap labor, against unions trying to protect American workers. In the end, there's only one question: whose side are you on? America's, or foreigners'?

The Protestant Crusade, 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism is even more hostile to its subject than Higham's book. But Ray Allen Billington, like Higham, was a liberal scholar of the old school: there is real scholarship here, when you look past the fulminations against "intolerance" and "prejudice" and "bigotry."

The other weakness of this book is that Billington almost always equates nativism and anti-Catholicism, and has much more to say about the latter than the former. It's enlightening and somewhat interesting to be reminded of how thoroughly Protestant this country was in the beginning: founded by British settlers in a time when the Reformation was fresh and victory over the Papist Spanish Armada was a living memory.

Billington mentions almost in passing the two reasons for the rise of anti-Catholicism and nativism as political forces: increasing immigration, which greatly enlarged the Catholic population; and simultaneously, a religious revival among the native Protestant population, which was bound to react defensively against Catholic encroachment. Billington has much to say about Protestant propaganda, agitation, rioting, and political organization. He also mentions the real and substantial reasons for anti-Catholic and anti-foreign sentiments: the anti-republican character of the Catholic hierarchy at the time, and all the problems caused by unrestricted immigration in general.

Billington devotes an entire chapter to these problems, and with flabbergastingly unintentional irony calls it "The War Against the Immigrant" -- as if the whole nation were picking a fight with one pitiful little foreigner. On his own evidence, it would better be called "The War Against America." Here is his own summary:

Propagandists played an important part in magnifying the effects of the alien impact, but their work was not essential. The average American had only to look about him to find tangible evidence of the propagandist's worst fears. He could see quiet city streets transformed into unsightly slums by the foreigner's touch. He could see corrupt political machines thriving upon foreign votes and deadlocked political parties struggling for the support of untrained aliens. He could see the traditional policy of American isolation threatened by immigrant blocs seeking to embroil the United States in the affairs of their homelands. He could see intemperance, illiteracy, pauperism, and crime, all increase with the coming of the foreigner. He could see alien labor, content with a lower standard of living, taking over more and more of the work which American hands had formerly performed. Here were arguments which required no propagandist embroidery.

One may say that it all worked out in the end; and certainly the America we have today is what it is, in large part, because of past immigration. But these are not arguments for more immigration. The answer to them is simple: "Been there, done that -- why go through it again?"

2004 by Karl Jahn