views updated May 17 2018


Geoffrey S. Smith

Nativism is a construct scholars employ to explain hostility and intense opposition to an internal minority on the grounds of its imputed foreign connections. Appearing in three basic forms in American history, nativism was first characterized by antagonism toward Catholics during colonial and early national eras. Anti-Catholicism peaked from the 1830s through the 1850s, concomitant with the growing debate over slavery. This variant reflected themes popular since the Protestant Reformation, stimulated by American fears of French, Spanish, and papal threats in the New World. After the Civil War, anti-Catholic nativism became more secular, mirroring complex economic, cultural, and social upheavals andmost notablyan inchoate sense of nostalgia for a "purer" republic.

A second form of nativism, manifest in the dread of alien radicalism, emerged during the 1790s when the wars of the French Revolution embroiled the United States and threatened the republican experiment. A third manifestation of nativism, sometimes overlapping with anti-Catholicism and antiradicalism, developed during the 1840s as citizens celebrated their "manifest destiny" to bring the benefits of democracy and republican government to the Pacific. Girded by "scientific" analyses that touted Anglo-Saxon superiority against other peoples, racial nativism became crucial in the debate over imperialism at the turn of the twentieth century, underlay the incarceration of the Japanese-American minority during World War II, and remains today an important touchstone in ongoing arguments about multiculturalism, immigration, and trade.

Scholars analyze nativism in several ways. One approach, exemplified in John Higham's unsurpassed Strangers in the Land (1963), stresses actual, face-to-face conflicts and tensions between early settlers and subsequent arrivals. Higham underscores immigrant battles for social, political, and especially economic advancement in an individualist and competitive culture. He explores the organized nativist movements between 1860 and 1925 that resisted these newcomers, and he assesses skillfully both reality and hyperbole within nativist stereotypes, all the while focusing on the all-important sociocultural settings in which nativism has waxed and waned.

Other historians and social scientists, reflecting the long-dominant primacy of the liberal consensus (from the 1930s to the 1970s), accentuate both ideological and psychological functions of nativism as clues to understanding tensions and fault lines within national culture. Here Richard Hofstadter and David Brion Davis look to a broader definition of the term, describing nativism as a state of mind of native-born and naturalized citizens seeking to define their own Americanness by condemning real and alleged alien challenges to national values and institutions. For these historians, nativism signifies the ideology of persecuting groups, invariably bigoted, while targeted minorities emerge generally as victims.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, cultural and social historians focused more critically upon contests for power, assessing minorities more empathetically, "from the bottom up," often attacking traditional political elites. The Vietnam War, Watergate, black and feminist drives for equality, and growing concern by many at colossal inequities in wealth and shrinking opportunity, all interact with an increasingly multicultural society and tarnished political system to undercut the very idea of legitimacy. Scholars who embrace cultural studiesmuch influenced by such French theorists as Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucaultexplain battles for power and prestige between newcomers and nativist defenders of the old order by deconstructing such categories as economics, race and ethnicity, and gender and sexuality. Assessing these categories may not only allow new clarity in comprehending power relationships embedded in given contexts ("texts"), but the careful reading of evidence ("discourse") may also afford scholars a better sense of their own relationship to their realm of inquiry, indicate how the notion of "historical objectivity" invariably conveys values and requirements of dominant cultures, and supply the chance to make connections within, and between, governing and contending, often complicit, cultural paradigms. Cultural studies at its best respects history as fluid and uncontrollable (even by elites), and considers questions of cause-and-effect less important than understanding ways in which parts of the historical past (and theories like Antonio Gramsci's hegemony and complicity) fit together.

Although emerging mainly as varied forms of domestic intolerance, nativism has affected, and been affected by, United States foreign policy. On one hand, animosity toward immigrants and fear of alien influence have diverted attention from real national problems and their sources and solutions. Conversely, nativist stereotypes and images have impeded the efficient formulation and implementation of foreign policies. On several occasions, meanwhile, nativist endeavors to legitimize parochial agendas by identifying them with the nation's interests have generated crises involving the federal government. Withal, by encouraging disdain for the European concept of power politics, nativism has strengthened the nation's self-image of innocence and exceptionalism in a decadent world. Hence, the study of nativist ethnocentrism and xenophobia provides clues to aid historians in clarifying the interplay between domestic issues and foreign relations. These clues help to explain the persistence of moralism and rigidity in American diplomacy and the presence of emotionalism as an important problem for national self-interest.

Yet with the exception of the federal immigration acts of 1921 and 1924, optimistic tendencies have generally kept nativism from becoming national policy. In several cases, however, nativists achieved power sufficient to affect the nation's course. The Alien and Sedition Laws (1798) sought to stifle Jeffersonian opposition to Federalist foreign policy during the Quasi-War with France (17981800). But when President John Adams negotiated for peace (perhaps his most courageous accomplishment), the legislation backfired, split the Federalist Party, and helped Thomas Jefferson become elected president in 1800. During the 1850s, the Know-Nothing (or American) Party hastened disintegration of national politics when its crusade against Irish-Catholic immigrants offered citizens a choice to avoid confronting slavery, the greatest sectional crisis the nation had known. In the late nineteenth century, nativism intensified many social and economic difficulties wrought by the dislocating forces of industrialism, urbanization, and unprecedented immigration from lands nativists deemed benighted. As long as the economy remained robust, ample room existed for newcomers. But when the economy turned sour, as it did cyclically between 1870 and 1914, nativists looked more for the easy explanation the new immigrants, of coursethan they did shortcomings of the capitalist system.

The only nation that was "born in perfection and aspired to progress" (to use Hofstadter's felicitous phrase), the United States also confronted war in the twentieth century in ways that focused attention on the enemy within, the Trojan Horse that would undermine the peaceable kingdom. The United States went to war not to "muddle through" or merely win, like the British, but for moral reasons befitting its exalted (and self-anointed) global status. Messianic prophecies demand total obeisance and World War I unleashed an unprecedented campaign of repression against German Americans, foreign-and native-born Bolsheviks, socialists, anarchists, and pacifists. Wartime intolerance did not cease with the Treaty of Versailles. Indeed, the Red Scare after World War I attested not only to problems attending the failure to make the world safe for democracy, demobilization, and the emergence of the Bolshevik adversary in the Soviet Union, but also to the desire, continuing into the 1920s, to purge the nation of all cultures that did not embrace traditional Anglo-Saxon Protestant virtues. This failed effort at national purification influenced attitudes toward international cooperation, immigration, the World Court, and the Soviet Union. A similar reaction, christened "McCarthyism" after its most renowned practitioner, Senator Joseph McCarthy, exploded after World War II, and the controversy over Watergate in the early 1970s revealed a similar cleansing dynamic, albeit in inverted form, which eventually consumed the presidency of Richard M. Nixon.


Anglo-American nativism arrived in America with the first settlers. Imbued with ideas of founding a city on a hill in the Massachusetts Bay Colony to honor God and redeem the Church of England, and harboring in Virginia a sense of commercial destiny built on racial dominion over blacks and First Nations, colonial Americans from England also nursed resentment against other white ethnicitiesIrish, Dutch, German, French, and Spanish, for example, depending upon region and issues. Occasionally, as during the ethnoracial French and Indian War (17541763), nativist feelings burst forth. In Pennsylvania, English colonists followed Benjamin Franklin's lead in questioning local German loyalty to the crown.

After independence, the new multicultural nation faced the need to define its identity. Although the Frenchman Hector St. John de Crevecour spoke of the American as a "new" man, the Anglo-American connection died hard, if at all. With unity a key requirement for survival in a world of despotism and monarchy, many citizens expressed hostility toward European immigrationeven as the new Republic became increasingly multiracial and multiethnic. This animus was understandable. Diversity heralded faction, as dangerous to a republic as the concentration of centralized power. Thomas Jefferson warned that immigrants might "warp and bias" the path of the nation and jeopardize "the freest principles of the English Constitution, with others derived from natural right and natural reason." Indeed, the American alliance with Francecrucial to independencebecame an albatross during the next fifteen years. The French Revolution, ironically styled in part on its American predecessor, terrified Federalist Party leaders.

The first organized expression of antiradical nativism came in 1798, when Federalist hostility exploded against both France and Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans. Influenced by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, whose Francophobia knew no bounds, President George Washington rejected any diplomacy that might offend Britain, at war against France since shortly after the revolution. Washington's diplomacy, therefore, aided Britain and opened a gap between Hamilton and Secretary of State Jefferson, a partisan of France. The fear of immigrants as a source of faction and corruption affected both emerging political parties in the new nation. The bipartisan Naturalization Act of 1795 required aliens to renounce earlier allegiances and disavow titles of nobility. But the more extreme Federalistsmen and women of orthodox social, cultural, and religious attitudes united by their pessimistic view of human nature and aristocratic demeanorworried lest incoming French émigrés, United Irishmen, and British radicals sow sedition and "Jacobinism" among the populace.

In fact, France did meddle in American politics, seeking to defeat Jay's Treaty in 1794 and to influence the election of 1796 in Jefferson's favor. The attachment of many immigrants to Jefferson alarmed Federalists. Democratic-Republican societies in New York and eastern Pennsylvania included recent Irish and Scots-Irish arrivals. These groups participated in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, led opposition to Jay's Treaty, and hence appeared connected to the intrigue of French agents like Joseph Fauchet and Pierre A. Adet. President Washington warned of this connection in his Farewell Address in 1796, but seemingly to no avail. By 1798 Federalists recalled that factionalism helped wreck the Articles of Confederation and now made the Republic vulnerable to external enemies.

The infamous XYZ affair and subsequent undeclared naval war with France presented Federalists the chance to use their control of foreign policy, in Federalist politician Theodore Sedgwick's words, "a glorious opportunity to destroy faction." Divisive issues having stimulated the lust for power in Federalists and Democratic-Republicans alike, politics now mirrored "a complete distrust of the motives and integrity, the honesty and intentions of one's political opponents." Consequently, Federalist stalwarts, moving "to crush internal opposition in the name of national security," moved to create an army and navy, to construct arsenals, and to abrogate the treaties of alliance and of amity and commerce of 1778. The more moderate wing of the party supported President John Adams's decision to seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but "high" Federalists became increasingly ambitious. Given reports of a pending French invasion, the hawks demanded that Adams declare war. Although the president resisted their demand, he did link his political opponents with France and hence added his voice to an outburst of nativism that momentarily diverted the Federalists from serving the national interest.

The Quasi-War generated widespread fear within Federalist circles that French spies and their internal collaborators threatened national security. Representative Harrison Gray Otis denounced "wild Irishmen" and "the turbulent and disorderly of all parts of the world" who came to the United States "with a view to disturb our own tranquility after having succeeded in the overthrow of their own governments." David Tappan, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, warned graduating seniors against infidels and impending world revolution. Congregationalist minister Jedidiah Morse called attention to the machinations of the "Bavarian Illuminati," a cabal of radical atheists who already had infiltrated American churches and schools.

The Alien and Sedition Laws, as they became known, sought to root out such subversion, and in the process destroy the Democratic-Republican opposition, slow immigrant participation in political life, and compel support for Federalist measures. These laws increased the period of residency required for citizenship, empowered the president to expel aliens suspected of activities deemed "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States," and provided penalties for citizens who engaged in rioting, unlawful assembly, or impeding the operation of the government. The Sedition Act did not weigh exclusively against immigrants. Premised on the assumption that war would be declared, the Sedition Law aimed to gag political criticism and would expire on the last day of Adams's term. The law, rooted in the seventeenth-century British concept of seditious libel, also reflected the Federalist view that government was the master, not servant, of the people. Any critique of government was dangerous because it subverted the dignity and authority of rulers. Politics was not a popular right; it belonged "to the few, the rich, and the well-born."

Certain that Democratic-Republicans stood poised to undermine the Constitution and overturn the government, Federalist judges turned their fire on Jeffersonian editors and publicists. With stacked courts presuming guilt unless defendants proved their innocence, published criticism of elected officials became synonymous with conviction. As Jeffersonians resolutely opposed Adams's call for an accelerated defense program, they encountered the heavy hand of Federalist patriotism, which included indictment of Philadelphia Aurora editor William Duane and the incarcerations of Scots publicist James T. Callender, the Irish-born Vermont congressman Matthew Lyon, and Pennsylvania editor Thomas Cooper.

John Adams withstood the war cry emanating from Federalist hawks and courageously dispatched William Vans Murray, the American minister at The Hague, to France, where he signed the Treaty of Mortefontaine (1800) ending the naval conflict and abrogating the "entangling" Franco-American treaties of 1778. In the interim, as the "Black Cockade fever" raged and Federalists sought to extirpate Illuminati and other subversives, Jeffersonians mounted an effective counterattack, organizing politically and continuing to attack Adams. Jefferson and James Madison drafted the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, respectively, condemning the administration's violation of individual and states' rights, and the malevolence felt by many immigrant groups toward the Federalist Party became implacable. In the election of 1800, Jefferson narrowly triumpheda victory in which Scots-Irish and Irish, Pennsylvania Germans, and New York French played a role.

The election of 1800 signified the political arrival of America's immigrants, heralded the nation's multiethnic future, and underscored the importance of public opinionthe people's right "to think freely and to speak and write what they think." With the Federalist Party in eclipsean unintended consequence of the nativist outburst of 1798nativism remained a potent force in New England. During the War of 1812 delegates to the Hartford Convention (18141815) threatened secession after denouncing the impact of the war upon their section's economy, declaring that European monarchs were "dumping" paupers on American shores, and proposing a constitutional amendment that would exclude naturalized citizens from holding civil office or serving in Congress.


Federalists attempted to safeguard the new nation (and their own political fortunes) against revolution by muzzling dissent and seeking to bar immigrant radicals and alien poor. These campaigns continued in the three decades before the Civil Waran era of unsettling change, disorder, andfor many Americansuncertainty and anxiety. Jacksonian America featured the convergence of modernizing transportation and market revolutions, the emergence of liberal capitalism and government bureaucracy, as well as the concomitant growth of slavery and sectionalism and the dispossession of most Indian tribes east of the Mississippi River.

During this era, nativism became more complex, drawing its inspiration from a variety of sources. Antebellum xenophobes expressed the need for consensus at a juncture when constant and bewildering change appeared to threaten "the old landmarks of Christendom and the glorious common law of the Founding Fathers." A lack of institutional authority and standards strengthened the drive for common ideological unity. The very diversity of this periodwith its myriad religious groups, faddist sects, and voluntary organizationsimplied divisiveness and stimulated anxiety about the nation's future and tensions between individualism and community in a modernizing polity. Nativists took up the battle against autonomous groups combining secrecy with a demand for total loyalty. Such organizations as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Masonic Order, and the Roman Catholic Church troubled native-born and Protestant Americans as the antithesis of the egalitarian ideals of Jacksonian Democracy. In this era of "Pax Britannica," nativism provided worried Americans a series of contrived threatsmoral equivalents of warwith which to rebuff autocratic adversaries and thus bolster the legitimacy and authority of republican institutions.

Anti-Catholicism during the Jacksonian era transferred the battle for democracy from the level of intellectual combat in the national arena to parochial politics and mob violence "where every son of liberty could strike his blow for righteousness." The Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819, concluded between John Quincy Adams and the Spanish minister Luis de Onís, struck such a symbolic blow. This "transcontinental treaty" extended American claims to the Pacific and thus "liberated" a vast expanse from a Catholic state. Four years later President James Monroe warned the European Quadruple Alliance not to intervene in the affairs of the newly independent Latin American republics. Monroe's "doctrine" was, of course, upheld by British sea power. Yet not a few Americans held to the belief that Europe's despots might attempt to reassert their power in the Western Hemisphere.

Such was the message of the artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, who in 1834 warned of a Catholic plot to undermine the Republic. Echoing his father, Jedidiah Morse, in decrying the apathy of most Americans, Morse's Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States declared that the European Leopold Association, currently assisting American bishops in the Mississippi Valley, was in fact an entering wedge through which Prince Metternich of Austria and Czar Nicholas I of Russia would seize control. A year later fellow New Englander Lyman Beecher published A Plea for the West. A prominent minister who became president of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati (with St. Louis, a stronghold of Catholicism), Beecher grasped the significance of American know-how for westward, ultimately global expansion and evangelicalization. Beecher hated demon rum, dueling, religious complacency, Unitarians, and Catholics. Unless Americans accepted God's challenge and transacted their extraordinary destiny, they could expect dreadful retribution. Either Protestant faithful would evangelize the west and the world, or the area would be captured by an institution that destroyed freedom of thought, cloaked its true atheism behind specious symbols of religiosity, generated revolution wherever it appeared, and knew no limit in its quest for riches and power. If Catholicism were not halted, Beecher averred, the republican experiment would expire in a wasteland of ignorance and infidelity.

The idea of America as a contingent experiment verging on the most abject failure provides a recurrent theme in nativist literature, linking congregationalist ministers in Federalist New England, to avatars of 1840s revivalism like Beecher, and to twentieth-century fundamentalists like Billy James Hargis and Jerry Falwell. Beecher no doubt spoke for traditional congregationalist clergy seeking to redress its loss of established power by spreading New England Protestantism westward. But the expansionist connotation of his message was clear, and alongside the influx of Irish and other Catholic immigrants, it generated concern among those unsettled by cultural change.

The immigration of the 1830s and 1840s indicated to nativists that Europe's leaders might not be able to launch navies across the Atlantic, but they could send their illiterate, destitute, and criminal elements. Perhaps because the economy recovered well from the Panic of 1837, and Europe seemed far away, anti-Catholicism did not become a staple of the Mexican War (18461848). That it did not underscores the marginal relationship between nativism and foreign policy at this juncture. Although observers on both sides of the debate on the war disparaged the imputed racial inferiority of the Mexican adversary, Protestant nativists never succeeded in making the conflict a religious jihad. Some southern denominationsmoved by the racialism that girded slaverydid warn that the "yoke of papal oppression would be placed upon every state of the Republic" unless Mexico was crushed. But the absence of a unified anti-Catholic base was clear in the strength of other Protestant enemies, especially in northern statesincluding the "peculiar institution" of slavery, war generally, and the Mexican War in particular. Indeed, not a few northern Protestants scorned the threat posed by an aggressive slave-power conspiracy to extend its dominion into the western territories. Human bondagehere and nowproved more compelling than human bondage allegedly engineered by the Vatican.

More important, the cultural and social change that so alarmed Morse and Beecher had diluted Protestantism, secularized it, and stretched its basic tenets. Hence, most Americans rebuffed attempts to link Mexico with the Catholic menace. Midwestern Protestants generally held few uncertainties about the nation's future and the durability of their civilization. Mexican culture was primitive and impotent, and Mexican armies posed no threat to national safety. The historic Catholic culture of the Mississippi Valley would not halt American expansion to the Pacific.

Nevertheless, tales of Catholic atrocities persisted through the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, stimulating nativist imaginations (a form of ultra-Protestant pornography) and in urban and urbanizing venues making life difficult for Irish immigrants. The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk (1836), which detailed lustful priests, compliant nuns, and strangled babies born of unholy wedlock, was the best known of this apocryphal confessional literature, and sold more than 130,000 copies over the next twenty years (earning the sobriquet, eventually, as the Uncle Tom's Cabin of the anti-Catholic crusade). For their part, Irish immigrant supporters of the Young Ireland movement spoke out in their new country against English rule and incurred violent reactions in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Boston, among other cities. Anti-Catholic hostility centered upon such issues as the alleged role of immigrants in urban political corruption, trusteeship, the correct version of the Bible to be used in public schools, and rivalry in labor markets. In the late 1840s more than a million immigrantsexpelled by famine arrived in America "with hatred in their hearts for the British." The new arrivals made it necessary for politicians to heed their interests, thereby transforming urban politics in several venues.

Anti-Catholicism affected but was not coeval with antebellum nativism. Xenophobes also condemned non-Catholic immigrants and native Americans whose sociopolitical affiliations or religious tenets challenged local power structures or dominant cultural ideals. In addition, numerous immigrant groupsincluding Scots-Irish Presbyterians in Philadelphia and German radicals in the Ohio Valleyjoined the Protestant crusade, as did many native-born Catholics. Bishop John J. Hughes of New York took the lead in denouncing the radicalism of Hungarian patriot Lajos Kossuth, while Boston Irish Catholics denounced German "48ers" as "red" republicans, anarchists and despoilers of the Sabbath. In fact, between 1846 and 1855 more than a million Germans came to the United States, leaving behind revolution and potato famine, and becoming politically active in their new home. This activism, though not unified, unsettled nativists.

The arrival of three visitors in the early 1850s connected nativism with foreign relations and domestic politics more closely than any episode since the 1790s. Hungarian nationalist Lajos Kossuth fled Europe after leading a failed uprising against Austria in 1848. Attacking New York's Bishop Hughes as an agent of Habsburg despotism and warning of a Vatican conspiracy to rule the world, Kossuth sought to enlist mercenaries to return to renew Hungary's battle for independence. Kossuth captured the imagination of Americans until most realized that he might upset the delicate balance between the means and ends of foreign policy. Democratic leaders who might have aided him did not embrace his cause. And by 1852, the Whig Party had sundered along sectional lines as a result of the slavery controversy. Hence, Kossuth failed to enlist political support and had to settle for leaving behind, in the words of historian Thomas A. Bailey, "Kossuth beards, Kossuth hats, Kossuth overcoats, Kossuth cigars, the Kossuth grippe, and Kossuth County, Iowa."

The arrivals of "Father" Alessandro Gavazzi and Monsignor Gaetano Bedini early in 1853 for a time appeared to transfer the battle for Italian unification to the United States. Gavazzi was an apostate monk who took part in the rebellion of 1848, while Bedini, representing the pope on his American visit, resolutely opposed Italian unification. Gavazzi's nationalistic denunciation of Bedini for leading papal forces at the Battle of Bologna converted what had been a pleasant visit for the papal nuncio into an ordeal, as hostile crowds greeted his every appearance.

The fear of immigrants assumed political meaning during the 1850s as the slavery question slowly immobilized both parties. In 1854 the secret Order of the Star Spangled Banner transformed itself into the American Party, or "Know-Nothing" Party (as New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley dubbed them), because members claimed to know nothing about the organization. Party faithful claimed to endorse the asylum idealthey would welcome all immigrants, except paupers and criminalsas long as the newcomers promised to abstain from politics. The initial strength and subsequent weakness of the Know-Nothings lay in their promise of an issue, the danger of immigration, that skirted the slavery dispute. Nativism in this instance was less an end in itself than a means to achieve national unity amid growing sectional crisis.

Despite its nationalist gloss, the Know-Nothings were defined mainly by sectional and local conflict. Southern Know-Nothings focused their attention primarily on the tendency of most immigrants to settle in, and augment the political clout of, northern states. Conversely, New England Know-Nothings were often reformers, and most detested slavery. This contradiction undercut the American Party, which survived only as long as the Republic avoided commitment on the slavery question. Ironically, Know-Nothing nativism served to toughen immigrant resolve and cohesion. Abraham Lincoln wooed the German vote in 1860 by seeking to learn the language, reading a German-language newspaper, and naming immigrant Germans to his cabinet.

Know-Nothing nativism also toughened the resolve of Irish Americans who, though caricatured unmercifully, began to win the battle for urban America against lower-class Protestants. Indeed, by the end of the century, the Irish would join nativists in defending the United States against the "new" immigration from southern and eastern Europe.

Yet by the end of the Civil War, nativists could show no federal legislation restricting the immigration. American religious tolerance survived the socioeconomic turmoil and mob violence of the 1830s and 1840s, the Mexican War, and the Know-Nothing movement. Until the 1880s, in fact, confidence in the nation's power to assimilate newcomers checked nativism in most regions. Even the radical Irish Fenians, who used American soil to harass British North America after the Civil Warincluding an "invasion" of Ontario launched from Saint Albans, Vermont, in May 1870fell far short of involving the United States and Britain in a war to free Ireland. In short, the "free security" of the Republic, afforded by the Atlantic and Pacific and weak neighbors to the north and south, combined with a hardy strain of Anglophobia to undermine resentment against Irish immigrants. The alchemy of the melting pot, which held that Americans had only to wait a generation or two to see immigrants assimilated, dominated the national mood. Immigrants had much to offer. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes observed, Americans were "the Romans of the modern world, the great assimilating people."


Until the 1880s it appeared that even the Sinophobia that flared in California in the 1850s would dissipate. Chinese laborers had proved essential in constructing the Union Pacific Railroad as it passed through the Sierra Nevada. The Fourteenth Amendment shielded the Chinese, as it did African Americans, while the Burlingame Treaty of 1868 mollified nativists by allowing Chinese who entered to provide inexpensive labor, but prevented them from becoming citizens. Economic troubles and social unrest, however, laid the basis for the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), which proscribed immigration for a decade and marked a key change in the federal government's laissez-faire policy. The Chinese Exclusion Act codified the idea of a Yellow Peril and denied that Asians were assimilable. This legislation had a clear racial basis and hence also influenced attitudes toward the "new" southern and eastern European immigration. The historian Roger Daniels credits the law as providing "the hinge on which all American immigration policy turned." The legislationrenewed and amplified in 1884, 1888, and 1892also influenced similar laws in Australia, Canada, and other English-speaking countries. As one senator told President Rutherford B. Hayes, they were "a cold pebble in the public stomach which cannot be digested."

The Exclusion Act and its amendments mortified China's government, which ironically practiced its own policy of ethnoracial exclusion against outsiders until Western powers in the 1840s and 1850s compelled the Chinese to treat whites as equals. China protested often against this inequality, but to no avail. With depression and social unrest increasing, Sinophobia swept the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountains during the 1880s. In 1885, after a local water company in Tacoma, Washington, hired Chinese to lay pipe despite high white unemployment, a riot razed Chinatown and drove Chinese residents from the city. The incident, which locals deemed a "glorious victory," resulted in China receiving from the United States an indemnity of $10,000. A year later a similar workingmen's riot in Seattle forced most of the Chinese from the city and compelled President Grover Cleveland to mobilize military force to restore order. A systematic series of arrests occurred in San Francisco and Los Angeles in 1893, and by October sixty-four Asians were in prison pending the outcome of their appeals to avoid deportation. In 1894 these difficulties were settled after Li Hung-chang informed William Bowman, the American counsel at Tientsin, that Sino-American relations were near the breaking point. Then war with Japan intervened to weaken China's position, and the Gresham-Yang Treaty of 1894 succeeded in placing exclusion and registration laws passed since 1882 on a proper treaty basis.

Resistance to newcomers who were "not like us" burgeoned between 1890 and 1920. No equivalent period in American history can match the twenty million immigrants who came to the United States. Here was the stuff of a colossal sagagiven added significance by the sight of the Statue of Liberty, dedicated in October 1886 in New York's harbor, near Ellis Island, the arrival point for most immigrants. The Statue of Liberty inspired millions of newcomers, and Emma Lazarus's poem inscribed at its base promised a better tomorrow:

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

If the newcomers' contribution was to provide fodder for the unprecedented economic growth of this era, economic difficulties and accompanying social strife undercut the positive view of immigration many citizens held. Businessmen and reformers joined labor leaders and workingmen in arguing that immigrant gifts paled before their role in promoting domestic discord. By stressing the European origins of class conflict, critics of the American urban-industrial scene like Edwin L. Godkin, Jacob Riis, Richard T. Ely, and Josiah Strong warned of the radical portent of this immigration. Missing the deep conservatism of the great majority of newcomers from southeastern Europe, they also failed to see that new urban governments lacked requisite administrative experience to deal with their problems. According to reformers, the new immigrants were the problem, settling in cities and corrupting politics. National immunity from the ills of Europe seemed to have expired, and the melting pot seemed more a pressure cooker.

This perception gained strength as Americans sought to make sense of the intense labormanagement strife of the era. The Chicago Haymarket Riot in May 1886 ushered in a decade of industrial strife and catalyzed in American minds a dread of foreign conspirators. Fearful adversaries of "long-haired, wild-eyed, bad smelling, atheistic, reckless, foreign wretches" did not distinguish between Marxists and anarchists. Indeed, patriotic citizens parceled together all varieties of immigrant radicalism and left the package in front of the house of labor.

Fears of national decay heightened after the panic of 1893 and ensuing depression. An angry agrarian crusade attacked capitalism and international finance with a cataclysmic rhetoric not designed to reassure jittery easterners. Labor discontent reached bloody pinnacles during the Homestead and Pullman strikes. As time seemed to run out, portending the end of opportunity, geography seemed to conspire. As the historian Frederick Jackson Turner told the American Historical Association in 1893, the era of the frontierthe dynamic font of individualism, liberty, and democracyhad ended. Americans would have to find something new to supplant the source of those characteristics that made the nation great.

As the center seemed incapable of holding, an assemblage of New England Brahminsgraduates of Harvardformed the Immigration Restriction League. The league championed Anglo-Saxonism and embraced a nostalgic view of the region's homogeneous past. They pored over the works of John Fiske and John W. Burgess, who applied precepts of social Darwinism to history and politics. Cheering the Foran Act of 1885, which had prohibited European contract labor, the restrictionists gathered behind Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and developed a series of literacy tests as the best way to halt immigration. While the House passed a literacy bill five times between 1895 and 1917 (with Senate support after the first failure), presidents as distinct as Grover Cleveland, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson vetoed the legislation. Only in 1917 did Congress prevail over the veto.

In a society that questioned its ability to resolve conflicts, citizens looked for evidence of the republic's virility. The Reverend Josiah Strong expressed this anxiety in Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis (1885), which excoriated the communal disruption wrought by excessive materialism. This development threatened America's traditional Anglo-Saxon, Protestant culture in its quest to evangelize the world. As Lyman Beecher had a half-century earlier, Strong anticipated a "righteous empire" of Protestantism expanding and spreading the American way throughout the world. Not surprisingly in an era that witnessed the final relegation of America's Indians to reservations and penury and southern African Americans to Jim Crow, Our Country and other of Strong's writings embraced the racialist thesis that civilization would reach its zenith when Anglo-Saxons extinguished less vigorous peoples and secured international hegemony. Domestic corruption jeopardized this divine mission, made all the more imperative by the impending "final competition of races, for which the Anglo-Saxon is being schooled."

Strong advocated the mission of the United States rather than its manifest destiny. Just as Protestant Christianity would remedy domestic illssocialism, intemperance, and the Mormon and Catholic threatsso too would Anglo-Saxon torchbearers of Protestantism carry their message to the far corners of the earthnot on the end of a sword, but through the persuasive power of example.

Pressure engendered by various domestic crises during the 1890s stimulated chauvinists and nativists alike. Richard Hofstadter's concept of a "psychic crisis" does not explain the William McKinley administration's decision for war against Spain in 1898, but by underlining the close relationship between the domestic distress of the 1890s, nativism, and the new bellicosity in American diplomacy, the construct suggests why Americans were eager for foreign adventure. During the decade the United States went to the brink of war with Italy, Chile, and Great Britain over issues peripheral to the national interest. Nativism served as a catalyst for these episodes, demonstrating its function to unify a divided nation by focusing on foreign problems and threats. In 1891 a New Orleans mob lynched eleven Italians and Italian Americans immediately after they were acquitted of the charge of murdering the city's police chief. The episode did nothing for Italian-American relations, especially when Theodore Roosevelt deemed it "a rather good thing." After Italy demanded compensation for the families of the deceased and Washington demurred, Italy cut full diplomatic relations. War talk flared among jingoists and one Georgian promised to muster a company of soldiers "to invade Rome, disperse the Mafia, and plant the stars and stripes on the dome of St. Peter's." As immigration restrictionists disparaged Italians and other southeastern Europeans and big-navy men called for an ambitious building program, President Benjamin Harrison chose the statesmanlike course and apologized to Italy. The war scare passed. But many journals observed that in the face of the threat national unity replaced sectional bickering.


Nativism diminished at the beginning of the twentieth century. A robust national economy shielded newcomers, even as the assassination of President McKinley by Leon Czolgosz, an American-born radical, led Congress in 1903 to bar "anarchists or persons who believe or advocate the overthrow by force or violence of the Government of the United States or the assassination of public officials." The nation's immigration bureaucracy grew quickly after 1900, boasting more than 1,200 workers by 1906. A year later Congress established the Immigration Commission, which in 1911 issued a huge report that popularized the distinction between the "old" and "new" immigration. The former was salutary, the latter baneful. The Immigration Commission also searched for illness at Ellis Island and on the West Coast, as bacterial and viral outbreakslong associated with specific immigrant groups became a means to distinguish "healthy" Americans from sickly aliens. In 1793, Philadelphians deemed an outbreak of yellow fever "Palatine Fever," to indicate German immigrant responsibility for the outbreak; in 1832 nativists attributed a cholera epidemic on the eastern seaboard to Irish-Catholic immigrants; and in 1900 the Chinese in San Francisco took the blame for an outbreak of bubonic plague. By 1907, in addition to anarchists, immigration undesirables excluded from American shores included paupers, polygamists, lepers, beggars, prostitutes, epileptics, victims of tuberculosis, those suspected of "moral turpitude," and imbeciles. Clearly the stigma of disease served to marginalize immigrants culturally and to remove themindeed, often by quarantinefrom society's mainstream. Only by embracing the consumer culture of personal cleanliness could newcomers exhibit patriotism and become American.

Nativism did flare in San Francisco in 1906, when the school board ordered the exclusion of Japanese children from that city's public schools. Regional prejudice quickly threatened to overturn President Theodore Roosevelt's Far Eastern policy. Long a bastion of racialism, California assumed its anti-Japanese stance naturally. The Japanese and Korean Exclusion League appeared in 1905, as Japan and Russia waged war in East Asia, and repeated charges made earlier against the Chinese, warning that the Japanese jeopardized not only the standard of living but also the primacy of the white race. Many nativists, including the novelist Jack London and publisher William Randolph Hearst, excoriated the Yellow Peril. Not only had Japan's strong showing in war against Russia made it a world power, but now its position of strength in the Far East threatened the self-image of the United States as a superior, Anglo-Saxon nation. Ironically, Japan itself had a long history of institutionalized xenophobia, but now showed concern over its international status. Tokyo protested this exclusion, which placed Washington in the awkward position of convincing Californians of their obligation to the Union, while at the same time seeking to secure equal treatment for citizens of a foreign power. Concerned at Japan's new strength in Asia and upset by riots in Tokyo protesting the Treaty of Portsmouth, which he helped negotiate, President Theodore Roosevelt moved to restore cordial relations with Tokyo.

His own racism notwithstanding, Roosevelt withstood opposition from the Pacific coast and Rocky Mountain regionsand from southern advocates of Jim Crow and states' rights. He warned that he would employ military force, if necessary, and sent a personal representative to San Francisco. Mayor Eugene Schmitz soon revoked the segregation order, and Roosevelt promised to work to place Japanese immigration on a treaty basis. The president also dispatched the navy's Pacific Fleet on a dramatic global voyageafter informing Tokyo not to view the move as an unfriendly act.

Roosevelt and the Japanese exchanged several diplomatic notes, which became the basis in 1907 for the so-called "Gentleman's Agreement," an executive agreement that restricted passage of Japanese laborers from Hawaii and Japan to the United States unless they had "already been in America." The arrangement, shifting Japanese migration to the United States from basically male to female, quieted but did not halt anti-Japanese agitation. Foreign-born Japanese (Issei ) remained "aliens ineligible to citizenship," while second-generation citizens (Nisei ) found the Fourteenth Amendment a poor guarantee of the rights of citizenship against discriminatory law and custom. After leaving office, Roosevelt himself concluded that cultural and economic conflict was inevitable in relations between Americans and Asians.

Nativism reached its apogee during and directly after World War I. Just prior to American intervention in the conflict, congressional restrictionists overcame President Woodrow Wilson's veto and passed the major recommendation the Dillingham Commission made six years earlier. The Immigration Act of 1917 barred illiterate adult immigrants; set a head tax of eight dollars per person; and excluded vagrants, alcoholics, advocates of violent revolution, and "psychopathic inferiors." Passage of a literacy test and the establishment of a barred zone in the southwest Pacificwhich closed the gates to Asians not already banned by the Chinese Exclusion Act and Gentleman's Agreementindicated that the Great War heralded a more sinister era in the history of American nativism.


With the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914, the geographical and political isolation that placed foreign policy above controversy, rendered immigrant attitudes nonpolitical, facilitated assimilation, and shielded the melting potquickly dissipated. Foreigners who earlier solicited American supportlike Edmond Genet and Lajos Kossuthannoyed nativists, but did not change American noninterventionism. Even the wars with Mexico and Spain underlined unity. But now Europe seemed much closer. President Wilson's assurance that the United States would not intervene notwithstanding, nativism as a force for patriotism and national unity stressed conformitytargeting German Americans and political radicals. Divisive themes, like anti-Catholicism and Teutonic racism, disappeared from the nativist lexicon.

Nativism in World War I had much in common with xenophobia during the Quasi-War. The chief assertion of American nationalism, termed "100 percent Americanism" after U.S. intervention, attested to the realization of cultural and social diversity amidst crisis. First-and second-generation immigrants comprised one-third of America's populationa point made more problematic by the loss of confidence by Progressive reformers. Hence, the preparedness campaign during the period of neutrality (19141917) focused primarily on German immigrants. Well-organized, prosperous, and self-consciously retaining old-world customs, German Americans mobilized following the outbreak of war to block munitions shipments to belligerents and counter sensational "Hun" propaganda stories emanating from London. In January 1915 the German-American Alliance met in New York, demonstrating a great show of unityand outraging American nativists.

This gathering coincided with Germany's announcement of submarine warfare against Britain and with German attempts to bomb American vessels and munitions plants. Soon politicians and editors condemned the apparent conspiracy, decrying "hyphenate" Americans (but never Anglo-Americans, the antiwar activist Randolph Bourne pointed out) and heeding former President Roosevelt's point that any apostasy from total allegiance smacked of "moral treason." "America for the Americans!" he thundered. "Our bitter experience should teach us for a generation to crush under our heel every movement that smacks in the smallest degree of playing the German game." President Wilson's counsel at the outset that Americans "be neutral in thought as well as in deed" quickly went by the board as citizens chose sides and sought to profit from the conflict by selling matériel and munitions to the belligerents. Britain, of course, held the advantage there.

As American neutrality became increasingly pro-British, radicals and dissenters joined German immigrants as surrogate enemies for patriotic citizens. Men like Henry Cabot Lodge and Augustus Gardner, wealthy New England Brahmins, moved easily from attacking new immigrants and labor unions to alerting citizens about the dangers posed by pacifists and German Americans. Citizens organizations like the National Security League and American Defense Society competed to strengthen the military and impose unity in all areas of life. German submarine warfare and propaganda played into the hands of these grassroots patriots, whose distrust of immigrants was shared increasingly by the Wilson administration. Although the German-American Alliance forbade political activity, state and local immigrant groups continued to lobby, no doubt exacerbating the bitter feelings that peaked during the 1916 election campaign. Denouncing "that small alien element among us which puts loyalty to any foreign power before loyalty to the United States," Wilson and the Democratic Party portrayed Republican candidate Charles Evans Hugheswho refused to get involved with the hyphenate issueas "a dupe of the Kaiser in pro-British areas, and as a Roosevelt-dominated jingo spoiling for war with Germany in areas with a large Teutonic population." The president played both sides of the nativist coin.

The mailed fist of patriotism fell even harder on German Americans once the United States entered the war. Ironically, as the Republic moved to make the world safe for democracy, American-style, patriots nearly tore up the Bill of Rights. Ethnic fidelity now became a sine qua non of foreign policy, even more so with the Russian Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917. German culture came under attack on all fronts, with hamburgers, sauerkraut, Beethoven, and German language instruction disappearing. The Department of Justice gave vigilante groups like the American Protective League carte blanche to ferret spies and saboteurs from the German-socialist-pacifistInternational Workers of the Worldtrade unionist monolith. In Collinsville, Illinois, an area previously scarred by racial and labor-management violence, Robert Paul Praeger was lynched in April 1918. Praeger was a socialist and a radical, and his death drew little support for civil liberties. Indeed, most observers considered Praeger's hanging evidence of the inadequacy of federal legislation to suppress sedition. The New Republic called this argument "a species of sickening cant," but editors and politicians who disdained vigilante justice praised passage of the Sedition Act of 1918.

Nativism did not diminish with the end of the war. Indeed, the martial psychology of 19171918 intensified in the face of postwar domestic dislocations, the apparent menace posed by the Bolsheviks, and, most important, the sudden loss of unity and purpose fostered by war. "War is the health of the state," Randolph Bourne averred cynically, but with peace American democracy suffered anew. The Red Scare of 19191920 reflected anxiety at the racial violence, inflation, and economic recession attending demobilization and reconversion, as well as the appearance of new American communist parties, directed by the Moscow Comintern, and significant immigrant presence in the violent steel and textile strikes of 1919. Led by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and "sustained by large numbers of business and political leaders, corporations and interest groups, several agencies of government, superpatriotic societies, and the press," federal agents targeted as security threats anarchists, communists, radical labor groups, and other citizens who had opposed the war.

The Bolshevik threat affected debate on the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. Republicans and Democrats alike denounced as misguided Wilson's messianic prophecy to remake the world in the Republic's image and pointed out that Americans could never trust Old World statesmen. "Men had died," the poet Ezra Pound wrote, "for an old bitch gone in the teeth, a botched civilization." Hence, when Wilson argued that the new League of Nations would stem the Bolshevik threat, Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler retorted that the Versailles Treaty was "unpatriotic and un-American," an example of "subtle, half-conscious socialism." American fears peaked on 2 June 1919, when a dynamite explosion rocked Palmer's home on K Street in Washington (and blew up the perpetrator), and bombs exploded at the homes of leading citizens in eight other cities. An erstwhile Quaker with political ambitions, Palmer set out to destroy the "reds" and capture the Democratic nomination for president in 1920. He created a General Intelligence Division, led by J. Edgar Hoover, which soon amassed more than 200,000 cards detailing the character of radical organizations and publications and the case histories of more than 60,000 "dangerous radicals."

Incapacitated by a stroke, Wilson could not restrain Palmer, whose crusade soon left its mark. Within months the Palmer raids, strengthened by support from the newly formed American Legion, led to the deportation of 249 Russian immigrants whose Bolshevism was more imagined than real. The Lusk Committee in New York expelled five socialist delegates from the state legislature; business leaders fostered scare propaganda to deflect labor grievances; California prohibited Japanese from owning land; an Illinois mob turned on Italian settlers, beating them and razing their homes; and one patriot charged that Albert Einstein's theory of relativity had Bolshevik origins. Most Americans, one cynic noted, could not distinguish between Bolshevism and rheumatism, but no matter. The Soviets would provide a whipping boy for nativist patriots for the next seventy years.

When domestic conditions improved in 1920, the Red Scare collapsedbut not before Palmer himself became a victim of the episode. His presidential hopes evaporated along with the crisis. Nonetheless, World War I and the Red Scare cast a long shadow into the 1920s and beyond. Soviet-American relations were poisoned from the beginning by judgments and actions conditioned by wartime and postwar xenophobia. Bipartisan disillusionment with the politics of Europe contributed to the economic protectionism of the 1920s and also influenced the refusal of the United States to join the World Court. The linking of radicalism with disloyalty tarnished the labor movement for more than a decade. In Massachusetts, two Italian anarchists were executed after a trial that arrayed the values of the Brahmin establishment against alien radicalism. Liberals may have been outraged and transformed the defendants into martyrs after their death, but presiding Judge Webster Thayer's censure of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti as "anarchist bastards" epitomized the feelings toward southeastern Europe and radical politics held by most Americans.

Most important, the Red Scare gave the Immigration Restriction League "evidence" to show that the melting pot threatened American society and culture. The early 1920s witnessed the full flowering of Anglo-Saxon racism, part of the nostalgic drive toward Protestant Anglo-conformity that gave the decade its ambiguous cultural tone. The "roaring twenties" clashed with an "anxious twenties," in which sober citizens questioned the multicultural, interdependent, consumer-oriented future and hearkened toward a simpler past. The notion that a person's genes determined one's destiny found expression in university quotas and employment restrictions against Jews, the writings of Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant, the popularity of IQ tests and eugenics, and the renewal of congressional debate on immigration. Led by Albert Johnson of Washington, long an enemy of local Wobblies, congressional restrictionists overrode President Wilson's veto in early 1921 and passed legislation limiting immigration based upon nationality: the number of immigrants per year from one country could not surpass 3 percent of the total of that nationality resident in the United States in 1910. Three years later the Johnson-Reed Act closed the door to "inferior" peoples. Quotas would now reflect resident populations of 1890; after 1927 immigration would be limited to 150,000 persons annually, and Asians would be excluded. Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover agreed, suggesting "biological and cultural grounds why there should be no mixture of Oriental and Caucasian blood." President Calvin Coolidge did not mince words. He noted in signing the bill that "America must be kept American."

If the Red Scare prevented Americans from adapting to postwar realities, it was not surprising that during the decade after the conflict many citizens wrestled with fundamental social tensions by seeking to revive the attitudes and values of an earlier era. Nativist defenders of an idealized Gemeinschaft ("community") culture sought to halt the intrusion of modernity. What historian John Higham called the tribal twenties exhibited a retrospective idealism, at once parochial and nationalistic, at war with urbanism, secularism, and ethnic diversity. This cultural strain drove a significant part of the populace to embrace Anglo conformity as its rejoinder to the challenges posed by modern urban-industrial Americanot least its liberated women, hot films, and jazz. In the 1920 census, for the first time in the nation's history, urban residents outnumbered their rural cousinsand there would be no restoration of a preindustrial epoch. Henry Ford epitomized the cultural problem of Americans enjoying the fruits of mass production and postwar technological prowess and lamenting the sociocultural consequences of change. The father of mass productionhis assembly line devastated traditional skills and his Model T automobile revolutionized travel (and also provided a bedroom on wheels and means to escape small-town surveillance)Ford became the most notorious anti-Semite of the interwar era. A scion of the rural Midwest, he organized a "peace ship" in 1915 to halt the European war. Initially supporting Wilson's League of Nations and dunning intolerant patriots during the Red Scare, Ford met frustration at every turn.

Disillusionment and economic problems in 1920 led to Ford's espousal of an ideological anti-Semitism that ultimately caught the attention of Adolf Hitler and his Nazis. In the pages of his Dearborn Independent, he came to blame just about every modern problem (and personal peeve) on the Jews. The short list included gamblers, booze and cigarettes, immigrants, Bolsheviks, bankers, and unions, but the underlying peril was a sinister Jewish cabal seeking to dominate the world. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a czarist forgery in Russia in 1891, provided Ford documentation for his facile explanation of dismaying cultural trends and a dramatic symbol of the danger posed by international political cooperation.

Similar malice toward immigrants and internationalism colored the discourse of the Ku Klux Klan, reborn in 1915 and peaking eight years later with 2.3 million members. The soul of the organization, splintered into groups reflecting regional nativist animosities (against blacks in the South, Asians in the West, Catholics in the Midwest, and Jews in the Northeast), lay in America's urbanizing towns and villagesunder siege from modernism, however defined. These were the same venues that gave Henry Ford his major support. Although Klan rhetoric primarily targeted these minorities, actual violence generally fell upon white, Anglo-Saxon apostates who strayed from traditional Protestant moral codes. Bootleggers, feckless husbands, and cheating wives comprised major targets for the Klan, which also prospered in urban centers in the Midwest and Southwest, reflecting demographic change wrought by World War I. Imperial Wizard Hiram W. Evans led the Klan in its "fight for Americanism," which included, among other items, support for Prohibition, immigration restriction, anti-evolution laws, and family values.

The 1920s included numerous examples of rural-minded, defensive imperialism. Yet as tribal nativists moved to prevent command of the nation's destiny from passing from Main Street to the metropolis, they affirmed the material benefits of the modernity they so grimly denounced. This contradiction mirrored a similar ambivalence in American foreign relations during the 1920s and 1930s. On one hand, Washington rejected political commitments like the League of Nations and the World Court. On the other, as William Appleman Williams and Emily Rosenberg demonstrate, apart from its protectionist tariffs, the United States proved adept internationally in economic and cultural realms, particularly in its search for markets and influence in Europe, China, Latin America, and the Middle East. Being in the world, but not of it, hearkened back to the original reason why English Puritans settled in the New World in the early seventeenth century. Now, however, this quest for what Warren I. Cohen deemed "an empire without tears" confirmed the superior morality of Americans, but did not prepare them for constructive global action in case of crisis.

Nevertheless, nativism as an organized movement triumphed with passage of the National Origins Act of 1924. The law produced a sharp decrease in the volume of European and Asian newcomers and hastened the Americanization of newcomers already present in the United States. The Great Depression that began in 1929 also advanced the assimilation process, for economic difficulties blurred cultural distinctions between ethnic groups as it sharpened class feelings in the working population. Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal also diminished the power of immigrant cultural and social groups by making immigrants and natives alike look to government for relief. Developments in mass communicationdocumentary films, Franklin Roosevelt's fireside chats and radio itself, Works Progress Administration guidebooks and chroniclesalso subjected Americans to unprecedented common experience. Finally, nativist attempts to cleanse the body politic of alien growth in fact shielded minorities by sharply restricting fields open to them. With the advent of economic catastrophe in 1929, Americans directed their bitterness at the establishmentwhite, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant.

Even before the depression, social scientists initiated what John Higham termed a "massive assault on racial thinking and ethnocentrism." American loathing of Nazism during the late 1930s and World War II strengthened this trend and helped prevent the sort of vicious nativism that appeared after 1916. The German-American community also remembered the indignities it encountered, and after a bitter debate on intervention in the European War, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor served further to unify the nation. Hence, American anti-German hatred focused not upon German immigrants and their offspring, but upon Hitler, his political hierarchy, and the Nazi doctrine of Aryan supremacy. Official policy made this distinction until the end of the war. Not surprisingly, then, anti-Catholicism and racial nativism became less important, remaining powerful only among dyed-in-the-wool Roosevelt haters.

Indeed, from the 1930s on persons who advocated old-fashioned 100 percent Americanism risked identification with European anti-Semitism and fascism. The Great Depression gave several mass leaders a name and national following. The most famous, Huey Long of Louisiana, was assassinated in 1935, after he helped defeat Washington's attempt to join the World Court. The others included Father Charles E. Coughlin, the radio priest from Royal Oak, Michigan; the spiritualist William Dudley Pelley, founder of the Silver Shirt Legion; and Fritz Kuhn, leader of the German-American Bund. These men exhibited a curiously inverted form of nativism. Father Coughlin (borrowing from Henry Ford and earlier populists and anticipating the strategy and tactics of Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin) denounced treason within government circles, fingering President Herbert Hoover, Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon, government bureaucrats, and ultimately the entire Roosevelt administration. Here were the real "aliens," agents of a Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy that threatened the Republic.


This charge allowed traditional targets of nativists to turn the tables on their historic adversarythe Anglo establishment. As Justus Doenecke notes, disdain for Britain and things British unified a heterogeneous group of Americans who opposed aid to Britain between 1939 and 1941. Coughlin and several other mass leaders, however, copied Hitler's anti-Semitism and anticommunism. This strategy, combined with their accusation that members of the legitimate political order were the real aliens in the United States, backfired by decade's end. Their thesis that a cabal of Anglophiles, Democratic politicians, international bankers, and Jews controlled the government gave the Roosevelt administration evidence to proclaim the existence of an internal fascist movement, to link this threat with respectable noninterventionists attempting to prevent American entrance into the war, and to strengthen presidential power over foreign affairs. In September 1941, when famed flier Charles A. Lindbergh blamed the Jews, along with Britain and Roosevelt for the nation's march toward war, he closed the circlenativism was now perceived as un-American, and noninterventionists as minions of Hitler.

Yet if World War II did not approach the first in its violation of civil liberties, the second remains far from the "good war" portrayed in much historiography. Indeed, the racial character of the conflict figured prominently on both sides of the Pacific and revealed anew that the Republic was, in Richard Polenberg's term, "one nation, divisible." The war underlined anew the appalling treatment accorded African Americans, yet also led at long last to the postwar integration of the armed forces. The most flagrant blot on wartime civil liberties came with the incarceration of 126,000 Japanese Americansripped from their homes on the West Coast and transferred to "relocation" camps in the western interior. This diaspora came shortly after Pearl Harbor, when the federal government embraced the Pacific coast obsession with the Yellow Peril and accepted Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt's doctrine of "military necessity." Contrary to DeWitt's argument and popular belief, the Japanese Americans were not spies and saboteurs but a hard-working and prosperous people whose virtues did justice to Horatio Alger.

This mass relocation marked a new chapter in the history of American nativism. The Japanese Americans, who gained an official apology and partial redress in 1988 for their tribulations, were not tarred and feathered or forced to kiss the flag. For the first time, the federal government efficiently rounded them up and shipped them off to concentration camps, wherehaving lost their property, their jobs, and their civil and legal rightsthey sat out the war behind barbed wire. The threat of Japanese-American betrayal, which girded relocation, drew support from President Roosevelt in Executive Order 9066, secured approval from Congress, and was upheld by the Supreme Court. The incarceration had unintended consequences as Japanese Americans moved eastward, and shifted their occupational emphasis from agriculture to business and the professions.

Nativism declined in importance after 1945, reflecting eroded foundations of ethnic group loyalty and changes in the basic structure of society after 1945. Religious affiliation supplanted ethnic origin as the basic means of achieving self-identity and promoting group loyalty. The memory of the Holocaustand of the tardiness of the United States and other Allies in dealing with itcontributed in 1948 to passage of the Displaced Persons Act, which opened the gates to 400,000 Europeans. Moreover, the onset of the Cold War enabled immigrants and refugees from central and eastern Europe to move within the national consensus. Czechs, Hungarians, and Poles could be as goodor betterAmericans than the white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment, especially the perjured traitor, Alger Hiss, and his key character witness, Dean Acheson. In its ire against Anglophiles and intellectuals, McCarthyism both reflected and intensified the patriotism of these anticommunist Europeans.


In 1965, as President Lyndon Johnson sought to achieve a Great Society at home and in Southeast Asia, Congress passed an epochal immigration act that appeared to signal the death knell of nativism. Reflecting the nation's growing commitment to confronting racism, this law replaced the discriminatory national origins quotas of 1924 with an agenda based on family preference. The law exempted close relatives of persons already in the United States and limited newcomers from the Eastern Hemisphere to 170,000 persons annually and from the Western Hemisphere to 120,000 annually. Although Congress expected most immigrants to come from Europe, an upswing in Europe's economy, deteriorating conditions in Latin America, and the agonizing war in Southeast Asia produced a different outcome. In fact, the tide of immigration and refugees in 19761986 ranked the newcomers, in descending order of numbers: Mexico, Vietnam, the Philippines, Korea, Nationalist China (Taiwan), and Cuba. Never had the nation been more multicultural.

Nativism did not disappear, however, and in the last quarter of the twentieth century antiforeign sentiment erupted during periods of economic duress, especially in areas in which these groups settled and in contexts where political candidates like Pat Buchanan courted voters with antiforeign themes. Residents of the postindustrial rust belt seemed most sensitive to antiforeign ideas, which often emerged with antigovernment tones. For example, the downturn in the American automotive market negatively affected Asian Americans. The Ku Klux Klan and other survivalist and hate groups still sputtered along, erupting occasionally, as an unhappy underside of multicultural reality. Defenders of an older America denounced nonwhite newcomers, as their predecessors dunned immigrants in the 1840s, 1890s, and 1920s. But the nostalgic nativism at the beginning of the twenty-first centurynever more than a minority positiondid not hide the point that newcomers since the 1970s had often done the kinds of work that native-born Americans choose not to do. In this way newcomers continued to reap the promise of what was still the most powerful force on earththe American dream. The terrorist plane crash into the Pentagon and the destruction of the New York World Trade Center towers on 11 September 2001, however, heralded a new chapter in nativism. Americans of Middle Eastern descent now faced uncertainty as the Republic gathered its resources to meet a new kind of threat to its national security.


Archdeacon, Thomas J. Becoming American: An Ethnic History. New York, 1983. A good place to start on the history of American immigration.

Bennett, David H. The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History. Rev. ed. New York, 1995. Provides a fine scholarly overview and interpretation of nativism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Bodnar, John. The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in Urban America. Bloomington, Ind., 1985. Another good reference for the history of immigration.

Daniels, Roger. Not Like Us: Immigrants and Minorities in America, 18901924. Chicago, 1997. Integrates American reactions to the new immigration with policies toward African Americans, Native Americans, and other minorities. Daniels stands alone as the historian of Japanese-American relocation and redress.

Daniels, Roger, Sandra C. Taylor, and Harry H. L. Kitano, eds. Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress. Rev. ed. Seattle, 1991. A superior overview.

Davis, David Brion, ed. The Fear of Conspiracy: Images of Un-American Subversion from the Revolution to the Present. Ithaca, N.Y., 1970. Features a discourse and rhetoric of nativist countersubversion, including a sensitive reading of the author's construct of the paranoid style.

DeConde, Alexander. Ethnicity, Race, and American Foreign Policy: A History. Boston, 1992. Focuses on the rise, place, and slow decline in power of the Anglo-American majority and argues that historians often minimize the importance of British immigrants and their role in fomenting nativism against other groups. A good starting place for those wishing to further assess nativism's place in the context of foreign relations; it also has the advantage of assessing the development of racism as an integral part of the American establishment.

Doenecke, Justus D. Storm on the Horizon: The Challenge to American Intervention, 19391941. Lanham, Md., 2000. Presents a thoughtful assessment of nativist themes in American noninterventionism before World War II.

Dower, John W. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. New York, 1986. Portrays racism on both sides of the Pacific.

Dumenil, Lynn. The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s. New York, 1995. Dumenil offers measured assessments of the wrenching cultural change of that era and regressive American reactions. Her treatment of the Klan is particularly insightful.

Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 18601925. New York, 1963. One of those few books that just gets better with time.

. Send These to Me: Immigrants in Urban America. Rev. ed. Baltimore, 1984. Offers second thoughts equally significant.

Hofstadter, Richard. The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. New York, 1965. Classic and problematic statement of liberal distaste for McCarthyism and the political right.

Kazin, Michael. The Populist Persuasion: An American History. New York, 1995. An empathic qualification of critiques of the populist skein in American history.

Knobel, Dale T. America for the Americans: The Nativist Movement in the United States. New York, 1996. Skillfully links nineteenth-and twentieth-century nativist themes.

Kovel, Joel. Red Hunting in the Promised Land: Anticommunism and the Making of America. New York, 1994. The Red Scare receives significant analysis in this work.

Kraut, Alan M. Silent Travelers: Germs, Genes, and the "Immigrant Menace." New York, 1994. Explores in a pathbreaking manner the virulent association in the popular mind between epidemics and immigrants.

Levin, Murray B. Political Hysteria in America: The Democratic Capacity for Repression. New York, 1971.

Murray, Robert K. Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 19191920. Minneapolis, 1955. Still pertinent reading.

Perea, Juan F., ed. Immigrants Out! The New Nativism and the Anti-Immigrant Impulse in the United States. New York, 1997. Contains essays suggestive of recent themes in nativism and its postmodern meanings.

Ribuffo, Leo P. The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War. Philadelphia, 1983. Presents perhaps the most skillful synthesis of nativist theory, historiography, domestic culture and foreign relations.

Smith, Geoffrey S. To Save a Nation: American Extremism, The New Deal, and the Coming of World War II. Rev. ed. Chicago, 1992. Links the activities of the nativist mass leaders of the 1930s to political and diplomatic developments before Pearl Harbor.

See also Asylum; Continental Expansion; Immigration; Imperialism; Intervention and Nonintervention; Isolationism; Nationalism; Race and Ethnicity; Religion .


views updated May 21 2018







In general, nativism is a form of ethnocentrism that considers previous residence in a country or region to constitute a claim to superiority in culture or a higher class of citizenship. In the United States, nativism has been defined as “the intense opposition to an internal minority on the grounds of its allegedly un-American characteristics” (Higham 1963). This fear and hatred of “aliens” in the United States has been typically directed against religious or ethnic minorities and political radicals. Despite having expelled and dispersed the previous residents and being surrounded by other ethnicities, races and religions, nativists have viewed themselves as somehow special—“Anglo Saxons” and other Protestant descendents of northern and western European settlers—the only people worthy of being called “American.”

Nativists always seem to have felt that they were the only “real” Americans; in fact, they dismissed indigenous groups, like so many others, as inferiors. In their passionate crusades to protect the land from so-called “unassimilatables” unworthy of being citizens, religious and social constructions of race were the central concerns.


The earliest form of nativism was anti-Catholic hostility rampant in England before the era of colonization and rooted in the imperial rivalries with Catholic Spain and France and the founding of what became the Church of England. Religious nativism gained new life in the American colonies and became the most enduring part of the nativist tradition in America until the mid-twentieth century. The Catholic population in the colonial era was minuscule—there were only 35,000 Catholics as late as the American Revolution. Almanacs, tracts, sermons, and periodicals of various kinds during this period vilified Catholicism. Public school primers instructed children to “abhor that arrant Whore of Rome and all her blasphemies.” Fireside games such as “Break the Pope’s Neck” were standard fare. The stubby tail of a baked turkey was dubbed “the Pope’s nose.”

Nativism declined in the Revolutionary era, but in the 1830s, as immigration from Ireland and Germany swelled the Catholic population, new anti-alien movements emerged, launching violent attacks on Catholic institutions and publishing numerous anti-Catholic tracts. Nativist fears shaped a new political party, the American-Republicans. These political nativists elected mayors of New York and Philadelphia and six members of Congress in 1844. They played a key role in the brutal street confrontations between Catholics and Protestants in Philadelphia on Independence Day 1844; hundreds were injured and fires ravaged the city.

This early nativist party did not endure; it was dead by 1847. But the forced migrations of Irish people to the western provinces of Ireland, and the resulting catastrophic potato famine, stimulated a vast migration to America in the next five years from which there emerged a new and more formidable nativist political movement.

Destitute newcomers fleeing Ireland and Germany in this period changed the social landscape. In the port cities, crime rates and “juvenile vagrancy” rose and were linked to increases in the foreign-born population. As almshouses and aid to “paupers” strained public budgets, “lunatic asylums” reported more immigrants in confinement, and immigrant-oriented bars and “gin houses” proliferated, nativists argued that these migrants were clearly a race of inferior peoples threatening the future of the nation. And they were Catholic; the number of their churches had increased from fewer than 100 to more than 1,800 by 1855. For anti-alien nativists, these events stimulated fear that priests under the control of a foreign prince—the pope—would manipulate members of an autocratic and centralized church opposed to individual judgment and intolerant of dissent. Nativists believed that Catholics would undermine the public school system by insisting on parochial education. And so democracy itself was at risk in America.

Out of the numerous nativist secret societies created at this time came the American Party. Because members were

told to respond “I know nothing” when asked about the party (because “Jesuitical conspirators” allegedly menaced the movement, requiring it to remain secret), the new organization was called the Know-Nothings. With the Whig Party fractured by the abolitionist and free-soil issues, the Know-Nothings became the second largest political party in America by 1854. But this would not last. Like the Whigs and the Democrats, the Know-Nothing Party split apart over the issue of slavery after 1856 and disappeared in the crisis leading to the Civil War. But nativism would not disappear with it.


In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, as the immense “new immigration” from southern and eastern Europe brought millions of Italian Catholics, Jews, Russians, and South Slavs, nativism gained strength, particularly during the depression years of the 1890s. Jewish immigrants, the non-Catholic target, were assailed as dirty, bearded foreign degenerates. New anti-alien groups proliferated, calling for immigration restriction and attacking Catholic political control in the big cities. The largest of these groups was the American Protective Association, with a membership reaching 500,000.

This new nativist effort emerged in a period when influential public figures, including such major reform leaders as Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, embraced racist theories. (Wilson contrasted the “men of the sturdy stocks of the north of Europe” with “the more sordid and hopeless elements which the countries of the south of Europe were disburdening … men out of the ranks where there was neither skill nor energy nor quick intelligence.”) Like nativists in earlier decades, the focus was on the threat of Catholics (and now Jews) to Protestant America and on the social problems accompanying the newcomers. Again, ethnic differences were linked to racial inferiority.

While nativism declined in the Progressive Era during the first decade and a half of the twentieth century, World War I and the postwar Red Scare briefly revived it. German-Americans were attacked during the war. In 1919, the Palmer raids, organized by the attorney general and executed by future FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, temporarily made the federal government the instrument of protecting America from communist aliens and other advocates of “un-American” ideas. Jewish radicals were seen as a particular threat, with Palmer describing the “Red” leadership as marked by a “small clique of autocrats from the lower East Side of New York.”


In the 1920s, a new organization with an old name, the Ku Klux Klan, recruited over two and a half million members to an anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-alien, antiblack movement. It offered a sense of community to many who felt left out or left behind during the economic boom of the “Roaring Twenties,” with its skyscraper cities housing what Klan leaders called “the immigrant masses.” Jews were again singled out by some nativist publications, with Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent characterizing them as “dark, squat figures, a strange Slovanic-Oriental admixture” influencing labor unions in service of their radical ideologies.

Weakened by scandals involving its leaders, the Klan did not survive the decade. But it did have a political impact, attacking the presidential candidacy of the Irish Catholic governor of New York, Al Smith, and strongly supporting passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which restricted immigration and established national quotas directed against peoples from southern and eastern Europe.


In subsequent years, nativism faded from the American scene. In the 1930s, the New Deal championed diversity and shaped economic policies that made it hard to project anger about depression-bred privation on ethnic or religious outsiders. In the 1940s, GIs of all ethnic groups were fighting in World War II and assailing the traditional objects of nativist hostility as “un-American.”

The 1950s brought a postwar prosperity that removed some of the economic anxieties that helped stimulate some earlier nativist outbreaks. Efforts to block access to those victimized by previous anti-alien movements became unacceptable in academia, commerce, and the professions. Indeed, the climate of repression pervading the early cold war era targeted not religious or ethnic groups but alleged political radicals. In fact, an Irish American Catholic senator, Joseph R. McCarthy Jr., became the chief communist hunter of the 1950s, and his targets were often members of the native-born elite.

In the last few decades, despite concerns on the southern border of the United States, old-style nativism has not returned in America. It is true that fears of a “flood” of undocumented Latino peoples—“feet people”—have stimulated efforts to curb “illegal aliens.” Fragmentary extremist cells—the Aryan Nations, tiny neo-Klan chapters, skinhead gangs—have assailed these newcomers as un-American and a danger to the nation. Nativist rhetoric has been used by some politicians calling for border enforcement and expulsions. But on balance, the public debate over limiting immigration has not been conducted “in the spirit of the Know Nothings,” as one congressman alleged in the 1980s. Instead, it has been economic and security arguments, not ethnic, religious, or racial issues, that have been used by those favoring new restrictions.

Scholarly analyses in the early years of the twenty-first century have focused on “the invention of the white race,” the “wages of whiteness,” and “how Irish Catholics and Jews became white folks” in explaining what has become of traditional nativism. While offering stimulating new perspectives on the nature and fate of nativism, these “whiteness studies” may lead some readers to underestimate the powerful tradition of anti-alien hostility that marked the history of America until the middle of the twentieth century. For nativists did fear and despise Catholic immigrants and other ethnic outsiders. They viewed them as inferiors, a population that could never be part of the American democratic community. And like its growth, development, and power across the years, the reasons for the decline of nativism are part of a complicated story.

SEE ALSO Citizenship and “the Border”; Ethnocentrism; Irish Americans and Whiteness; Ku Klux Klan.


Bennett, David H. 1995. The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History, 2nd ed. New York: Vintage Books.

Billington, Ray Allen. 1964. The Protestant Crusade, 1800–1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.

Brodkin, Karen. 1998. How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Higham, John. 1963. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925, 2nd ed. New York: Atheneum.

Ignatiev, Noel. 1995. How the Irish Became White. New York: Routledge.

Perea, Juan F., ed. 1997. Immigrants Out! The New Nativism and the Anti-Immigrant Impulse in the United States. New York: New York University Press.

Roediger, David R. 1991. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. New York: Verso.

David H. Bennett


views updated May 08 2018


NATIVISM, the fear and loathing of and hostility toward immigrants or other perceived "aliens," has run through American history ever since the European settlement of this continent. Though technically it refers to a person's place of birth, nativism is not simply xenophobia; it may be (and has been) directed toward nativeborn Americans whom nativists view as "un-American." The targets and the rhetoric of nativism shift over time, making difficult a single detailed description of it. However, all the disparate forms of nativism include a hostility toward those perceived as "outsiders," whether ethnic, religious, or political, and an emphasis on the purported moral, economic, and/or political dangers those people pose to America.

One prevalent strain of nativism has taken the form of antagonism toward the Roman Catholic Church and its members. Until well into the twentieth century, many Americans believed that this church endangered both the traditional Protestantism and the democratic institutions of the United States. Brought to America by the first Protestant English colonists, anti-Catholic sentiment was fostered in the new country by New England Puritans who taught their children that Catholics were corrupt and by the eighteenth-century wars with Catholic France and Spain. Colonial laws and colonial writing both reflected this intolerance.

After a brief post-Revolution respite, anti-Catholicism reappeared in the late 1820s as a response to Catholic immigration. The movement was nourished by English propaganda that Catholics could not be loyal American citizens because they were controlled by the Pope. By 1834 intolerance was such that the mob destruction of an Ursuline convent at Charlestown, Massachusetts, was condoned rather than condemned by most Americans. This sign of popular favor encouraged nativists to launch two new anti-Catholic papers, release a flood of anti-Catholic books and pamphlets, and form the Protestant Reformation Society in 1836. In the 1840s, when Catholics protested against reading the King James version of the Scriptures in the New York public schools, propagandists misrepresented their protests as opposition to all reading of the Bible. The resulting Protestant panic gave nativists sufficient strength to organize the American Republican Party with an anti-Catholic, antiforeign platform. In 1845, however, a series of bloody riots over Catholicism in Philadelphia turned popular sentiment against the party's anti-Catholic crusade. Reforming into the American Protestant Society, nativists influenced hundreds of clergymen to deliver anti-Catholic sermons. In 1849 it merged with two lesser anti-Catholic organizations to form the American and Foreign Christian Union, which pledged to win both the United States and Europe to Protestantism. These organized efforts, combined with heavy immigration from famine-stricken Ireland and Germany, paved the way for the Know-Nothing, or American, Party, which enjoyed remarkable success in 1854 and 1855, carrying a number of states and threatening to sweep the nation in the presidential election of 1856 before splitting over the slavery issue. Before the party's demise, former President Millard Fillmore ran for president again in 1856 on the Know-Nothing ticket.

The 1890s brought another wave of nativism, this one against the millions of Jews, Italian Catholics, Russians, and other southern and eastern European people who had immigrated to the United States after the Civil War. Nativist organizations flourished; the largest of them, the American Protection Association, had 500,000 members. After World War I the United States developed an intense nationalism that bred antagonism toward immigrants, Jews, communists, and Catholics—toward all groups that were not conservative Protestant Americans. In 1924 Congress passed sweeping immigration restrictions particularly targeting southern and eastern Europeans, and outright banning Asians. During the early 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan enjoyed a resurgence before its excesses and political corruption brought it down. In the presidential campaign of 1928, Alfred E. Smith, the Democratic candidate, encountered bitter anti-Catholic propaganda that contributed to his defeat. German immigrants and German-Americans also suffered harassment during this period. Before World War I German-language publications flourished, and numerous public schools offered instruction in German. However, anti-German sentiment led the government to ban the language from schools.

Immigrants from many areas of Asia, and their descendants have suffered grievously under nativist laws and attitudes since they first began coming to America. During the nineteenth century Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino immigrants, brought to the West Coast to drive down labor costs, encountered harsh discrimination; Anglo-Americans labeled them the "yellow peril," and labor unions excluded them. In 1870 U.S. law made Asian immigrants ineligible for citizenship, and Congress banned Chinese immigration outright from 1882 to 1943. In 1906, the San Francisco school board segregated Asian children, and Japanese Americans' land ownership was restricted in California. Then, in World War II, in one of the most notorious expressions of nativism and racism in U.S. history, the United States forced more than 110,000 Japanese Americans into camps solely on the basis of their nationality background, keeping some there from 1942 until 1946.

In the late 1930s through the 1940s, nativist sentiment turned to political targets in a frenzy of anticommunism. Though purportedly carried out as a protection from the Soviet threat, in practice anticommunists targeted leftist, feminist, and racial justice movements, harnessing the nativist term "anti-American" to discredit homegrown political dissent. The name of the congressional committee investigating supposed disloyalty, the "House Committee on un-American Activities" (HUAC), aptly expressed the conflation of "American" identity with adherence to rigid political orthodoxy. Founded in 1938, the committee was active into the late 1940s. Well into the 1980s U.S. critics of social injustice found themselves dismissed with jibes of "Go back to Russia!"

Though Catholics celebrated the election of a Roman Catholic, John F. Kennedy, to the presidency in 1960, nativism burst out in numerous other forms throughout the rest of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first. In the 1990s, "English-only" campaigns thrived, directed particularly toward the increasing numbers of Spanish-speakers in the United States. In 1994, California voters passed Proposition 187, which required doctors and teachers to deny assistance to undocumented immigrants and report them to the government; other states followed suit. A 1996 federal law made it easier to deport immigrants and allowed for their immediate deportation, without a hearing or judicial review.

After Islamic terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001, killing thousands, many terrified Americans found refuge in nativist expressions, advertising "American-owned" businesses and aiming prejudice and violence at fellow Americans who did not fit their idea of what an "American" was—especially with respect to religious, ethnic, and racial identity. The federal government arrested huge numbers of Islamic and Middle-Eastern immigrants and in some cases held them for months without evidence or charges. In the months after 11 September, many Americans found themselves treated as "strangers in a strange land."


Bennett, David Harry. The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History. 2d ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Higham, John. Strangers in the Land. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002.

Hing, Bill Ong. To Be an American: Cultural Pluralism and the Rhetoric of Assimilation. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

Irving, Katrina. Immigrant Mothers: Narratives of Race and Maternity, 1890–1925. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Knobel, Dale T. America for the Americans: The Nativist Movement in the United States. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.

Pozzetta, George E., ed. Nativism, Discrimination, and Images of Immigrants. New York: Garland, 1991.

Ross, William G. Forging New Freedoms: Nativism, Education, and the Constitution, 1917–1927. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

Ray AllenBillington/d. b.

See alsoAlien and Sedition Laws ; Alien Landholding ; Aliens, Rights of ; America First Committee ; American Protective Association ; Anti-Catholicism ; Anti-Semitism ; Espionage Act ; Eugenics ; Frank, Leo, Lynching of ; German Americans ; Immigration Restriction ; Internment, Wartime ; Know-Nothing Party ; McCarthyism ; Palmer Raids ; Pledge of Allegiance ; Relocation, Italian-American ; Sacco-Vanzetti Case ; Ursuline Convent, Burning of .


views updated Jun 27 2018



Definition. The term nativism describes a generalized hostility to foreigners, immigrants, and outsiders that has characterized several periods in American history. While it is not inherently religious in nature, nativist sentiment has often been couched in religious terms and has been associated historically with Protestants of Anglo-Saxon ancestry. The targets of nativism are usually seen as subversive elements that threaten the security of the American nation, its institutions, and its ideals.

Anti-Catholicism. During the nineteenth century nativist attacks were most commonly directed against Catholics. Anti-Catholic sentiment came to America with the first British settlers some of whom had arrived intent upon purifying their own religion from any remaining popish elements. Over the years the intensity of anti-Catholicism rose and fell in relation to both local and international events. Hostility declined somewhat during the revolutionary period due to the support of American Catholics for the revolution as well as the aid of Catholic France. Indeed, for a time Britain itself became the focus of much of the rhetoric about luxury and corruption formerly reserved for the Catholic Church. During the early national period, however, as Britain became an ally and revolutionary France an object of some suspicion, feelings toward Catholics shifted again. After the 1820s, when Catholic immigrants began to arrive en masse, antiCatholicism took on a newly virulent form, manifested in political opposition, propaganda in dozens of Protestant newspapers and periodicals, and individual and mob violence.


On 11 August 1834 a Protestant mob attacked the Irish quarter in Charlestown, Massachusetts, and burned down the Ursuline Convent. In America as elsewhere many Protestants harbored deep suspicions about what went on behind the walls of convents, or priests prisons. The celibacy practiced by priests and nuns seemed unnatural and certain to provoke immoral acts. One Protestant rioter said of the convent he helped to destroy: the institution was a bad one; . . . the bishops and priests pretended to live without wives, but the nuns were kept to supply the deficiency in that particular. This sentiment found popular expression in a new genre of anticonvent literature that included Rebecca Reeds Six Months in a Convent, an exposé of convent life ostensibly written by a young girl who had escaped after three years of captivity and abuse. Reeds book sold ten thousand copies in Boston in its first week of publication, but even more popular was Maria Monks 1836 Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery, which offered lurid tales of sexual abuse and infanticide and sold three hundred thousand copies by 1860, becoming the best-selling American book of its time. Although Awful Disclosures was eventually revealed as a fraud after Monks mother testified that her daughter had been a prostitute and the inmate of an insane asylum rather than a convent, a Nunnery Committee was formed to investigate Mas sachusetts convents. The committee turned up no evidence to support the claims of Reeds or Monks books, but this hardly lessened the impact of their anti-Catholic message.

Source: Jenny Franchot, Roads to Rome. The Antebellum Protestant Encounter with Catholicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

National Anxieties. Hatred of Catholics became an outlet for many of the common anxieties of the day. Concern about social conditions in the growing urban areas (which many feared were havens for drunkenness and immorality) were magnified by the influx of poor Irish immigrants into the cities. Among Protestant workingmen already in the cities, Catholics represented unwelcome competition for jobs. A more abstract but equally pervasive source of anti-Catholic sentiment lay in uncertainty about the stability of the American republic. While such anxieties were rooted in the newness of the American political system and the changes wrought by rapid economic development and westward expansion, they were often expressed in the belief that Catholics were proponents of hierarchy and tyranny who would reject republican ideals and undermine the political system. Rather than allowing their congregants to think and act for themselves, they argued, Catholic priests sought to tyrannize people and bring them under control, covering their hypocrisy with the cloak of religion, and with

more than the serpents guile, worming themselves into the confidence and affections of their unsuspecting victims. Clergyman Lyman Beechers influential essay A Pleafor the West, which warned of the dangers to republican freedom and true Christianity that might result from the further spread of Catholicism in the new Western territories, was typical of a new genre of anti-Catholic literature. Some writers went so far as to suggest there was a papal plot to conquer the United States.

Mormons and Masons. Similar anxieties about the preservation of the republic lay behind the nativist sentiment directed at groups other than Catholics. Mormons attracted widespread public opposition because their beliefs not only differed from common notions of religious orthodoxy but also seemed antidemocratic. Most non-Mormons knew little about Mormon practices, many of which were kept secret, but they suspected the worst. Mormon leaders seemed to have an almost dictatorial control over their followers, who would probably vote and act according to their wishes. Those wishes, many feared, might directly contradict the interests of the United States. Similarly, the 1820s and 1830s saw a surge in opposition to the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, a secret fraternal order with members and lodges across the nation. The Masons were suspected of having heretical beliefs, harboring infidels, practicing magic, and plotting to destroy the nation. Anti-Masonic sentiment reached its peak after 1827, when William Morgan of Batavia, New York, disappeared under mysterious circumstances after threatening to expose Masonic secrets. The anti-Masonic political platform that emerged in response to this incident received widespread support on the local level, although it had little impact on national politics.

The Know-Nothing Party. The most significant political expression of nativist sentiment came in the form of the American Party, also known as the KnowNothings. Founded in New York in 1849 as the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, the Know-Nothings were a secretive group dedicated to preserving the native American stock of Anglo-Saxon blood by keeping out immigrants. They received their informal name from their tendency to answer I dont know in response to outsiders questions about their beliefs and goals. Membership in the group was limited to American-born Protestant men without Catholic wives or parents, all of whom swore to oppose the election of foreigners and Roman Catholics to public office. During the 1850s seventy-five Know-Nothing candidates were elected to the United States Congress. Their cause, and nativist sentiment in general, waned in the late 1850s as the threat of sectional conflict came to overshadow other issues. After the Civil War, however, immigration and industrialization progressed, and nativism emerged again with full force.


David B. Davis, Some Themes of Counter-Subversion: An Analysis of Anti-Masonic, Anti-Catholic, and Anti-Mormon Literature, Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 47 (1960): 205224;

Jenny Franchot, Roads to Rome: The Antebellum Protestant Encounter with Catholicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).


views updated Jun 08 2018



Nativism is a recurring social and political movement characterized principally by hostility to supposed foreigners. While the attitudes and dynamics that distinguish nativism have developed and continue to develop in many countries, the term itself has been elaborated primarily by sociologists and historians in studies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American politics and social relations. Nativism, as a form of ethnic discrimination, is closely related to racism but may be distinguished by its emphasis on language and the privileges of citizenship as the bases of its politicized rhetoric.

In the United States nativism led to the formation of influential political parties beginning in the 1830s and declining in the years before the Civil War, when slavery became virtually the exclusive issue of political contention. The most important of these parties was the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s. The Know-Nothings began as the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, a secret fraternal organization whose members allegedly claimed to know-nothing whenever queried about the group. The efforts of the members were directed toward stopping the immigration of Catholics who were arriving principally from Germany and Ireland. Officially registered as the American Party, the Know-Nothings asserted in their party platform of 1856 that Americans must rule America (emphasis in original); that is, naturalized citizenswhose national allegiance and devotion to the principal of the separation of church and state were considered suspectwere not considered eligible to hold government office.

As John Higham described in his seminal study of American nativism, Strangers in the Land (1955), during the periods of economic crises in the late nineteenth century nativists became increasingly concerned with the political rather than the religious beliefs of recent immigrants. It was deemed that American institutions were imminently threatened by radical socialist ideas and movements that had periodically toppled European regimes. Elements of economic nativism also characterized nationalist labor unions, where leaders such as Samuel Gompers argued that open immigration policies lowered wages and degraded the condition of the native-born American worker.

Nativism surged again in the early decades of the twentieth century, when the retrospectively pseudoscience of eugenics manifested widespread fears of racial degeneration. This most explicitly racialized nativism embraced simplified notions drawn from evolutionary science to elaborate a paranoid vision of imminent national and even human catastrophe. These nativistswell represented by Madison Grant, author of The Passing of a Great Race (1933)argued that Anglo-Saxons were the pinnacle of human evolution. Open immigration, particularly of what were described as the degraded peoples of southern and eastern Europe, threatened Anglo-Saxon racial purity and thus the very future of the American nation. It was in fact such racial nativism that led to the passage of National Origins Act of 1924; the act severely limited immigration of people from southern and eastern European countries.

Nativism is again a force in American politics and society. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it became increasingly difficult for Arabs to immigrate to the United States, and anti-Arab sentiments and policies were employed with virtual impunity for political gain. However, ethnic Arabs are a small minority population in the United States; nativists in the early twenty-first century contended over the matter of the status of legal and illegal Hispanic immigrants.

In 1994 the passage of Proposition 187 in California marked a watershed moment in American nativism. No longer was it possible to consider nativism a movement of the past; furthermore Proposition 187 clearly demonstrated that the principal issues around which nativists rallied had once again shifted, though arguably to a refined form of economic nativism focused on social services. Proposition 187 called for the denial of public education, health care, and other social services to illegal immigrants, most of whom, in California, came from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. Nativists, such as the members of Americans for Immigration Reform, consider social services for illegal immigrants an unreasonable cost burden for taxpayers. Though Proposition 187 was eventually overruled in federal courts, efforts to pass restrictive legislation persisted, including President George W. Bushs 2006 immigration reform bill.

Exclusivist movements that share the dynamics of nativism have grown rather than ebbed throughout the world alongside increasing globalization, which many scholars once thought would put an end to such movements and conflicts. Versions of nativists attitudes have achieved (sometimes violent) social and political expression in virtually every European nation since the late twentieth century, and what might fairly be called nativist policies are taken for granted in many Asian and African countries. In the United States nativism endures as a remarkable contradiction to the powerful myths of American egalitarianism and opportunity, including the notions that the United States embraces and prospers from the diversity of its peoples.

SEE ALSO Citizenship; Identity; Immigration; Nationalism and Nationality; Natives; Naturalization; Other, The; Race Relations; Racism; September 11, 2001; Social Exclusion; Xenophobia


Anbinder, Tyler G. 1994. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bennett, David H. 1995. The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movement to the New Right in American History. New York: Vintage.

Higham, John. [1955] 1974. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 18601925. New York: Atheneum.

Stephen Germic


views updated Jun 27 2018


During the years leading up to and following the American Civil War (1861–65), anti-immigrant sentiment, or nativism, was an ingrained part of American culture. By the early 1850s, nativists had formed their own political party. It was formally named the American Party but was more commonly known as the Know-Nothing Party . The party got its name from the policy that, when asked about their nativist organizations, members were supposed to reply that they knew nothing. A former U.S. president, Millard Fillmore (1800–1874; served 1850–53), even ran as the party's presidential nominee in 1856; he finished a distant third behind the Democratic and Republican candidates. By 1860, the Know-Nothings had disbanded.

The main targets of nativism were the Irish and the Germans. (See Irish Immigration and German Immigration .) These groups, both Catholic in religious belief, were considered the most dangerous threat to the American way of life not only in terms of religious and moral values but also in economic terms. Millions of immigrants were doing the work many citizens believed should be done by Americans. Nativists considered immigrants a drain on the economy.

Although the Catholics were the most discriminated against in terms of religion, no ethnic group was spared. Italians were suspected of being involved in the Mafia (organized crime). The Chinese who settled in California were resented because they established their own welfare associations to take care of their poor and impose order in Chinatowns, areas of various cities where Chinese immigrants lived and worked. (See Asian Immigration .) But the Jews were the victims of the most intense discrimination. They were stereotyped as being greedy and dishonest in their business dealings. Anti-Semitism (Jewish discrimination) informed laws, and laws prohibited Jews from voting until the middle of the nineteenth century. Anti-Semitism was the driving force behind General Order No. 11, published in 1862 at the height of the Civil War, which stated that all Jews were to be thrown out of the military. The order was revoked by U.S. president Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) after just eighteen days, but its passage reflected the rampant anti-Semitic attitude of the United States at the time. The Jews continued to be blamed for many of society's ills and remained outcast well into the next century.

Nativism eventually led to the development of immigration restriction laws that limited or completely prevented certain immigrants from coming to the United States. (See Jewish Immigration .)


views updated May 17 2018

nativism In sociological contexts, this term is used most commonly to refer to the negative, ethnocentric responses of native-born populations towards immigrants. The classic study of such responses is John Higham , Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism 1860–1925 (1955)

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