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Editors: Michael L. Coulter , Stephen M. Krason , Richard S. Myers , and Joseph A. Varacalli
Date: 2007
Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy
Publisher: Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 2
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Nativism is a distrust, fear, or hatred of immigrants. John Higham defines it as “intense opposition to Page 742  |  Top of Articlean internal minority on the grounds of its foreign connections.” Its roots are in ethnocentric ideas of national and religious rivalries, xenophobia, fear of changes to the larger culture, and distrust of new cultural forms. Historically, nativism reached its highest point in the mid-nineteenth century when the influx of Irish immigrants fleeing the famine arrived in the eastern cities of America. The majority of the immigrants were poverty stricken, ill, and without industrial skills. The huge number of immigrants caused many Americans, who were mainly of British Protestant ancestry, to feel that America had lost its ability to control its national destiny.

By 1860 25 percent of the population of New York City had been born in Ireland. The immigrants and their children became the dominant ethnic group in many American cities. The continuation of an Anglo-American bias against Catholicism exacerbated the anti-Irish and anti-Catholic feelings. There were also fears that European immigrants from Catholic countries were accustomed to living under despots and monarchies and would undermine American democracy. The New York Times in an editorial reflecting an Irish and Catholic bias entitled “How Long Will Protestants Endure?” on February 2, 1871, complained of Protestants moving out of New York and “in consequence the whole State is fast centering itself in the ranks of the lowest and most ignorant class of the whole community—the Irish Catholic laborers and tenement-house population of New York and vicinity. Each year gives this class a greater numerical value. They work together as a compact battalion under able and audacious leaders. They control in the City administration enormous sums of money. Where they are deficient in votes, they can create them.”

Nativism developed into a political movement in the 1840s and 1850s. Several small political parties, collectively known as “Know Nothings,” organized to fight the perceived threat of immigration. Later the Whig Party adopted an anti-immigrant policy. The American Protestant Association (APA) was formed in 1844. Originally anti-immigrant, Irish Protestant immigrants flocked to the organization and continued their traditional attacks on Catholicism. The APA borrowed many of its rituals and symbols from the Irish Protestant Loyal Orange Order. The APA allied with other anti-Catholic groups and it enabled Protestant immigrants to distance themselves from the more poverty-stricken and despised Catholic immigrants. Violence between the two groups intensified. In New York the celebration of the Twelfth of July in 1870 led to eight deaths in rioting and on July 12, 1871, Irish Catholics attacked an Orange parade on Eighth Avenue and W. 23rd Street in New York City. National Guard units accompanying the Orange marchers fired into the Catholic crowd protesting the march. Sixty-five people were killed in the riot.

Anti-Irish and anti-Catholic nativism began to lose its edge in the 1870s. The Civil War proved that regiments comprised of Irish and German Catholics were loyal Americans. Their heroic actions on the battlefield earned them a degree of respect from their critics. Irish success in politics also made them the dominant ethnic group in municipal government. In 1871 “Honest” John Kelly was elected as head of Tammany Hall in New York. This was the beginning of Irish control over the Democratic Party in New York that lasted until the end of World War II. Similar political success occurred in other American cities. Economic success, the growth of the Catholic Church, and educational advancement integrated the Catholic immigrant into American life and the issue of anti-Catholic nativism faded.

With the Irish and German Catholics joining the mainstream, other groups became targets of nativism. Massive immigration of Chinese laborers to the West Coast resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Later immigration laws against other Asian groups were also passed. In 1911 the U.S. Immigration Commission report called for restriction of immigration of Italians, Jews, and Poles. This led to the Comprehensive Immigration Act of 1924, which set up quotas for immigrants. Immigration was based on the census of 1890, a year with a low percentage of southern and eastern Europeans in the population.

Immigration both legal and illegal continues to cause controversy. Usually the debate is not expressed in the nativism terms of the past, but admission of large numbers of Hispanic and Asian people to America still frightens some who fear that the culture of the nation will change.—Hugh E. O’Rourke


Daniels, R. Guarding the Golden Door. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004; Higham, J. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism 1860-1925. New York: Atheneum, 1971; Higham, J. “The Social Realities of Immigrant Status.” In American Nativism 1830–1860, edited by I. M. Leonard and R. D. Parmet. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1971; See also IMMIGRATION IN THE UNITED STATES (HISTORICAL OVERVIEW) ; IMMIGRATION POLICY IN THE UNITED STATES

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3281000558