• J.J. Wheeling

Mid -Nineteenth Century American Nativism had nothing to do with Native Americans

Our current headlines are full of the immigration debate. As I did my research, I learned that this topic isn’t new. Nor are political parties who are anti-immigration. But I had no understanding of how the mid-19th century had almost exactly the same arguments and strategies toward immigration as we do today. Here’s what I learned.

In the 1830’s, Europe was in turmoil, both economically and politically. Many different ethnic groups emigrated to the United States: predominately Germans, who went to the Midwest, and Irish, who made communities in many of the larger Eastern cities.


They received a cold welcome. Those who, only two or three generations back, had been immigrants themselves now viewed themselves as “natives” (not to be confused at all with Native American cultures existing before any Europeans arrived). These European-American natives viewed the new arrivals with resentment and hostility, especially when it came to competition for jobs and particularly after the Panic of 1837. By 1849, these natives had had enough.

A group of native-born New York City Protestants formed the organization called the “Order of the Star-Spangled Banner”. It wasn’t long before secret nativist societies were thriving in every major city, including Boston. They all published anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic literature and elected their political candidates into public office. They got the nickname, “Know-Nothings”, when outsiders would question them about their societies to which they would refuse to answer but to say, “I know nothing”.


In 1849 there were no laws about entering the United States – if you could get to our shores, you were welcome. Based on the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, if you behaved yourself, you could become a citizen after 14 years unless the US was at war with your country and then you might be escorted out. But by 1802 the naturalization portions of the Act were repealed by Congress and the other portions were allowed to expire. Not until 1864 did the US have an immigration policy. It was the Immigration Act of 1864, which established a commissioner who answered to the Secretary of State and enforced labor contracts in US courts made by immigrants while they were outside the US. That is all we had until 1882 and the first real attempt at controlling immigration.


I had one of those “What the…” moments when I was reading about the creation of the “Order of the Star-Spangled Banner” and the passionate feelings about being native-born as opposed to being immigrant. And yet… and yet, aren’t we doing it again?



Sources: Teaching Tolerance – A project of the Southern Poverty Law Center

Migration Policy Institute (MPI) – Major US Immigration Laws 1790-Present

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