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inventing america's first immigration crisis

17 january 2021

A divided America: rural vs. urban; evangelical Protestants against all other creeds; those who would restrict the franchise and feared voter fraud against those who would expand it; secure vs. poor; puritan vs. permissive; police vs. the populace; and the descendants of immigrants hostile to more recent immigrants. Yes, that was the United States of the 1840s and '50s.

Luke Ritter's Inventing America's First Immigration Crisis couldn't be more topical. Just in time for the Capitol Insurrection of 2021, Ritter's book unearths events like the Cincinnati Election Day Riot and Chicago Lager Riot of 1855, both triggered by the fear that illegal undocumented voters would seize power from the rightful constituents of the American republic. The MAGA hordes of the Trump years find their parallel in the Know-Nothings, the secretive, conspiracy-fueled brotherhood that channeled wide popular support into electoral success as the American Party, running on a platform that opposed Catholics, immigrants, alcohol, fun on Sundays … and slavery. Perhaps needless to say, though, Know-Nothings were not racially enlightened. They hated slavery because it meant that unpaid black labor stood in the way of free white homesteaders. Most Know-Nothings would have preferred that African-Americans leave the country along with the system that enslaved them.

Ritter's subject is only partly electoral politics in the run-up to the Civil War, however. He begins earlier, and further west than most studies of antebellum nativism. Ritter is intriguingly placed as a graduate of both Saint Louis and Lindenwood Universities, which in their early-19th-century origins represented the Catholic establishment in the metropolis of ex-French greater Louisiana, and the increasing evangelical-Protestant defiance of that Catholic tradition. As Protestant Anglo-Americans moved westward, they encountered both these Catholic precursors and a new wave of Catholic immigrants, mostly Irish and German, who were settling in the major cities of the American interior: Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, and Chicago.

Ritter explicitly draws the parallel: 19th-century evangelicals were as paranoid about Jesuits as their 21st-century heirs would be about Sharia law. Early nativists feared Catholics would be more loyal to the Pope than to their own nation, and would institute a kind of theocracy run from Rome or possibly Vienna – Samuel F.B. Morse, the painter who invented the electric telegraph, wrote a book warning about the dangers of Austrian Catholic domination.

Such rhetoric seems merely weird, however effective it was, and based on fervid imaginations. All politics is local, and the more immediate practical causes of Protestant reaction lay in the schools. In an era when people held more fluid notions of church-state boundaries in education, conflict centered on which Bibles to study in public schools. Protestants were adamantly for the King James Version, which Catholics saw as heretical, demanding the Douay-Rheims for their kids; neither side was inclined to compromise. It all seems rather Swiftian at this distance, a battle of Big-Endians and Little-Endians, but maybe some of our own debates will seem just as trivial a couple of centuries from now.

Know-Nothing support snowballed in the Western cities as they grew more diverse. But Ritter charts some strange contradictions that led to the growth of western Know-Nothingism at the cost of its internal consistency. Back east, the movement was tightly-focused on denying opportunities to Irish Catholics. In the west, an oddly "big tent" Know-Nothing movement eventually welcomed groups that agreed with at least some of its tenets and showed signs of converting to the others. Know-Nothings were Sabbatarians, and German Protestants liked a Sunday beer; but they also didn't like German Catholics, and that brought some on board. Catholics, both Irish and German, who pledged to assimilate to American democracy and abjure the influence of Rome were more welcome out west than in New England or New York. Temperance and free-soil adherents joined the movement as its focus widened, and eventually the Know-Nothings were absorbed into the Republican Party and pretty soon everybody else had bigger things to worry about than what Bible their kids were assigned in school.

Only one of Ritter's chapters is weak: there he uses copious statistical data to show the poverty and high crime rates in immigrant communities, and this becomes something of a slog. The data explain some nativist fears, but Ritter is also aware that crimes like drunkenness and disturbing the peace might get recorded more readily in immigrant precincts – criminalizing Irish and German lifestyles led to the impression that Irish and German people were criminals, which led to further enforcement and criminalization – another practice with echoes in the post-segregation America of the 1980s through 2020s. Complicating things in the 1840s and '50s was that many law-enforcers were drawn from recent immigrant communities: the developing stereotype of the Irish cop had roots in reality. Internal stresses in those communities fed into external prejudices.

Overall, Inventing America's First Immigration Crisis is a fascinating, readable, fact-packed exploration of motifs in American culture that show no signs of going away. It may not explain why the animosities of the 2020s persist, but Ritter definitely shows that they are no new thing.

Ritter, Luke. Inventing America's First Immigration Crisis: Political nativism in the antebellum west. New York: Fordham University Press, 2021.