What’s Behind Trump’s Wall? Or, What We Can Learn from the Know-Nothings

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tags: election 2016, immigration, Trump



Johann Neem is professor of history at Western Washington University and a visiting faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He is author of Creating a Nation of Joiners (2008).

... It is easy to dismiss Trump’s nativism since it is, after all, racist. But that would be incorrect. Many commentators have connected Trump’s anti-immigrant statements to the nativist anti-Catholicism of the Know-Nothing party in the 1850s. The Know-Nothings—so called because, when asked about their party, they claimed to know nothing—rose to power by exploiting fear of Irish Catholic immigrants. And they were successful. In addition to winning many local offices, in 1854 they gained the state house and almost every seat in the Massachusetts legislature, while also showing strong in Pennsylvania and New York. The following year, they gained control of most of New England. They displaced the Whig party as the Democrats’ primary opposition in other parts of the nation, and elected seventy-five representatives to Congress. Some even thought that the Know-Nothings would elect the next president.

What is most striking about the Know-Nothing movement was that it was ultimately about much more than anti-Catholicism. Instead, as historian Tyler Anbinder of George Washington University makes clear in his book Nativism and Slavery (1992), many supporters of the Know-Nothing party were voting out of frustration and disgust at the political system. The Know-Nothings promised to do something. They appealed in particular to antislavery voters who felt that neither the Whigs nor the Democratics were willing to address what they considered America’s most fundamental problem.

There can be no doubt that Know-Nothings made good on their anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant promises. In Massachusetts, Know-Nothing legislators worried about how to bring Americans together. On the one hand, they passed laws requiring the reading of the Protestant Bible in public schools, an anti-Catholic measure, and on the other hand, they mandated racial integration of those same schools. Massachusetts and Connecticut disbanded Irish militia companies, while Maine mandated that no more than one third of a militia company’s members could be immigrants. In Massachusetts, Know-Nothings condemned the public cost of supporting immigrant paupers, and deported almost three hundred people back to Europe. They barred the teaching of foreign languages in Massachusetts schools. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Maine all prohibited state courts from naturalizing aliens. They sought to limit immigrant voting through literacy tests in Connecticut and Massachusetts and proposed waiting periods before immigrants could vote. In almost every state, they strengthened or passed laws to limit what Massachusetts governor Henry Gardner called “the evils of intemperance.” In places, violence broke out between Know-Nothings and their opponents.

Know-Nothings no doubt focused on immigrants as a way to find someone to blame for America’s problems, but they appealed to many voters because they also spoke to people’s problems. In economic policy, Know-Nothing legislators passed laws to protect working people from creditors and, in Massachusetts, abolished imprisonment for debt and passed child labor legislation. In Connecticut, they passed a law stating that ten hours was the de facto workday. Know-Nothings also pushed for greater regulation of banks, railroads, and other corporations. Whether successful or not, Know-Nothings brought working people’s concerns to the legislative floor. They also sought to reform government to make it more accountable to voters by making more offices elective, increasing punishment for corruption, and promising to curb patronage. ...




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