Nativism and the Know-Nothings

This essay was published in Us and Them: A History of Intolerance in America in 2006.
Learning for Justice Staff
Grade Level

ALL AMERICANS—EVEN THOSE KNOWN TODAY AS NATIVE Americans—are either descended from immigrants or are immigrants themselves. The first wave of immigration occurred more than 15,000 years ago, when people began entering the uninhabited continent on foot from northeastern Asia. Several thousand years later came explorers and missionaries and colonists from Europe. The slave trade of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries brought a massive forced “immigration” of Africans.

            The immigrants who organized the 13 American colonies were mostly English. For the first several decades after independence, the great majority of U.S. citizens shared an Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage.

            Beginning in the 1830s, economic and political turmoil in Europe sent people of many different ethnic groups to the United States. Germans, for example, settled across the Midwest, while Irish immigrants formed large communities in the Eastern cities. In most places, the new arrivals received a cold welcome: Native-born residents whose families had lived here for several generations suddenly felt overrun by strangers. Competition for jobs only heightened resentment toward immigrants.

            A growing sense of “us” and “them” gave rise to a movement called nativism. In 1849, a group of native-born Protestants in New York City formed the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner. Within a few years, secret nativist societies had been established in every major city. These groups published anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic literature and supported local political candidates who shared their views. From their policy of refusing to answer outsiders’ questions about their organizations, members acquired the name Know-Nothings.

            As nativist ideas became more popular in the 1850s, the movement emerged from secrecy and entered the national political arena. In 1855, 43 members of Congress belonged to the Know-Nothing Party. But this prominence was short-lived. By the very next year, the issue of slavery—which divided the nation—had split the Know-Nothings and brought an end to organized nativism on a national scale.

            Anti-immigration and anti-Catholic bigotry has periodically resurfaced. In the 1870s, recent European immigrants joined nativists in opposing Chinese immigration. Around the turn of the century, controversy arose over the large-scale immigration of Jews, Italians, Poles and other ethnic groups.

            Today, a similar influx of Latino immigrants has revived discussion about closing America’s borders. Widespread frenzy over undocumented immigration has inspired public policies steeped in an “us vs. them” mentality. Some cities in Florida and the southern border states have enacted ordinances mandating the use of “English language only” in public education. In 2004, Arizona voters passed a public referendum making it a crime to provide certain social services to undocumented immigrants. As a result, native-born Latinos and legal immigrants have been the victims of ethnic and racial slurs and physical violence.

            During his 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy faced questions about his loyalties because he was Catholic. In a speech to a group of Texas ministers, Kennedy explained how dividing the country into “us” and “them” endangers everyone:

            “For a while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed. In other years it has been and may some day be again a Jew or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. … Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you.”

Copyright © Teaching Tolerance.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    Reread the sentence that begins, “The immigrants who organized the 13 American colonies.” What word could you use to replace “heritage”?
    Background, blood, bloodline
  2. Question
    In your own words, what is nativism?
    Nativism is the practice of favoring native-born people, initiatives, ideas, etc. over more recent settlers.
  3. Question
    According to the essay, how popular has nativism been since its inception in 1849? What can you infer that accounts for that, based on the essay?
    Its popularity seems to follow a cycle of surging for a certain period of time, then waning, then surging again. This pattern seems to be tied to immigration cycles. When there is a large influx of immigrants, for example, nativist sentiments rise.
  4. Question
    What did John F. Kennedy mean when he said, “Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you.”
    The tides turn against different ethnic groups at different times for different reasons. At the time JFK was seeking office, there was skepticism surrounding Catholics. Prior to that, there was skepticism surrounding other groups (Jews, Quakers, Unitarians, Baptists), so he is warning that “your group” may be next or may come up again, and you should treat others how you would want to be treated.
Reveal Answers
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