Immigration is in the news. In his recent visit to the United States, Pope Francis I introduced himself on the lawn of the White House as a “son of immigrants,” and he referred to the United States as a nation of immigrants. While many applauded the Pope for this affirmation, many Republican candidates for the Presidency are debating how high to build the wall along the border between Mexico and the United States, and some are proposing another wall to separate Canada and the United States. Suchproposals would transform this “land of immigrants” into a gated community.
Of course the immigration debate is not new in the U.S.. Benjamin Franklin questioned the loyalty of German immigrants. Secretary of State Alexander Hamilton was Francophobic. The Naturalization Act of 1795 and the Alien and Sedition Laws of 1798 targeted immigrant populations. In 1875, in the infamous Dred Scott Decision, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that African Americans could never be citizens. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first anti-immigrant law that specifically identified a nationality for exclusion. Native Americans did not gain citizenship until 1924 when the Indian Citizenship Act (also known as the Snyder Act) became law. The anti-immigrant campaign is not new.
The anti-immigrant movement reached its zenith in the 1840s and 1850s, following the influx of Irish Catholic immigrants who came to the U.S. during and after the Great Potato Famine in Ireland. At that time the anti-immigration movement coalesced into a national political party called the Native American Party. After 1855 it was renamed the American Party. The American Party later morphed into the Order of the Star Spangled Banner. Horace Greeley is credited with pinning the “Know Nothing” label on the party, but the name is also attributed to the semi-secrecy of the movement itself. When asked about their affiliation members would say, “I know nothing.”
Membership in the Know Nothing party was limited to white Protestant men. The party supported women’s rights, divided on the question of slavery, and championed the regulation of corporations. The main plank in the party platform, and the stand for which it was best known and for which it is best remembered, was its virulent anti-immigrant policy. The party won important elections in California, Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts, and elsewhere. Millard Fillmore was the party’s candidate for President in 1856, although he himself was not a member of the party, and he did not share the party’s anti-Catholic position.
The Know Nothings professed to be a value-based political movement that would keep America Protestant and pure. Immigrants, especially Roman Catholic immigrants, were by definition “un-American.”
I suggest that whether they acknowledge it or not, today’s “wall-builders” are drawing on the history of the Know Nothings. They are, in fact, the most recent incarnation of the Know Nothing Party. Know Nothingism is alive and well in the United States in the twenty-first century.
Those of us who identify with a faith tradition have an obligation to unmask the pretense of this modern Know Nothingism and name it for what it is. It is fear mongering in the name of patriotism. It is demagoguery in the name of democracy. And in the past, Know Nothingism spawned violence in the name of faith. In the 1830s members of the Know Nothing movement in Maine rioted against Roman Catholics. Anti-immigrant fever reasserted itself in Maine in 1851 when a Jesuit scholar, Johnanne Bapst, who later became the first President of Boston College, was tarred and feathered. In 1854 a Catholic church in Bath, Maine, was burned to the ground following a Know Nothing rally. In 1855 Know Nothing adherents rioted in Louisville, Kentucky, and Baltimore, Maryland. However, by 1860 the Know Nothings were no longer a national political movement. Political leaders like Abraham Lincoln had rejected their philosophy. The rise of two national parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, spelled the demise of the American Party, but not the Know Nothing philosophy.
Immigration remains a hot issue in American political and cultural life. Many cities in the United States are already a mosaic of minorities. Pluralism is a fact of life in public schools, in the workplace, and in many neighborhoods. At the same time we are witnessing a growing effort to expand segregation along economic, religious, racial, and ethnic lines. It is often said that demography is destiny. In the not too distant future the United States will be a nation of minorities. By adopting what Pope Francis calls “a theology of encounter,” and by rejecting the ideology of Know Nothingism, people of faith can help to shape and create a future that honors our more noble past and makes this nation what Emma Lazarus promised we could be,
From her beacon-hand
Glows a world-wide welcome
--The New Colossus
Rev. David Hansen