Author Interview--Luke Ritter (Inventing America's First Immigration Crisis) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn Discussion

Hello H-CivWar Readers:
Today we feature Luke Ritter to talk about his new book Inventing America's First Immigration Crisis: Political Nativism in the Antebellum West, published by Fordham University Press in December 2020.
Luke Ritter is assistant professor of history at New Mexico Highlands University. He received his Ph.D. from Saint Louis University. He has also published essays in the Missouri Historical Review, the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, and the Journal of Early American History among others.

Luke, to start, could you tell our readers a little about how you became interested in writing about the "Know-Nothings" and American Party?

LR: The discipline of history appeals to me because I’m a naturally curious person. Why do people behave the way they do? That’s the main question historians seek to answer. I started reading about a mid-nineteenth-century group who opposed immigrants known as the “Native Americans.” That’s a bit confusing because they were as white as they come – not indigenous to America. Anyways, this group seemed to think that immigrants posed a danger to the relatively new American republic. I’m a curious person; so, naturally I asked “why?” That question sent me down a rabbit hole from which I have not yet ascended. 

It was like a train wreck; I couldn’t look away. The claims these nativists made seemed outrageous – “nativist” was the moniker they received because they promoted the political ascendancy of those born on, or “native to,” American soil over and against those born outside the US. I started with Samuel F.B. Morse’s book, Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States (1835), a must-read for all those interested in the subject. In the book, Morse elaborated on an Austrian/Roman Catholic plot to send Jesuit incendiaries to the US in civilian clothes, build up arsenals in the basements of Catholic cathedrals, and recruit German and Irish Catholic children for an impending insurrection against the US government. Morse even led a political party opposing immigration in New York, one of the first nativist parties in the US. I asked “why did Morse believe this”? and soon I was deep in anti-Catholic conspiratorial literature, including Lyman Beecher’s Plea for the West (1836) and Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures (1836), in which a former nun claimed all sorts of awful things about the goings-on in a convent in Montreal, including but not limited to priests sleeping with nuns and forcing them to murder their progeny in a pit below the convent. The New York legislature even sent a special investigative committee to the convent on the taxpayer’s dime. They didn’t find anything. 

As the dates of those books indicate, this so-called nativist movement really began to take off in the mid-1830s, precisely as immigration from Europe dramatically increased. Americans witnessed unprecedented arrivals from Germany and Ireland especially in the decades to follow. And the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant vitriol reached ever higher levels of intensity. Nativist parties seeking to deny immigrants citizenship formed around the country, including in the antebellum West, a region much less covered in the available scholarship. Nativists believed foreigners were corrupting American institutions, including churches, schools, and local government. So, they acted. 

I found, much to my surprise, that nativism has had a long, persistent, and profound role in the development of America. Here’s why I’m still interested in the topic: I believe studying history generally and American nativism in particular promotes an otherwise elusive virtue: wisdom, or the ability to know that which we should fear.

What do you argue in your book?

LR: Generally, the book provides the significant contextual factors that gave rise to this story Americans began telling themselves in the mid-1830s that their country and their way of life was under attack from outside forces. Relatively sudden changes, including rapid westward development, unexpected levels of immigration from Europe, the ensuing growth of the Roman Catholic Church in America, the Market Revolution and secularism, the bourgeoning of American cities and the corresponding increase in cases of crime and poverty, and all the turbulence of antebellum politics, formed the background of the American nativist movement. 

The book focuses on how nativists presented intensely ideological solutions to a host of political and social problems. Their belief was that Americans should rule America, American customs should reign supreme, so that a preponderance of citizens would preserve American liberal principles. Of course, they had to define what they meant by “American.” Who did and did not belong? For them, “American” meant Protestant Christian, born on American soil, and loyal to the US Constitution, among other things. European immigrants, in their minds, did not qualify – many of them were religious traditionalists, Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, they were raised outside the country and were suspected of disloyalty to the US Constitution. With their definitions in order, they set about attempting to promote the political power of Americans and diminish the influence of foreigners. This is how they believed they would save the young republic from corruption and collapse. 

The book’s main contribution to the available scholarly literature derives from its special attention to region and religion. The settlement of the North American interior during the mid-nineteenth century fueled American nativism. As Americans and Europeans alike migrated westward and populated cities like Chicago, Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis, nativists described the American West as a battleground between Americanism and foreignism that they had to win to safeguard the future of American liberty. Many of the sources in the book were written by residents of the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys. In focusing on this region, I learned that the nativist movement and its political rise with the American Party in the mid-1850s was not merely a fringe movement of quacks, it was not just a smoke screen for other political agendas, Americans did not join nativist parties merely as a matter of political expediency. At the core of nativism was a search for an American identity in the midst of rapid territorial and demographic change. 

The consequences of this first American nativist movement were profound. First of all, as I’ve already alluded to, this started a pattern of political behavior that exists to this day. While the targets of nativist animus have changed from Germans and Irish to Southern and Eastern Europeans, Asians, and Latin Americans over time, much of the rhetoric has remained the same. Secondly, it’s important that we realize that the nativist movement did not happen in a vacuum. The nativists were influenced by the dialogue with their opponents. It might come as a shock to some that actually the debate as to whether Americans would tolerate Catholicism and other “foreign” religions culminated in a rather firm commitment in nativist organizations by the mid-1850s to the founding American principle of the separation of church and state. Catholicism would be permitted as long as Protestant Americans would also be allowed to practice their religion as they pleased. Religious freedom became an American policy upon which both sides could agree. Given all of this, I think there are lessons we can apply to more recent circumstances, and I think historians can offer informed suggestions about what is likely to occur when the old rally cry of nativism sounds anew. 

I want to go back to your first answer where you mentioned the piece by Morse, which to anybody who studies British history sounds very much like one of those conspiratorial Popish Plot stories--was there any discernable influence of old British thought here or are we looking at Nineteenth Century fears surrounding the rise of liberalism and perceived threat by the Catholic establishment?

LR: I commend the argument historian Ray Allen Billington made in his book on the subject, The Protestant Crusade, 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism (1939). It’s old but good. In the book, Billington argues that American nativism was the lingering effect of long-standing English prejudices. The English never forgot the religious turmoil of the sixteenth century, and English Protestants created the anti-Catholic genre upon which Samuel Morse stood. There is so much to read on this subject. Of course, Protestant Americans – many of whom traced their ancestry to England – shared English prejudices against the Roman Catholic Church. Generally speaking, Catholics and Protestants everywhere griped constantly over theological disagreements dating back to the Protestant Reformation. 

But the rise of anti-Catholicism in America corresponded directly to the upswing in immigration from Europe. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, one might argue that Americans were even more open and progressive than their counterparts in England. Because the US Constitution allowed the free exercise of religion and made an official state religion impossible, however, Americans felt especially vulnerable once immigrants of varying religious persuasions arrived in ever-increasing numbers. There were hardly any restrictions on immigration. At the time of the American Revolution, there were only 30,000 Catholics in English North America. By 1860, 3,000,000 Catholics resided in the US. Most of the growth of the Catholic Church was due to immigration from Europe. The founding generation didn’t expect this to happen. American nativists panicked that Catholics and immigrants would not assimilate quickly enough, American civic culture would wane, and the American experiment would come to an end. 

Moreover, anti-Catholicism in nineteenth-century America manifested in different ways, ways that attested to the ideas and institutions that Americans uniquely valued. one of the insights I gathered from focusing on the West was that native-born Americans conflated immigrants, Germans, Irish, and Catholics altogether into one large Catholicized, foreign, and thus dangerous group. In chapter two, “Culture War,” I talk about how nativists targeted Protestant German immigrants because the Germans wanted to read Luther’s translation of the Bible in public schools, rather than the King James version, and to enjoy recreational activities on Sundays, despite local Sunday closing laws. As the US was a democracy where immigrants could become citizens, Americans worried in particular about the emergence of Catholic and immigrant voting blocs, what they called “foreign influence” in American elections. 

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