Author Interview--Luke Ritter (Inventing America's First Immigration Crisis) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn Discussion

Hello H-CivWar Readers:
Today we continue our conversation with 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.

Part 1

You are raising another point I wanted to ask you about. Today we are familiar with the constant battles over religion entering the classroom in various forms, but it seems that in the Early Republic and Antebellum period with the use of the King James Bible, religion was very much in the classrooms, not to the liking of some. Could you elaborate a little on how religion and public education coexisted during those years? What about schools run by Catholics or other religious groups, was there public funding for them? Why did native-born feel so threatened by not using the King James version?

LR: The founding generation believed public schools would instill American values and help train young people into proper citizens. For Americans in the early US, the King James Version of the Bible symbolically represented a host of significant principles. As it was the most popular Protestant Bible in the English world, Americans associated the King James with English-derived democratic ideas and forms of government. They associated the Bible with the values of ingenuity, fortitude, independence, and truth. So, when Boards of Education run by Protestant Christian ministers of various sorts mandated the use of the King James Bible in American public schools, Americans naturally approved. Even secularists acknowledged the Bible’s role in American civic culture. 

But European immigrants challenged the status quo. Germans preferred reading Luther’s German translation of the Bible. Catholics insisted on reading the Douay-Rheims, the pope-mandated English translation of the Latin Vulgate. Actually, the Roman Catholic Church forbid its adherents from reading any “Protestant” bibles. So, in several urban areas, a giant problem emerged. Immigrants resisted reading the King James Bible in tax-funded public schools, while Americans resented immigrants for breaking with American tradition and requesting the removal of a holy book many Americans had come to associate with American principles and American identity. 

It’s hard to overstate just how divisive the so-called “school controversy” became in the 1840s. This was a full-blown culture war. Catholic parents stopped sending their children to American schools, or they enrolled their children in religious parochial schools. Americans complained that immigrants were refusing to assimilate. Catholics and German and Irish immigrants complained that the schools were receiving tax money from residents who were then being discriminated against. In New York and Philadelphia, Catholic factions demanded splitting the school fund between American schools (with the King James Bible) and Catholic schools (with the Douay-Rheims). Nativists responded violently in a series of bloody anti-immigrant riots during the mid-1840s. It was a mess. 

Nativists, who were intent on delineating between those who did and did not count as Americans, doubled-down on the pro-King James agenda, arguing that the American schools should serve Americans, not immigrants, and that the American schools should promote American values – all of which meant: public schools MUST assign the King James Bible as a textbook. The Know-Nothing, or American, Party even made the use of the King James Bible as a textbook in public schools one of the most important items on its platform.

The anti-immigrant riots were in light of this year's protests and the events of the last week (January 6) something that speaks to the contemporary situation in the United States. It seems people today are shocked that "riots" even happen, but it seems riots in some form and for some reason were an almost annual occurrence during the Antebellum period? At the same time, how did these riots usually happen and end? Did these cities have police forces or did the state send the militia? Would not riots further inflame animosities? 

LR: Small-scale rioting constituted a frequent feature of American cities during the antebellum period, before cities raised enough taxes for a commanding professional police force. When riots erupted, the police were usually ineffective; so, the mayor typically called on militia groups to restore order. But the anti-immigrant riots of the mid-1850s really got out of hand. Not only were they unusually bloody, but the so-called “Know-Nothing” riots between 1854 and 1856 also resembled the recent insurrection at the US capitol building on January 6 because they disrupted democratic procedures. Riots in Chicago, Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis erupted on election days as nativists, inflamed by largely false reports that immigrants were voting illegally, targeted German and Irish citizens waiting in lines at the voting stations and, upon meeting resistance, proceeded to physically expel them from the polls. During a gubernatorial election in St. Louis in August 1854, rioters overtook significant portions of the city, burned Irish businesses, defied militia groups, and killed over ten people. The mayor of the city desperately deputized hundreds of citizens and finally restored order after three days of unrest. During an election in Louisville in 1856, rioters destroyed German and Irish businesses and killed over twenty people. The riots certainly disrupted one of the most hallowed democratic American institutions – the vote. The physical violence sent many urban areas into a crisis. In many ways, the “Know-Nothing” riots were the culmination of a decade of anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant vitriol accusing “foreigners” of corruption and voter fraud. 

It is interesting to see how many parallels exist, yet nobody seems to remember these riots as we watch historian-written editorials pop-up. I want to shift us a little over to slavery and the interplay between Know-Nothings and Anti-Slavery. One aspect that I wondered about was how much do some of these anti-Catholic agitators consider the Pope an intellectual enslaver of Catholics similar to what southern planters are doing? How do anti-slavery, anti-Catholicism, and anti-immigration intersect in your book?

LR: It depended primarily on political affiliation and region. Those who were anti-slavery (primarily in the North) and anti-Catholic blamed the system of Roman Catholicism for a mentality of enslavement. They accused southern slave-holders of popery. Those who were pro-slavery (primarily in the South) accused the Catholics and immigrants who participated in politics of agitating the slavery issue. One side depicted Catholicism as tyrannical; the other as anarchistic. The Know Nothing Party included anti-slavery, pro-slavery, and neutral-on-slavery Americans. Although for a time the party tried to skirt the controversial issue of slavery and maintain unity, the polarization caused by the slavery controversy eventually caused its collapse - at least on the national stage. 

German and Irish immigrants tended to vote for candidates of the Democratic Party, rather than the Whig Party – not necessarily because they supported slavery but because they opposed the presence of nativists in the Whig Party. 95% of Irish arriving after 1840 were Catholic; 90% of Irish voted Democrat; so, it appeared that Catholics were skewing towards one party over another. Roughly 80% of Germans voted Democrat (30% of Germans were Catholic). When two democratic candidates ran at the same time – one neutral-on-slavery and the other pro-slavery – Germans tended to vote for the former and Irish for the latter. 

However, what you so powerfully show is that our assumptions about the nativist political movement need revision. Why would the American Party, built around anti-immigration, embrace immigrant support? Who was welcome?

LR: I approached this topic expecting to conclude with a series of negative assessments about the outcome of America’s first nativist movement; but what I found surprised me. Once the nativist movement emerged as a national political party, its leaders finally responded to interlocutors, adjusted their language and goals, and even removed, to some extent, the vitriolic anti-Catholic rhetoric. To witness these rock-ribbed xenophobes change was really a testament to the power of a democracy in which free speech and debate is encouraged. Catholics and immigrants alike argued that the First Amendment to the US Constitution entitled them to exercise their religion as they saw fit. This was a principle both sides found in common. 

Chapter six of the book presents the subtlest of arguments. It’s no wonder historians have overlooked it, given their focus on the Northeast or Southeast, where nativists didn’t really have to pacify Germans or Irish to achieve political victory. But in the West, in states like Ohio and Missouri, Know-Nothings were forced to form political alliances with Germans and Irish to win elections. In so doing, they advocated the removal of explicitly anti-Catholic language. They even changed the requirements for membership in the Know-Nothing Order so that people of European ancestry could join. They made a distinction: they opposed Catholicism, not Catholics; foreignism, not foreigners. They made a basic demand: pledge your oath to protect religious freedom for all, and that’s enough for you to count as an American. In other words, nativists – especially in the West – shifted from explicit anti-Catholicism to a commitment to the founding principle of Church-State separation. 

As observers of the past, we find ourselves, then, in the strange position of acknowledging the role of the nativist movement in transforming American political culture into a more inclusive domain, welcoming otherwise suspect religions, as long as its adherents pledged to support Church-State separation. The separation of Church and State became a sort of compromise, a civic religious principle, upon which future generations – both Anglo-American and European-American alike – could agree. There’s much more to say about the legal dimensions of the doctrine of Church-State separation; this book tracks the cultural dialogue (to put it nicely) between native-born Americans, Catholics, and immigrants during the antebellum era, which established, in effect, the civil-religious character of contemporaneous and future American attitudes towards immigration. 

That sort of raises an interesting point, we usually dismiss the American Party as a brief, going-nowhere, out-of-touch-with-reality party in the mid-1850, but from what you show it seems they had at least in the West a chance to be the third party. Especially in the West, what distinguished them from the Republican Party?

LR: Once the Whig Party collapsed in 1854 for a number of reasons I won’t go into here, a series of fusion parties contended to lead the opposition against the Democratic Party. Initially, the American Party seemed to be the most viable fusion party to replace the Whigs. In the fall of 1854, Know-Nothings swept elections in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Membership in the Know-Nothing Order increased dramatically. In the presidential election of 1856, the presidential candidate for the American Party, Millard Fillmore, received roughly 900,000 votes, or 22 percent of the total popular vote. That made the American Party the second largest third party in American history (Roosevelt’s Progressive Party received 27 percent of the popular vote). 

Tyler Anbinder's Nativism and Slavery (1992) has one of the best accounts I've seen of the rise of the American Party during the mid-1850s. He shows how the nativists in the North embraced the triad of anti-Catholicism, anti-slavery, and anti-alcohol. When, the National American Party proved (just like the Whigs before them) inept at handling the slavery controversy, many anti-slavery people in the North defected from the American Party to join the emergent Republican Party in 1856. The point is: to be a viable national party, the nativists needed to form alliances with all sorts of political actors from across the country. Anti-Catholicism didn’t work to coalesce support; neither did violence in the streets. The Republicans successfully pulled together nativists, anti-slavery advocates, the anti-alcohol lobby, and anti-slavery Germans from across the North in big enough numbers to make support from the southerners irrelevant. 

The slavery debate thus contributed to the rise and demise of the American Party. If only they could have taken a strong stance against the expansion of slavery into the American West, as the Republicans did, the American Party might have inherited the role as chief opponent to the Democratic Party. This raises a series of questions, like what were the consequences, then, of nativists bringing anti-Catholicism onto the national stage. What did their anti-immigrant policies, such as the call for a 21-year residency requirement for citizenship, instead of the existing 5-year requirement, say about American attitudes? The issue of slavery reigned supreme in politics, but there were other important debates about the role of religion in politics occurring at the same time. 

Speaking of the German immigration, something else that stood out was that the American Party accepted some but not all German. How well known was that in scholarship? More so, who were the "good" Germans that could partake in the American Party and does not that make the party's anti-immigration platform somewhat hypocritical? 

LR: It's easier to depict the nativists as bigoted xenophobes and the like. They were, of course, but some of them carried out their principles logically. If people born outside the U.S. became legal citizens, pledged their allegiance to the U.S. Constitution, supported Church-State separation, and agreed with the platform of the American Party, then why couldn’t they join? A group of French Catholic nativists supported the Know-Nothing Party in places like Louisiana and Missouri. One outspoken French Catholic even attended the American Party convention in Philadelphia in 1855. In states like Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, and Kentucky, some Germans who were anti-slavery or neutral-on-slavery allied with the Know-Nothing Party. There are reports of some German Americans joining Know-Nothing orders as well. Actually, the American Party convention of 1855 argued for quite a while about the admission of immigrants and Catholics. I found that nativists from the South and West were more likely to be in favor of it, while nativists from the Northeast were more likely to be against. That sort of internal division (hypocrisy if you want to call it that) proved problematic as nativists tried to garner national support. 

As we draw to the close, we already talk about a few of the parallels to January 6, but it seems that people in the United States always loved conspiracy theories--do you think there is a particular reason, why people are so prone to buy into these?

LR: I am planning on developing a course titled American Conspiracies, which looks at the nature of conspiracy and its role in political and social developments in the American past. I’m also considering writing another book, titled “American Conspiracies.” We’ll see how far I get. Conspiratorial thinking has existed as long as humans have. Humans constantly struggle (myself included) to comport their beliefs to the facts that can be verified. I believe every American should commit to the following: to only act upon beliefs based on facts that can be verified. If only it were that easy. It’s not. Fear interferes with reasoning, and humans often allow their imaginations to run wild with increasingly unlikely scenarios to fit apparently inexplicable events, or events with an overtly unsatisfying explanation. 

Essentially, popular conspiracies manifest a large-scale breakdown in reasoning. When reason fails, we have a problem. People act upon the facts they believe to be true. If Americans now believe – and there is every indication that many do – that the election of 2020 was rigged, that everyone was in on the steal, including politicians, poll workers, the companies who built the electronic voting systems, the judges, etc., that there was widespread voter fraud effecting millions of votes, well, then, they believe that democracy has failed. The American experiment, which our ancestors fought and died for, is nearly over. If you believed that, wouldn’t you also think that the moral thing to do would be to protest, even to the point of violence, to save America from ruin? The things people do derive from the propositions people believe. That is why it is of paramount importance that we verify the things we believe so that the propositions we hold as facts are likely instantiated in reality, so that the things we do comport to reality. 

Panic, fear, fear of the unknown, fear of the other, fear of change, disruptions to the status quo – all of these can contribute to the break-down of reason. Fear is like a virus; it can spread rapidly from one locality to the next until it becomes an epidemic. This is why “fear-mongering” proves so effective in American politics. A movement, a party, or a politician that taps into a broadly felt fear can mobilize constituents in dramatic and profound ways. Unfortunately, it has been all too common in the U.S. for politicians to use current fears of outsiders – whether they be Catholics, Communists, Germans, Irish, Italians, Chinese, or Mexicans – to serve their political aims. This has happened on both sides of the political aisle. It’s my hope that in studying conspiracies in the American past, we might better understand how and why Americans come to believe in such unlikely explanations based on unverified “facts” and maybe, just maybe, that we might be less susceptible to opportunistic and fear-mongering politicians.