Nativism in the United States represents the ideology that the nation’s culture and identity should be “preserved” from “foreign” influences. While the name suggests that Nativism would support “native” Americans, this does not mean the indigenous people but rather the descendants of white Protestants who were in the United States at the time of the American Revolution.
While the name suggests that Nativism would support “native” Americans, this does not mean the indigenous people
In the antebellum years, the United States received millions of immigrants largely from Ireland and the German states. The Industrial Revolution and rapid urbanization also began in these same years. As a result, the United States experienced a dramatic and brisk change to its economy but also to its cultural composition. These swift changes caused anxiety and distress for many Americans and led some to support nativist organizations and philosophies.
Ultimately, nativism was a reaction against cultural and economic change catalyzed by mass immigration.
Ultimately, nativism was a reaction against change–an attempt to preserve an American culture that economic turmoil, the growth of cities, and the arrival of immigrants threatened to transform.
Nativism from Revolution
In the early nineteenth century, the United States began to transform from a dominantly agricultural and rural country into one that was more industrial and urban; this transformation is referred to as the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution began in the U.S. with the invention of the cotton gin, interchangeable parts, and a factory system largely devoted to textile manufacturing. The Industrial Revolution sparked a huge growth in unskilled labor because goods could be manufactured en mass with machines, ending the need for apprenticeships to learn a trade. But as the need for skilled labor decreased, so did the average wage of workers. Once workers accepted hourly wages instead of owning the products of their labor, industrialists were able to concentrate massive amounts of wealth. Workers attempted to form trade associations or labor unions to collectively bargain for improved working conditions, hours, and wages. However, industrialists held so much economic and political power that these unions were usually unsuccessful and income inequality continued to rise.
The Industrial Revolution sparked a huge growth in unskilled labor because goods could be manufactured en mass with machines
But as the need for skilled labor decreased, so did the average wage of workers.
In addition to these dramatic changes to working conditions in the United States, cities such as New York City and Boston grew rapidly. In the United States’ first census in 1790, only about 5% of Americans lived in urban areas. By 1860 that number increased to almost 20%. While some of this urban growth came from domestic relocation, much of this population increase came from immigration. Between the 1820s and the 1860s, over 300,000 people came to the United States each year and by 1860, 20% of the American population was foreign born. Irish immigration grew dramatically as a result of the potato famine. Starving, ill, and desperate for improved opportunities, millions of Irish eventually relocated to the United States. Additionally, failed attempts at revolution in the German states drove many more to attempt to find safety and stability in the U.S.
Between the 1820s and the 1860s, over 300,000 people came to the United States each year
Most of these newly arrived immigrants found work in textile mills or in other manufacturing jobs that were located in or near these growing cities.
Most of these newly arrived immigrants found work in textile mills or in other manufacturing jobs that were located in or near these growing cities. Living conditions in the cities for urban workers were often deplorable. Tenement buildings were overcrowded and dilapidated. The people who lived in these buildings often had to deal with unsanitary conditions and contagious diseases. For native workers, this was a far cry from the fresh air and open spaces of America’s rural farm country.
As wages dropped and living conditions became intolerable, many former artisans and relocated farmers blamed the presence of immigrants for their economic instability. Immigrants represented the foreign and dangerous “others” who were responsible for these unsettling changes.
As wages dropped and living conditions became intolerable, many former artisans and relocated farmers blamed the presence of immigrants for their economic instability.
Also, immigrants brought with them different languages, customs, and religious practices. Irish immigrants overwhelmingly belonged to the Roman Catholic Church−a faith that had long faced suspicion and persecution in a dominantly Protestant America.
Furthermore, political machines dominated the city governments and many immigrants came to dominate the political machines. Tammany Hall in New York City was the political machine of the Democratic Party and used its power to help the immigrants find employment while additionally offering food, coal, and municipal services.
Tammany Hall advocated for education reforms that would keep Catholic children from being obligated to recite Protestant prayers and pushed for electoral reforms that would extend the franchise to more workers. As a result, Irish workers were devoted and loyal to Tammany Hall and insured the success of Tammany-backed politicians in municipal elections. Workers and urban dwellers who Tammany did not represent held much resentment against this political machine.
Irish workers were devoted and loyal to Tammany Hall
These “native” Americans accused Tammany of stealing from the city’s coffers and personally benefitting from its political stranglehold on New York City–actions perhaps best exemplified by the notoriously corrupt reign of Boss Tweed.
The Seeds of Nativism
Nativism grew as a response to these rapid changes in American working and living conditions. The social tensions that arose from industrialization and urbanization intensified nativist and anti-Catholic attitudes. Irish immigrants were often stigmatized as poor, drunk, and devoted to a foreign church instead of to American ideals. Germans were caricatured as clannish, drunk, and unwilling to learn English. For some Americans, these poor and vulnerable immigrants became the perfect target to blame for all of their anxieties and instabilities. American workers’ wages were declining while urban living conditions deteriorated. Immigrants and their foreign religious beliefs, food, and languages easily became the visible representation of a changing, urban society on which “nativists” could focus all of their anger.
American workers’ wages were declining while urban living conditions deteriorated. Immigrants and their foreign religious beliefs, food, and languages easily became the visible representation of a changing, urban society on which “nativists” could focus all of their anger.
By the 1830s, Native American clubs grew all around the country. These organizations typically contained professional and skilled men in northern cities or farmers who may have feared a declining standard of living due to the life-altering market revolution that was well underway. Trade associations expressed concern that the availability of immigrant labor drove down wages for everybody, and they often blocked immigrants from joining their labor unions. Some northern Whig reformers also held nativist views. Reformers created several temperance organizations to reduce alcohol consumption in the country and often blamed immigrants for bringing “demon rum” into America’s cities in such great quantities. Additionally, immigrants largely supported the Democratic Party and some Whigs felt that by undermining a valuable component of the opposing party’s constituency, the Whigs might meet with more electoral success.
In 1850, those who believed that immigrants were to blame for most of society’s ills formed the Order of the Star Spangled Banner to protect “America for Americans.”
In 1850, those who believed that immigrants were to blame for most of society’s ills formed the Order of the Star Spangled Banner to protect “America for Americans.” This organization quickly evolved into the American Party–known as the “Know- Nothings” because of their unwillingness to publically divulge information about themselves.
The Know-Nothings proposed ending poor relief to non-citizens, creating literacy tests before people could vote, banning foreigners from holding public office, and extending the residency requirement to 21 years before an immigrant could become a citizen. The American Party won large public support in some states and even won control of the state legislature in Massachusetts in 1854. In the 1856 election, the Know-Nothings nominated former President Millard Fillmore and won over 20% of the national popular vote. However, this political party was short-lived due to the differing opinions about slavery–the most divisive issue of the day, but the Know-Nothings certainly contributed to the contentious politics of the turbulent 1850s.
The American Party (Know-Nothing Party) won large public support in some states and even won control of the state legislature in Massachusetts in 1854.
Nativism did not fade away with the Civil War. As immigration shifted in the late nineteenth century away from Irish and German immigrants to people from China, Italy, and Russia, nativists shifted their ire as well. Continuing economic anxieties coupled with ongoing xenophobia and racism led Congress and several presidents to support anti-immigration policies.
Nativism did not fade away with the Civil War.
In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act that prevented Chinese from entering the United States. Shortly, thereafter, Theodore Roosevelt’s Gentlemen’s Agreement blocked Japanese immigration into the country. And by 1924, Congress passed an immigration act that established a strict quota system to limit the number of immigrants allowed entrance into America, particularly immigrants from southern and eastern European countries. These quotas were not significantly altered until 1965–demonstrating how powerful these nativist sentiments could be on American domestic and foreign policy.
In the decades before the Civil War, the Unites States was undergoing a dramatic transformation. The Industrial Revolution changed the nature of work for many Americans and opened up an economic transformation, tying the markets together nationally that were once local and regional. Skilled artisans found themselves competing against new urban arrivals for increasingly lower wages or they did not work at all. Rapid urbanization changed the very look of America. While the U.S. remained largely rural and agricultural until after the Civil War, the process of change toward urbanization was obvious. Millions of immigrants pouring into the United States also threatened to change America’s religious culture and ethnic character. Many Americans felt vulnerable and anxious because of these changes and turned their frustrations toward anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant nativist organizations. Nativists dramatically reacted against this dramatic change. They wanted to preserve a bygone era and protect an idyllic, rural country that they perceived to be better than the reality of the world in which they lived.
Many Americans felt vulnerable and anxious because of economic, societal, and cultural changes and turned their frustrations toward anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant nativist organizations.