Never before, it is repeatedly claimed, has religion been a basis for restricting access to the liberties enjoyed by other immigrants.
The reality, however, is that it is not all that different than the experience of Catholics over the past 200 years.
A wave of anti-immigrant sentiment occurred after the huge migration of Irish Catholics into the U.S. during the potato famine of the mid-19th century. Continued immigration caused the Roman Catholic population to grow rapidly even in this hostile environment. In 1784 there were only 30,000 Catholics in America but by 1820 this number grew to over 300,000. Petitions from the northeastern states to Congress, asked Congress to pass laws limiting the new immigrants’ right to vote.
Although the United States has always portrayed itself as a sanctuary for the world's victims of oppression and poverty, anti-immigrant sentiment—known as nativism—has pervaded most of the nation's history. Though in the early colonial period there was a push for immigration, prejudice against Catholics was evident. In New England this was probably connected to the fact that Puritans had come to America to escape the Church of England's "Romish" trappings, but even southern colonists were known to have enjoyed a parlor game called "Break the Pope's Neck." Politics also played a part. For example, since many immigrants supported Thomas Jefferson's Republican faction, Federalists in Congress attempted to suppress the newcomers' political activity in 1798 by passing the Alien Acts, which curtailed the rights of unnaturalized immigrants.
Fear of the negative influence of “foreigners” on society, especially from Roman Catholics, was hardly new in the mid-19th century. The Protestants who had settled in the northeast differed in church management and policies but they heartily agreed in the opposition to the Catholicism. By the 1870s, Guy Fawkes Day, was celebrated in Massachusetts and other colonies by burning the pope in effigy. After the Constitution became the law of the land, Roman Catholics were barred from holding public office in many states until 1806.
The immigration of Irish and other Europeans created fears among some native born Americans that the “foreigners” would bring undemocratic ideas, and authoritarian government. Allegiance to the Pope was seen by many as allegiance to a foreign political leader with the power to subvert America’s institutions and liberties. John Adams wrote in 1821 that “a free government and the Roman Catholic religion can never exist together in any nation or country.”
By November of 1837 this anti-Catholic feeling had become organized into a national nativist movement. The petition from 97 electors in Washington County, New York*, clearly articulated the reasons for the anti-Catholic concerns of many Americans. Catholic immigration was viewed as a “foreign invasion” and a plot to establish “despotic” control over the U.S. Underlying this hysteria was a fear that Catholics loyal to a Roman Pope would not hold the needed loyalty to America and its political ideals. This lack of loyalty would undermine the system.
Anti-Catholic feelings increased during the wave of famine induced Irish immigration between the 1820s and 1850s. Anti-Catholicism reinforced social, political, and economic concerns in New York and other points of entry. Some thought that other countries were dumping their poor and problem people on America. They blamed the uneducated, unskilled immigrants for the poverty, crime, and disease in New York and other major cities. Competition for scarce jobs, low wages, crowded and expensive housing were blamed on the newcomers. The city of New York even complained in 1830 that its social services were being overwhelmed by the “foreign element.”
The Irish Catholic immigrants reacted to this prejudice by turning inward and toward the Church as their haven and support in the new society. The works of charity and education sponsored by the Church was instrumental in helping immigrants survive their new life in a hostile environment. Ironically, these efforts to help the immigrants were used as evidence of foreign “clannishness” and rejection of American customs and values.
The accusations against the Catholics in the petition go beyond anti-religious feelings. There is an accusation of conspiracy by the Catholic Church against America’s liberties. Nativist writers such and Lyman Beecher and Samuel Morse were convinced that the Catholic leaders in Rome were using poor, unschooled immigrants to lead a plot to destroy freedom of religion in the U.S. by uniting church and state. They used this fear to create a sense of Protestant unity and lead a mission toward building a “Christian America.”
Nativists believed that American values and ideals were based on Protestant Christianity, insisting that republican governments require a virtuous, educated, and independent electorate. They perceived Catholic immigrants to be superstitious, ignorant, and dominated by their priests. Though their writing and speeches led to many worthy social reforms such as abolition efforts and expanded suffrage, it sometimes led to violence. For example in 1834 after several inflammatory speeches by Beecher in Boston churches, mobs burned the Ursuline Convent school in the city.
The growing hysteria built by the conspiracy theories led New York political leaders to organize an effort to block Catholic voting power. They saw the immigrants as uneducated and unqualified to vote and thus open to manipulation by unscrupulous politicians. In 1834 the New York Protestant Association was formed to “spread the knowledge of the gospel truth and to show wherein it is inconsistent with the tenets and dogmas of popery.” By 1835 the nativists had organized a political organization to run candidates for office and work to change naturalization laws.
Many petitions like the one from Washington County were sent to Congress in the 1830s. They asked for changes to naturalization laws to protect America from “foreigners of doubtful morals and hostile political principles. A select committee in the House of Representative made up of a nativist majority endorsed legislation that would have extended the waiting period for naturalization. Though this legislation did not pass, it set the stage for the American Republican Party of the 1850s.
In 1844 the nativist American Republican party, elected six congressmen and dozens of local officials in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Nativism reached its political zenith ten years later with the rapid rise of the "Know-Nothings." This secret fraternal organization, which sought to curtail the political power of Catholics and immigrants, probably derived its name from its members' pledge to feign ignorance if queried about the group. It originated in New York City in the late 1840s. In the wake of the collapse of the Whigs and the Democratic split over the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 and 1855 the Know-Nothings attracted more than 1 million members. Its supporters won several offices, including mayor of Philadelphia and control of the Massachusetts legislature. The party fell apart over issues of slavery and many of its anti-slavery proponents joined the new Republican Party.
Perhaps the most extreme anti-Catholic reaction was the proposal in 1870 of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution proposed by Judge Elisha Hurlbut of New York, an expert in constitutional law. It would empower Congress to ban “any foreign hierarchical power...founded on principles or dogmas antagonistic to republican institutions.” Some read in Hurlbut’s proposal the opening salvo of an anti-Catholic, nationalistic campaign akin to Otto von Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, which was gathering steam in Germany. Moreover, the campaign to identify the United States as a Christian Protestant nation, which had begun during the Civil War, now revived with the efforts of Supreme Court Justice William Strong and the National Reform Association to amend the U.S. Constitution’s preamble to read: “Recognizing Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, and...the Lord Jesus Christ as the Governor among the nations, His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government,” we the People, etc.
Although such proposals proved too extreme to rally widespread support in Congress, they showed the way to politicians anxious to distract voters from the financial mismanagement and gross scandals of the Grant administration. A Protestant minority, including such notable clergymen as Henry Ward Beecher, was willing to eliminate overtly Protestant religious exercises from the schools. But Beecher and his friends drew the line at public funding for Catholic schools. Where worried Protestants read signs of moral crisis and Catholic threat in the school fights, others saw political opportunity. School funding rather than school prayer became the defining issue. Constitutional amendment became the method. And political gain provided an important motivation.
The nativist, anti-Catholic forces continued to wield influence well into the 20th century. The stated purpose and influence of the Ku Klux Klan as well as the ongoing battles over the status of parochial schools are only two examples of the persistent viability of these sentiments. People of my generation can still remember that one of the major issues in John F. Kennedy’s Presidential campaign was questions about his Catholicism.
Suffice it to say that the nativist rantings in our time against Muslims are little different than those once levelled against Catholics.
They are also equally ill-conceived.
*Petition from 97 electors in Washington County, New York (Source: National Archives, Washington, D.C.)
To the Honorable the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States, in congress Assembled:
The Memorial [written statement of facts] of your petitioners [people making a request] humbly sheweth [show], that seldom has a nation arisen, prospered, declined and fallen, without feeling, in the time of their prosperity and begun decline, an ominous [threatening] confidence in the strength of their institutions, and a fatal disregard of that which ultimately effected their ruin. This should teach us caution.
Experience has proved the weakness of all human institutions [government systems, laws, etc.] under the attacks of corrupt principles, and has made the fact evident that the material of their [the institutions] strength lies in the intelligence, sound principles, and good morals of the people. This experience shows the necessity of vigilance [watchfulness], and especially of a vigilant eye on all principles and measures, which, though they be at present feebly supported, yet when they acquire strength, are sufficient to subvert the liberties of the State.
Our equal right of suffrage [voting], which is the greatest excellence of our political institutions, is by abuse and intrigue on the one hand, and unsuspecting confidence on the other, the chief avenue of danger: and this has not escaped the notice of eagle-eyed despotism [rule of absolute power]. The easy access of foreigners to the elective franchise [power to vote] in the United States, by the present laws of naturalization, and of foreigners of doubtful morals and hostile political principles, is a source of danger to our civil and religious liberties, to which your Memorialists would humbly and earnestly invite the speedy attention of Congress.
Equal right of suffrage is the right of the majority to rule; but our constitution did not contemplate a majority hostile to its principles. And by the very fact of naturalization laws, our nation says – We have principles, privileges and institutions which we cherish, and will maintain, and in opposition to which, no foreigner shall have a right of suffrage with us. If we cherish civil and religious liberties and esteem [value] them above all price, we have a right to defend them from foreign invasion; whether it approach by open warfare, or insidiously [undercover tactics] by obtaining the privilege of citizenship. Since naturalization laws have been judged necessary, let them be adequate for our defense. Our country has happily been the asylum [safe haven] of the poor and oppressed of other nations; let it still be worthy of the name, and not yield to a despotism which none may court [invite] to enjoy. Let us see that those admitted from the lap of tyranny to the right of suffrage with us be indeed the friends of our cherished liberties.
Your Memorialists view with deep concern the great influx [flowing in, migration] of Roman Catholics into this country from the various nations of Europe, and their admission to citizenship while they retain their principles, as eminently [importantly] threatening our civil and religious liberties. Dr. Robertson in his history of Scotland, says of Popery that it “prepares and breaks the mind for political servitude”-that it is “a system of superstition which is the firmest foundation of civil tyranny”-“a religion, whose very spirit as well as practice is persecuting [oppressing], sanguinary [accompanied by bloodshed] and encroaching [taking over another’s property].”
Against Roman Catholics, as men, we have no hostility [anger]. Against their religion, in it religious character, we ask no legislation, offensive or defensive; we leave it to be combatted by the appropriate weapons of education and religious institutions; but against political principles interwoven with their religion, we do ask legislative defense. This distinction must be made if we would not be the dupes and victims of foreign intrigue [plotting]. Our constitution happily allows the free toleration of all religions; it is for this toleration that we plead against a religion which refuses it. Does our constitution, by allowing the toleration of all religions, contemplate the toleration of a politically intolerant religion? the toleration of political principles subversive [intending to destroy] of our free institutions, merely because interwoven with a religious creed [statement of religious belief]? Are political principles subversive of our free institutions less dangerous, or less the subjects of constitutional condemnation [disapproval], because they are part of a religious system? Does our constitution intend to tolerate a religion, which would erect a church establishment subjecting the civil authorities, and our civil and religious liberties, to its religious and despotic [authoritarian] control? Does it allow the mere name of religion to sanctify [make holy] such political principles subversive of its very spirit and intention? Our constitution is not suicidal.
Your Memorialists, unwilling to encroach on your patience, earnestly petition your honorable body to inquire whether the principles of Roman Catholics, as held at present as well as formerly, are not political and hostile to civil and religious liberty; and whether their religion is not essentially political, requiring the union of Church and State, and the subjection of the latter to the former: and whether it does not require allegiance [loyalty] to the Pope of Rome, holding the obligation to obey him, as paramount to all other authority, and his subjects not bound even by an oath, when he requires the breach of it for the sake of his religion? And whether it does not justify, and imperiously [urgently] require, legislative defense against this influence in our government; and further, whether there be not a plan in operation, powerful and dangerous, under the management of the Leopold Foundation, for the subversion of our civil and religious liberties, to be effected by the emigration of Roman Catholics from Europe, and by their admission to the right of suffrage with us in our political institutions; and further, whether any amendment of the laws of naturalization can more fully secure our free institutions, our liberties, civil and religious, against the danger of subversion by foreign influence, despotic tyrannical principles, even under the cloak of religion. All which is respectfully submitted.