The American Party was founded in 1849, though nobody ever called it that. Probably not even its founders.
It was the product of the merger of a number of other organizations – The Order of the Star Spangled Banner, The Order of United Americans, and so on – and it was originally something of a secret society. Its members were instructed, when asked about the inner workings of the party, to respond with the simple phrase, “I know nothing,” and for this reason they quickly became known as the Know-Nothing Party.
The Know-Nothings were perhaps the most unintentionally self-revelatory of all of the groups dedicated to one of the darker and more unsavory of American habits: nativism.
Nativism is basically the belief that immigration was a lovely and perfect thing right up until the day after your own ancestors washed up on these shores, after which it became a threat to all that was good, true, and holy and had to be stamped out. It is a particular foible of white Americans, many of whom seem to think that the Native Americans who were here when their ancestors arrived were interlopers who needed to be removed from what was obviously their land. It has a long history in this country, one that encompasses a surprising number of groups, and it seems to be enjoying a resurgence of popularity here in the Land of the Free.*
In the 18th century, for example, Benjamin Franklin – normally (and for the most part correctly) seen as an apostle of Enlightenment tolerance and consistently voted “Founding Father You’d Most Like to Have a Beer With” by people who think that sort of thing is meaningful – had a few choice things to say about the Germans who made up such a large percentage of the population of Pennsylvania at the time.
"Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation,” he wrote in 1751, “… and as few of the English understand the German Language, and so cannot address them either from the Press or Pulpit, ’tis almost impossible to remove any prejudices they once entertain…Not being used to Liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it…I remember when they modestly declined intermeddling in our Elections, but now they come in droves, and carry all before them, except in one or two Counties...In short unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies, as you very judiciously propose, they will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious."
Change the focus from “German” to “Mexican” or “Muslim,” coarsen and simplify the language and make a few spelling errors and grammatical mistakes to appeal to the sorts of people who believe this kind of thing these days, and this could have been featured on yesterday’s cable news or been the substance of a tweet storm ragetyped by der Sturmtrumper from the White House shitter during time that had been scheduled for something more productive such as an intelligence briefing. Irony is a right bitch sometimes.
Nativism got overshadowed by the Revolutionary Crisis that enveloped the colonies in the decades after Franklin wrote that, but came back with a vengeance in the early 1800s in the face of the Old Immigrants.
The Old Immigrants were the first major wave of immigration into the US after the Revolution. They were mostly northern and western Europeans – Germans, Scandinavians, Irish, and so on – and they began arriving in numbers in the 1820s and 1830s. They continued arriving in numbers almost up to the Civil War, though by then the totals had begun to fall off.
They faced bitterly hostile reactions from people who had been born here. This was especially true of the Irish immigrants, who were rather distinct from the others.
Most of the Old Immigrants were Protestant. They came over in families, they were literate, and if they weren’t exactly wealthy then neither were they poor, as a rule. They tended to head inland to settle on the frontier – especially the Germans, who made western cities like St. Louis and Milwaukee their own. The Irish, on the other hand, were Catholic – the only major Catholic group of immigrants before the Civil War. They were generally poor and often sick, came over as single men or, less often, women, and tended to be uneducated. They tended to stay in the eastern port cities where they arrived, since that’s where they were when their money ran out. They were different. And they were targets.
Anti-Irish rioting broke out in cities like New York and Philadelphia in the 1830s and 1840s. Buildings burned, people were murdered, and often it was only the city militia that could restore order. The nativist groups that coalesced out of these riots eventually formed the core of the Know-Nothing Party.
What’s interesting about all this is how little the Germans were targeted by then. They were now okay, in large part because they were now considered to be white.
They weren’t in Franklin’s day, you know.
In that same 1751 pamphlet where Franklin criticized the Germans for their language and inassimilable culture, he also complained of the “swarthy” Germans contaminating the “purely white” English culture of the colonies. He did make an exception for the Saxons, who – as the ancestors of the English – were clearly white. But the rest of the Germans were part of the “black or tawny” part of humanity, and thus inferior.
Remember, these are the same Germans that the Nazis would hold up as the paragons of white pride. Things change. Though the neo-Nazis and modern nativists who prattle on about this stuff today would do well to remember Franklin and what his position means for theirs. White is a cultural construct, not a biological fact.
By the 1830s, the Germans were white in America, but the Irish were not. The Irish don’t become white until the late 19th century, largely because of the New Immigrants.
The New Immigrants started coming over in numbers after the Civil War, in the 1870s. You get a peak in the early 1880s, and then another peak in the first decade or so of the 20th century, and then WWI slows it to a trickle before the nativists shut it off completely in the 1920s.
They were a very diverse lot.
Some of them were Asians. There were a lot of Chinese immigrants, for example – a process that started before the Civil War, actually, but which gained momentum afterward until you started to see the same kind of anti-immigrant rioting against the Chinese in the 1870s that you saw against the Irish in the 1830s and 1840s. Ironically one of the primary leaders of the anti-Chinese riots in San Francisco was an Irish immigrant named Denis Kearney, because you can’t make up stuff like that. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 put a stop to most of that immigration. The nativists won, in other words. Democracy is no guarantee of morality.
There were also large numbers of Japanese and Filipino immigrants, which is why so many of the people we imprisoned without trial during WWII for the crime of looking like people we were fighting a war against were second- and third-generation American citizens, many of whose families had been here longer than those of the people who were locking them up.
It can happen to you, too.
There were also Middle Easterners – large groups of immigrants from Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and so on. It usually comes as a surprise to my students to discover that there have been Muslims in what would become the United States as early as the 1600s and sizeable Muslim communities in the United States for nearly a century and a half, peacefully living as Americans and generally causing no more – and often far less – trouble than their Christian neighbors. You would not believe the things I am sometimes accused of for pointing this out, or perhaps you would. But to quote John Adams, “Facts are stubborn things.”
Most of the New Immigrants, however, were from southern and eastern Europe. Slavs. Italians. Greeks. Spaniards. Portuguese. East European Jews. And so on.
What they all had in common was that they were far more different from the locals and the Old Immigrants than the Old Immigrants had been from the locals back in the early 1800s, except the Irish, of course, whom they resembled in many ways. They were generally not Protestant – they were Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and so on. They came from countries where public education was often non-existent and were thus usually illiterate. They spoke languages that were not remotely like English. They were poor, and generally stayed in the port cities where their money ran out.
They were also, in fact, swarthy compared to the people living here, African-Americans aside. And suddenly the Irish become white too, by comparison, although it took a while for anti-Irish nativism to die down even so.
It’s not an accident the treatment of the New Immigrants paralleled that of the Irish before the Civil War, including riots against them.
The New Immigrants were, of course, blamed for every social ill the country was going through in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Despite the fact that they were generally the victims in these scenarios rather than the perpetrators, they were blamed for urban overcrowding, prostitution, crime, and political corruption. They were seen as the root cause of vice and immorality, and as radicals for daring to protest the often inhumane conditions in factories across the US. And when nativists figured out that the New Immigrants didn’t always agree with the way they were portrayed, they decided to solve the problem by shutting off the flow of immigration to the US almost entirely in the 1920s. The nativists won again. They do that, when people Know Nothing.
That doesn’t begin to change until after WWII.
World War II was one of the most racially charged conflicts in modern history, with the Fascist powers in particular fighting for the victory of their different master races (there is no small irony in Hitler’s Germany, with its blonde, blue-eyed mockery of a master race being so tightly allied with the Italians and the Japanese, but then he didn’t look like his own model either, really). The contradiction between American armies opposing those armies abroad while strictly segregating races at home was one of the primary catalysts of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and eventually the sheer hypocrisy of it led to the loosening of immigration restrictions as well. Sometimes the nativists lose, too.
And now we find ourselves in a new age of nativism, when immigration is once again opposed by people who were fine with it until the day after their ancestors got here. We are surrounded by Know-Nothings.
But I do know something. I know a great many things, actually.
I know that the US is a nation of immigrants. I know that we were built by immigrants. I know that we are richer, stronger, more innovative, more secure, more cultured, better fed, and better positioned in the world when we recognize this fact. I know that immigrants pay taxes – even illegal immigrants, which always comes as a surprise to the wall-builders – and that the simple mathematical fact is that they pay significantly more taxes than many Fortune 500 companies and infinitely more taxes than the current president. I also know that, given the trends in American birthrates, immigrants are essentially our only source of population growth anymore. I know we need immigrants to keep the United States going.
The more you know, the less you are willing to put up with the nonsense of the ignorant, I find.
You want a real American Party? Find one that welcomes immigrants.
*Terms and conditions apply – see your local right-wing extremist to see what rights you still qualify for, and don’t be surprised if the answer is disappointing. We tried to warn you.