American History31 Jan 2008 09:31 pm
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
–Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”
You can’t build a fence that blocks out the sea. Originally peopled by the
Manhattoes Dutch English, the island of New York and its surroundings rapidly matured into the premier port town of a youthful United States. It grew quickly enough during the 19th C—with no little contribution from a disparate array of far-flung lands—that widespread anti-immigration, or Nativist, sentiment festered at both the street and national levels.
An overwhelming majority of the immigrants coming to the United States were from Catholic countries, and religion appears to have been the primary source for Nativist agita. For all the talk of separation of church and state that features so prominently in our Founding Fathers’ political theory—or perhaps precisely because of it—the (Protestant) national identity was seen to be compromised by the Papist allegiances of the new arrivals and the rejection of American values that such allegiances would entail.
In its first incarnation, which peaked during the 1840s, American Nativism had a distinctly anti-Irish character (mind you, south German Catholics didn’t exactly inspire adulation in Nativist quarters either). Official groups and associations, like the Order of United Americans, formed a loose nucleus for the movement. One secret society, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, gave birth to the American or “Know-Nothing” Party, which ran ex-President Milliard Fillmore as a candidate for the White House in 1856. Another famous candidate, Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, ran for the Mayoralty of New York City on a Nativist platform.
At the same time as these organizations held meetings in polite society and competed in elections, they promulgated lurid propaganda about Catholics (their occult infant-sacrifice rituals and the like) that helped whipped up violent fury among the “native born” population. Througout the period, riots flared up across the Northeast, especially in New York (a recent fictionalization is the Martin Scorcese film, Gangs of New York); destruction of Catholic property and loss of life usually followed.
By the time the of Civil War, the Irish population of New York had been incorporated, to some degree, into the political power structure of the city, specifically into the Democratic (opposition) Party under the aegis of Tammany Hall. In 1863, the city saw the largest civil insurrection in American history, the New York Draft Riots; most of the rioters were Irish and German Catholics. Somewhat ironically, they directed their ire, violently, upon the city’s black population, a symbol, so they saw it, for a group of people undeserving of the citizenship that a Union victory would grant them.
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