06 January 2016

The Spectre of Nativism

Few things get my historical scholar's goat more than a post like this one, about Trump the Nativist.

Nativism was a complex phenomenon throughout American history, and a very mutable one. In this case, I would like to look at what might be considered a Janus-faced component of the old-time Nativist like George Bourne, whose Abolitionist views were inseperable from those attitudes he shared with Trump. Let's take a closer look at Robin Dale Jacobson's commentary.

While many pundits have looked to former regimes in Germany or Italy to explain the dangers they perceive Trump to embody, we need to understand him and his following as an American phenomenon. . . . John Higham, in the canonical book Strangers in the Land, wrote that nativism is “an intense opposition to an internal minority on the ground of its foreign (i.e. ‘un-American’) connections.” This opposition can have a wide range of targets in “response to the changing character of the minority irritants and the shifting conditions of the day; but through each separate hostility runs the connecting, energizing force of modern nationalism.”

Certainly American Nativism is rooted in the idea of nationality. The problem is that nationality is another of those mutable ideas that in a political discourse conceals much more than it reveals. What is the basis for a nation? The first naturalisation act, passed in 1790, defined a potential new American as a 'free white person'. It then asked them to live in the country for two years. It is this residency period that is of interest here, and is a commonplace in naturalisation legislation around the world even today. The final step in the process was to swear an oath of allegiance to support the Constitution. Today's historians focus on the whiteness requirement, but at the time that was barely discussed. In fact, it certainly seems that the residency requirement was seen as crucial.

Mr Hartley said...he thought some security for their fidelity and allegiance was requisite besides the bare oath that is, he thought an actual residence of such a length of time as would give a man an opportunity of esteeming the Government from knowing its intrinsic value, was essentially necessary to assure us of a man's becoming a good citizen.

from the House Journal, 1st Congress, pp 1147-8

Thus, from the very first piece of federal legislation concerning immigrants, we see that there are important political considerations involved in the question of nationality. The key element turns out to have been the residency requirement, as opposed to the 'bare oath' This is further illustrated by later debates on the 1798 act that sought to extend the residency period to fourteen years.

Mr Bayard said...Every principle of policy, in his opinion, required this regulation to be made general; for he believed there was many Jacobins and vagabonds come into the United States during the last two years, as may come for ten years hence; so that these very persons against whom this law was intended to operate, will become citizens, and may be chosen into the government.

from the House Journal, 5th Congress, p 1780

Again, here we see a political issue. At the time of the French Revolution, Jacobins were seen as having the potential to subvert the Constitution, given their unhealthy enthusiasm for the will of the people, as opposed to the kind of solid bourgeois republicanism that defined the American. But it was also the moment of the Quasi-War, which could easily have turned into a proper one.

Mr Varnum said...there was no necessity for any measures being taken with respect to foreigners, except such as belong to the nation with whom we expect to be at war.

from the House Journal, 5th Congress, p1782

I can easily imagine how a Trump supporter might see the United States as a nation at war with Islam, or at least those of its Radicals who have in practical terms declared war on it. The fact that a significant majority of Americans polled are opposed to a ban on Moslem visitors should give us some comfort. Let me return to Jacobson's text.

The durable American nativist tradition has an additional common feature: a racial religious othering. Throughout history we see religious differences being blended with racial differences; groups of people perceived to be sharing a religion are characterized as having innate immutable differences that threaten the native citizens or the nation as a whole. ... Nativist responses to new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe in the early twentieth century were also centered at the intersection of race and religion. Advocates who opposed immigration argued that these newcomers from sending areas in Europe, including Italian and Irish Catholics as well as eastern European Jews, threatened to overwhelm the U.S., and to damage the racial and religious character (read: white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant) of the country.

Here Jacobson is guilty of condensing two distinct moments in Nativism. In the 1830s through the 1850s, hostility towards immigrants was mostly rooted in their Catholicism. The hostility that emerged in the 1890s and carried on into the quotas of the 1924 immigration legislation did identify nationality or, if one prefers, ethnicity in relation to religious hostility. Tellingly, this covers the period that Higham does. He gives only a few pages over to the earlier manifestations of Nativism, and does not reflect at length on the process by which ethnicity became attached. But I would like to focus on the earlier response. Why did Roman Catholicism seem to present a threat?

This shameful font of indifferentism gives rise to that absurd and erroneous proposition which claims that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone. It spreads ruin in sacred and civil affairs, though some repeat over and over again with the greatest impudence that some advantage accrues to religion from it.

Para 14 of the Papal Encyclical Mirari Vos, issued in August 1832

Here We must include that harmful and never sufficiently denounced freedom to publish any writings whatever and disseminate them to the people, which some dare to demand and promote with so great a clamor. We are horrified to see what monstrous doctrines and prodigious errors are disseminated far and wide in countless books, pamphlets, and other writings which, though small in weight, are very great in malice.

Para 15 of the Papal Encyclical Mirari Vos, issued in August 1832

These two paragraphs suggest that 1830s Americans had cause to be suspicious about the threat posed by the Roman church to proverbially American values enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Nor were Americans shy about taking these comments aimed at liberty of conscience and freedom of speech and expanding them to encompass much more.

Romanism, in its merely secular attributes and political and social effects, ever and immutably is opposed to civil and religious freedom; and is destructive of all those rights of man with which our Declaration of Independence proclaims to be inalienable.

p6, The Text-Book of American Popery, George Bourne's Nativist book

And, of course, as immigration from Catholic countries grew, it was associated with this political threat to the American political order.

This danger from uneducated mind is augmenting daily by the rapid influx of foreign emigrants, the greater part unacquainted with our institutions, unaccustomed to self-government, inaccessible to education and easily accessible to prepossession, and inveterate credulity, and intrigue, and easily embodied and wielded by sinister design. In the beginning this eruption of revolutionary Europe was not anticipated, and we opened our doors wide to the influx and naturalisation of foreigners. But it is becoming a terrific inundation...what if this emigration, self-moved and slow in the beginning, is now rolling its broad tide at the bidding of the powers of Europe hostile to free institutions, and associated in holy alliance to arrest and put them down?...Are not the continental powers alarmed at the march of liberal opinions, and associated to put them down?

pp 51-2, Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States, by Samuel Morse (unlike Bourne, a defender of slavery).

Morse chooses his words with care there, as the 'holy alliance' was indeed a real thing, lasting from about 1815 to 1820. And the Papacy was seen as in league with the Austrian Empire, itself in the care of Prince Klemens von Metternich, a particular bogeyman of those 1830s Nativists, as can be demonstrated by a citation from this 1836 article.

Austria is now the only temporal support of the Papal power in Europe. Under the ministry of the most tyrannical Prince Metternich, she continues her support to the Court of Rome. This Prince Metternich is one of the greatest enemies of mankind now living; a man who has done more for the support of despotic principle, and to enslave the masses of Europe, than any other man.

p178, Methodist Magazine, April 1837, from an article on the Papacy's prospects by a New England divine named S W Coggeshall who was possibly the author of this letter to Lincoln supporting a more radical approach to war against the Confederacy.

Those masses fleeing Metternich's slavery, however, showed little sign of embracing Protestant religion, despite spending several years breathing liberty's air in the United States. Instead, they were building up a Catholic presence in the United States, which people like Bourne, Morse and Coggeshall thought clearly alien to American political values. While Coggeshall mentions Irish immigration, it is only a reference to its scale (see p 180). His invective says nothing about race but everything of his fears of Catholic institutions being founded in the United States, and the conspiratorial efforts of a mysterious St Leopold Foundation, directed from Vienna and in receipt of papal approbation.

Whatever changes might arise for historians to argue over in its later manifestations, history shows us that the man concern Americans initially had about immigrants related to their politics. In this case, the internal minority was a religious one and, further to remove race from the equation, one that drew its membership from multiple states, and thus possessed loyalty (or antipathy, in the case of the Irish) towards different regimes that might, in fact, find themselves at war with one another.

It is without question that American Nativism was from the first about protecting more than the political character of the United States, and that initially race was a less significant factor since not many sought to emigrate here willingly from Africa or Asia. Slavery was, however, seen as a blot on the principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence by many Americans. It was Lincoln himself who put forth that the civil war was 'testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived [in Liberty] and so dedicated, can long endure'. For Americans of his time and the few decades earlier, American liberty seemed a precariously planted tree in a world where monarchs ruled China, India, Russia, Prussia, Austria, Brazil, Turkey, Persia, Morocco, Zululand and Madagascar. Those ideas of liberty were rooted in an Anglo-Saxon, Protestant outlook that was a smaller set than the word 'white' might imply in naturalisation acts passed by Congress. It was this day-to-day 'Anglo' culture that was seen as defining Americans. To reduce these fears to race alone does a disservice to that generation of abolitionists, unsympathetic toward 'papist' religion, who fought more successfully to end race-based slavery.

(P.S. -- By the way, if you didn't follow the Wikipedia link, George Bourne, abolitionist and nativist, was himself an immigrant from England.)

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