At its height in the nineteenth century, nativism was the often conspiratorial hostility of white, native-born, Protestant Americans to European immigrants that, at times, was embodied in political movements and evolved into genuinely exclusionist policies.

In the 1850s, a burgeoning coalition of self-proclaimed nativists swept into office and called for radical change. During the nineteenth century, the perception of immigrants shifted from welcome to demonization, usually depending on whether the United States was going through economic expansion or stagnation.

From the start, immigration and the resulting competition, whether religious, class, or racial, between ethnic groups became a key issue in the development of the United States, and one that was frequently expressed in the rhetoric of conspiracy theory.

Historically, immigration falls into three periods: colonial and eighteenth century; “Old” in the first half of the nineteenth century; and “New” starting in the 1880s. The decade from 1845 to 1854 saw the greatest proportionate influx of immigrants in U.S. history. By 1860 more than one out of every eight Americans was foreign-born, with the most numerous being Irish, German, and English immigrants.

Each period generated its own kind of nativist reaction, from Know-Nothingism (the openly nativist political party of the 1840s and 1850s), to anti-immigration laws (the first being the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, culminating in the closing of the gates through the National Origins Acts of 1921 and 1924).

It is important to note, however, that openness to immigration has remained the majority opinion, for in Tom Paine’s words, the United States was to be “an asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty” from all parts of the world.

In the colonial period, although ethnic mixture was the reality, with a majority white population living alongside an Indian and a black group of African origin, the white group was very heterogeneous in its composition. The majority were of English origin but many were Dutch, French Huguenots, German, and Scots-Irish, which created frictions.

For instance, in the Massachusetts colony, the Puritans did all they could not to admit non-English settlers. In spite of the reality of ethnic plurality, the global perception was that of Englishness. Hence, after the Revolution, the 60 percent of English origin in the white community took political power and set the tune culturally.

anti immigrant

Early nativism was marked by a belief in total assimilation, the giving up of one’s former culture, language, and behavior to be blended into a new identity, that of an American, as celebrated by Hector Saint John de Crèvecoeur, who glorified the land of limitless opportunities to all newcomers (the “melting-pot” theory).

The asylum tradition was promoted through the 1790 Naturalization Act, which made it possible for virtually anybody to be admitted and naturalized into a citizen. However, this “generous” act contained limitations; only “free white persons” who had resided in the United States for at least two years were eligible for naturalization. Hence, from the start, the reality of social and political exclusion—of blacks and Indians—paved the way for future exclusions.

The self-image of hospitality was seriously tested at the time of the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, which gave the president arbitrary countersubversive powers to exclude or deport any foreigner deemed to be dangerous, and to prosecute anybody publishing or writing in “a false, scandalous and malicious nature” about the president or Congress.

The government was reacting against European radicals whose political activities were considered subversive. The Naturalization Act was amended to provide for a fourteen-year residency requirement for prospective citizens; in 1802, Congress reduced the waiting period to five years, a provision that remains in effect today.


In the following decades, most immigrants entering the United States were Roman Catholics (one-third of all immigrants between 1830 and 1840 were from Catholic Ireland), and so ethnic prejudice against immigrants was also usually accompanied by conspiracy-mongering against Catholicism.

Since the colonial period, Americans had come to identify themselves as a Protestant nation, and many leading Protestant clergymen had cautioned the country against a papal plot to destroy U.S. liberty and society.

In the nineteenth century this conspiratorial tradition fed into nativism in a variety of forms: exclusive nativist clubs and fraternities such as the Order of United Americans or the United Sons of America; and political parties, especially when the social and economic situation was bleak, as in the late 1830s, the early 1840s, and the mid-1850s.

These groups attracted middle-class Protestants, members of the two “traditional” parties (Democratic and Whig), and working-class voters who resented what they considered to be the job competition from immigrants, the increase in crime, public drunkenness, and pauperism, and the manipulation of immigrant voters.

More significant was the proliferation of nativist propaganda. Prompted by the news of an Austrian Catholic missionary society sending money and men to the United States, Samuel F. B. Morse, a distinguished professor of sculpture and painting at New York University, wrote A Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States (1834) and he went on to publish The Imminent Dangers to the Free Institutions of the United States (1835), both of which involved denunciations of the Catholic conspiracy against the United States.

Lyman Beecher, a seventh-generation clergyman and president of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, published A Plea for the West in 1835, in which he exposed the alleged plot by the pope to build a “Vatican” in the West by sending hordes of Catholic settlers there. However, perhaps the most effective was the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” of nativism, the Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, which sold 300,000 in 1836.

Monk told of her alleged experiences with Catholicism, which involved forced sexual intercourse with priests and the murdering of nuns and children. Although her mother denied the legitimacy of her work, stating that Maria never belonged to the nunnery and that a brain injury her daughter received as a child could be the cause of her stories, the book was widely accepted as truth.

In 1841, the Vindicator was published by Rev. W. C. Brownlee, the leader of the New York Protestant Association. In the same year, there was growing concern in New York State that Catholics were gaining influence in schools because of the action of Archbishop John Hughes of New York.

He was seeking to obtain state aid for Catholic schools, which was interpreted as both a subversive plot against the First Amendment, and a refusal by Catholics to attend public schools and be assimilated. In 1842, the American Protestant Association was founded by 100 Clergymen in Philadelphia to oppose Catholics.

This propaganda led to agitation, rioting, and mobbing. Although Catholics occasionally reacted to the nativist movement with violence, nativists instigated the greater part of those violent acts. In Boston, there were numerous riots in 1823, 1826, and 1829. In May 1832, these potentially explosive conditions produced a riot at a New York Protestant Association meeting.

Further, while addressing a Baltimore Baptist audience in 1834, a group of Catholics attacked a Baptist speaker. On 10 August 1834 a mob of forty to fifty people gathered outside of the Ursuline Convent School at Charlestown, near Boston, and burned it to the ground. Although eight people were arrested and tried, only one was sentenced to life imprisonment.

This rather lenient sentence, together with the lack of condemnation in moderate Protestant circles, shows how widespread hostility to Catholics had become. The violence continued into the following decade when, for example, thirty people were killed and hundreds injured during nativist riots in Philadelphia in 1844.

Political Nativism

Anti-Catholicism gradually evolved into a political crusade. In 1844, James Harper founded the American Republican Party in order to break the deadlock between the Whig and Democratic Parties in New York State, and offer another approach to politics.

It allied with the Whigs, which resulted in the defeat of the Democratic Party. The American Republican Party demonstrated the political relevance of the nativist movement and paved the way for the entrance of the Know-Nothings into the national political scene as the only coherent organization to rest its political action on hostility to immigration and to Catholics.

The American Party had its origins in 1849 in New York. At first a secret society called the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, it became a formal party in 1853, and its members were dubbed the Know-Nothings (after their refusal to answer questions about their involvement) by Horace Greeley, a famous newspaper editor. By the middle of the 1850s the party ranked over a million members across the country.

At the local level, in the 1854 election, the Know-Nothings won six governorships and controlled legislatures in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and California, where they passed discriminatory laws against immigrants, including the first literacy tests for voting, in order to disenfranchise the Irish.

The party’s platform focused on voting rights, stretching the residency period before naturalization from five to twenty-one years, and requiring the exclusion of foreigners and Catholics from public office. After the defeat of their candidate in the presidential election of 1856, the Know-Nothings were split by their inability to overcome the slavery issue.

They lost influence and were absorbed into the expanding Republican Party, formed in 1854. However, another important factor in their decline was that not all Americans opposed the arrival of new immigrants because they were much needed by industrialists, railroad builders, and other businessmen as unskilled labor willing to accept lower wages.

Exclusion or Americanization?

After the Civil War, “new immigrants” from southern and central Europe, even more numerous and alien, increased the demonological anxiety of the native-born, which led to numerous conflicts and a radical reexamination of the country’s immigration policy.

From 1880 to 1930 a total of 25 million newcomers entered the United States. The more numerous were Italians, Jews, and Slavs—totaling more than 9 million—who brought in new customs, manners, languages, and religions.

To this flow of immigration one should add the massive black migration to the North. All these groups were scattered throughout the country but they tended to flock together in big cities, especially in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New England.

In this era of laissez-faire capitalism, nativism evolved into the fear that class conflict would destroy the social fabric of the United States. Mounting labor organization, and the importation of socialist and anarchist ideologies by immigrants, rekindled the conspiracy theories.

The violent strikes of the 1870s and 1880s were therefore seen as signs of forthcoming disaster. In this climate, the American Protective Association was organized as a secret society dedicated to eradicating “foreign despotism,” which included Catholics. One of its aims was to ban German-language instruction.

Nativism took on a special coloring in the West, where the fear was of Chinese immigrants, considered a threat to white workers because they accepted lower wages. The Workingmen’s Party led a movement for a new state constitution in California in 1878 and 1879 that included stringent discriminatory measures.

At the national level, riots and mobbing, especially in Wyoming and New York, led to mounting pressure by California and other western states on Congress to pass the nation’s first immigration restriction, which some commentators have viewed as the institutionalization of racial paranoia. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act excluded the Chinese from naturalization and immigration.

More restrictions were introduced in 1892, and Chinese immigration was banned permanently in 1902. In 1906 the first English language requirements for naturalization were enacted. The U.S. government legislated gradually to close the doors by limiting Japanese immigration through the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907–1908.

In the 1917 Immigration Law, Congress enacted a literacy requirement for all new immigrants and designated Asia as a “barred zone” (excepting Japan and the Philippines). The 1921 National Origins Act inaugurated the quota system, by which admissions from each European country was limited to 3 percent of each foreign-born nationality in the 1910 census.

It effectively favored northern Europeans at the expense of southern and eastern Europeans and Asians. The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act can be considered as a perfect application of nativist concerns for racial homogeneity since it confirmed that immigration quotas were based on the ethnic makeup of the U.S. population as a whole in 1920.

It was not until 1965 that racial criteria were removed from U.S. immigration legislation. An annual quota of 20,000 was awarded to each country, regardless of ethnicity, under a ceiling of 170,000. Up to 120,000 were allowed to immigrate from Western Hemisphere nations, not subject to quotas (until 1976).

Meanwhile, at the end of the nineteenth century in the wake of the Progressive movement, the muckrakers, social workers, and social reformers drew the public’s attention to the poverty, disease, and crime rates of immigrant ghettos.

Moreover, they sought to bridge the gap between newcomers and native-born Americans. The “new immigrants” were less skilled, less educated, more clannish, and slower to learn English. However, in order to cope with their new life, immigrants tended to organize into minority societies, trying to preserve as much of the group’s culture as possible.

But growing concern for national homogeneity urged many to think that a campaign to “Americanize”—meaning assimilation—was necessary. Thus the Bureau of Americanization was created to encourage employers to make English classes compulsory for their foreign-born workers.

For example, in the Ford Motor Company School, the first thing an immigrant was asked to learn to say was, “I am an American.” Most states banned schooling in other tongues; some even prohibited the study of foreign languages in the elementary grades, in the belief that public schools were the major tool for Americanization.

English Only?

The global trend since Word War II has been to diminish discrimination, at least by statute, and to reduce prejudice against immigrants and members of ethnic minorities. Hostility certainly lost much of its conspiracy-minded intensity, with the combined effects of the civil rights movement and the struggle by Hispanics and Native Americans for equal rights.

However, the end of racial quotas in 1965 led many Third World people to enter the United States, especially those coming from Central and South America, which alarmed many Americans and gave new targets to nativism, especially in the states where those immigrants tended to flock together. The question of bilingualism then became the central issue of nativists.

In the 1980s the “English only” movement was launched to restrict the language of government to English and encourage immigrants to learn English. Illegal immigration was another element that encouraged nativist anxieties, as encapsulated in President Ronald Reagan’s declaration in 1984 that “we have lost control of our own borders.”

Illegal immigrants were seen as a threat to native-born workers and an obstacle to unions, as they were enjoying all the advantages of living in America (schools, hospitals, welfare benefits) while escaping all the drawbacks, like taxes.

However, no legislation managed to curb the number of “undocumented” aliens on U.S. territory. In California, another upsurge of activism took place in the 1990s due to economic stagnation, rising racial tensions, and the widening gap between the rich and the poor.

Voters approved Proposition 187, which was meant to force public agencies (schools, police, and social and health services) to find out the immigration status of supposedly undocumented aliens, and report them to the immigration authorities. The initiative was judged unconstitutional. However, a direct consequence was the enactment by Congress of legislation toughening immigration enforcement laws.