There have been several nativist, or anti-immigration, political movements in the United States. The largest movements occurred during the mid-19th century and the early 20th century, and both achieved modest but brief political success. The first was the Know-Nothing movement that centered around anti-Catholicism in the 1840s and 1850s, and the second is the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.
Nativist movements tend to happen during political, religious or economic crises. Typically, ethnic groups, particular religions and especially immigrants are blamed for the turmoil. The earliest nativist movements in the United States focused on immigration, and by the mid-1800s, American nativists actively organized against newly arriving Roman Catholic immigrants. In addition to opposing Asian and Latin-American immigration, later movements became anti-Semitic and also focused racially on African Americans.
Anti-Catholic sentiment came to America with the English Protestants, and most of early middle and upper class America was composed of white Protestants. By the 1840s, many Catholic Irish and German immigrants were flocking to the United States fleeing poverty and political oppression. Nativists and some Protestant clergy were causing public hysteria with propaganda stating that the Pope was using these new immigrants to take control of the United States. By the 1840s, anti-Catholic nativists were becoming politically organized as evidenced by the creation of the American Republican Party in New York. The American Republican Party formed a coalition with the Whig Party in the 1844 New York City elections and achieved success.
The success of the American Republican Party led to the formation of a national organization in 1849. The Know-Nothing, or American Party, arose in the North from the core of the New York nativists. They were called the Know-Nothings as members were instructed to respond, "I know nothing," if asked about party beliefs. Much of the party’s membership consisted of former Whigs and Northern white Protestants who feared competition with immigrants rapidly arriving in New York, Boston and other cities. The American Party chose Millard Fillmore as its presidential candidate in 1856. Fillmore lost, but he did receive 900,000 votes. By 1860, the party had declined greatly.
Ku Klux Klan
The Ku Klux Klan originated shortly after the Civil War to terrorize African Americans and Southern Republicans. However, by the 1920s, the Klan had taken a staunch nativist position in addition to its racism. The nativist platform increased Klan membership not only in the South but in the Midwest and elsewhere. By the 1920s, it had over three million members, and the Klan advocated an anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and anti-immigration platform. Its popularity was short-lived as violence and corruption led the Klan to rapidly lose membership in the 1930s.
- Northern Illinois University Libraries Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project: Nativism
- West Virginia University The American Religious Experience: American Nativism, 1830-1845
- Ohio History Central: Know-Nothing Party
- George Mason University Center for History and New Media: The Klan Rides Again
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