Student Center

American Nativism, 1830-1845

Sean Baker/WVU Undergraduate

During the 1830s and 1840s Americans with nativist sentiments made a concerted effort to enter into the local and national political arenas. Nativism's political relevance grew out of the increase of immigrants during the ‘20s and ‘30s and the anti-foreign writings that abounded during these decades. While pivoting between anti-foreign and anti-catholic appeals, nativism became both practical and ideological in nature: platforms for the movement ranged from extending the length naturalization to protecting the sacredness of the Protestant Republic. In New York city's 1844 elections, the nativist movement formed the American Republican Party, which allied with the Whigs and resulted in the defeat of the Democratic Party. This political advancement, although local and short lived, presented a glimpse of the national nativist power later found in the know- nothings. Clearly, early nineteenth-century nativism participated in significant political changes, and the goal of this paper is to summarize nativism between 1830 and 1845 while analyzing these major political developments.

With its first edition appearing January 2, 1830, The Protestant represented one of the earliest publications of nativist literature. George Bourne edited the publication, and he conveyed his mission clearly: the goal of the paper centered around the denunciation of the Catholic faith. Bourne understood the belittling of the "popish" belief to be the only way in which to warn the Republic of the Catholic danger. In his book, The Protestant Crusade, Ray Billington includes a portion of a prospectus for The Protestant, in which Bourne stated, "The sole objects of this publication are to inculcate Gospel doctrines against Romish corruptions." Although a large portion of Protestant America held some anti-foreign tendencies, Bourne's blunt attack on Catholicism did not reach the moderate Protestant. Bourne resigned and the editor's position went to Reverend William Craig Brownlee

The Protestant moved from degrading attacks on the Catholic faith to more of a theological discussion. Brownlee's disparaging tactics proved to be no more appealing to moderate Protestant than Bourne's, and The Protestant's shrinking list of subscribers forced ownership to a private group individuals. To avoid a connection with Bourne's and Brownlee's extreme attacks, the name of the paper changed in 1882 to The Reformation Advocate, but the paper still could not find a method to support a large audience. In 1883 the paper changed a third time, replacing the weekly publication with the monthly Protestant Magazine. Here, the magazine questioned theological issues of the Catholic faith, and avoided the "sensationalism which had characterized The Protestant." Finally, those who wished to promote the nativist cause through publication found a position that moderate-Protestant America found accepting.

As the early nativist publication efforts became accepted, the need for a formal organization developed. The New York Protestant Association (formed in 1831) gave the cause a structured environment and allowed individuals with the same view to interact on a large scale. By early 1832, the popularity of the association drew many nativists to the formal meetings. With meetings being open to the public, Catholics also attended, and the mixing of both Catholics and nativists inevitably resulted in debate. Many times a Catholic in the audience would respond to a malicious or inaccurate statement made by a member of the association. In May of 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. These early Catholic aggressions–although, possibly warranted due to the nativists' antagonism–captured moderate America's attention. By 1833, a variety of mainstream papers followed these events, and some moderate Protestants viewed Catholics as a danger.

Although Catholics occasionally reacted to the nativist movement with violence, nativists produced one of the greatest violent acts of the 1830s. On August 10, 1834 a mob of forty to fifty people gathered outside of the Ursulines Convent school and burned it to the ground. Although there is agreement as to the underlying causes, there is disagreement regarding the events directly leading up to the burning. Most authors agree that the stories surrounding the convent's problems with two nuns–Rebecca Reed and Elizabeth Harris–offered a target for anti- Catholic hostility just waiting to manifest. Although Rebecca Reed's stories of immoral behavior in the convent were proven to be false, when Elizabeth Harrison broke down and briefly left the convent, the public understood this act as validating Reed's accusations. Although Harrison returned to the convent and publically commented that she had been working too hard, the public saw her explanation as a cover-up. Authors disagree as to whether Lyman Beecher's three anti-catholic speeches triggered the burning. For example, Ira Leonard, author of American Nativism, 1830-1860, notes that the three anti-catholic speeches "by Lyman Beecher" ultimately "ignited the spark. This statement implies that some of the individuals involved in the burning attended one of Beecher's three sermons. Conversely, Ray Billington understands the two events to be more coincidental. Billington notes that, although the convent burned the evening of Beecher's sermons, the group of working-class men who organized the burning met on three separate occasions, two of which proceeded the Beecher's sermons. Furthermore, Beecher spoke at upper-class churches which the workers would not have attended. "In all probability," Billington comments, "the covenant would have been attacked whether or not these sermons were delivered."

The Ursuline convent burning marked a underlying national acceptance of the anti- Catholic movement. Almost unanimously the press condemned the burning, and conservative America showed its disapproval. Even Lyman Beecher and the religious press condemned the act, but a deep prejudice against Catholics became obvious in the trial of the thirteen involved. The trial demonstrated anti-Catholic biases from the beginning. Billington states, "The Attorney general was denied the right to ask jurors whether they were prejudice against Catholics." Moreover, when the jury acquitted the first individual, John Buzzell, the audience of a thousand applauded, and as Buzzell exited the courtroom, people mobbed him in an effort to congratulate him. Furthermore, the Boston legislature turned Bishop Fenwick's petition for funds to rebuild over to a special committee which denied the Catholics the "right" to be reimbursed, but "recommended" to a lower committee to reimburse the money. In the end, the lower committee chose not to reward any monies. Although initially condemned by the press, the acquittal of all those tried for the burning and the legislative decision to award no compensation demonstrated a lack of concern over the incident.

The works of Samuel F. B. Morse and Lyman Beecher represented a fear of a Catholic conspiracy to control the nation. The Usurline convent burning and the handling of the trial acted as a barometer, measuring the country's foreign resentment. With Irish and German immigration reaching record high numbers many feared this growing foreign body could possibly take control of the country (Ireland produced one-third all immigrants between 1830 and 184.), and the majority of people who subscribed to this fear saw the Catholics, with their Pope, as the main concern. Samuel F.B. Morse and Reverend Lyman Beecher both wrote commentaries warning "their fellow countrymen" of "the foreign Catholic menace" plotting to take control. In 1834 Morse, a distinguished professor of sculpture and painting at New York University, wrote The Foreign Conspiracies Against the Liberties of the United States and in 1835 wrote The Imminent dangers to the Free Institutions of the United States. I n 1835, Beecher, the president of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, wrote the speech A plea for the West. Morse's and Beecher's ultimate message centered around protecting the "American birth right of liberty." This concern over foreign communities developed out of many different factors, but mainly from the Protestant fear of Catholicism's monarchial tendencies. Furthermore, as the urban areas grew, many nativists misunderstood enclaves as defiance or insurrection against the country. Ira Leonard notes, "the newcomers tendency to cluster together in religious or nationality communities was branded clannish and regarded as a deliberate effort to resist ‘Americanization.'" Many nativists, like Morse and Beecher, saw "clannishness" as proof of the immigrants' resistance to "Americanization," but in all actuality they saw the natural response of a foreign community in hostile environment.

With the success of Morse and Beecher, the nativist movement reached a point where the audience began to accept near fictional work. In 1836, Maria Monk published Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal. In this work, Monk told of her experiences with Catholicism, which involved forced sexual intercourse with priests and the murdering of nuns and children. The book concludes with her escape in order to save her unborn child, and its success immediately produced a sequel. In the second work, Monk described two suicide attempts with each followed by her rescue. When she is saved the second time, she understands the act to be one of divine intervention and recognizes her need tell others of her story. Monk's mother denies 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. Although the work consisted of many unlikely happenings, by the civil war it sold over 3,00,000 copies. The large popularity of Maria Monk's work testified to the popularity of Nativist thought in 1836. Essentially, people appreciated the topic so much, they followed even the most questionable works.

The McGuffey Readers also began publication in 1836 and functioned as the basic reading material for both primary and secondary education throughout the country. The goal of the series centered around the conveying of moral behavior. The series incorporated religious topics into the stories, and McGuffy emphasized the importance of Christianity in his work. Jerome Ozer, author of The Foundation of Nativism in American Textbooks, notes that McGuffy understood the Bible to be a "school book." Furthermore, McGuffy viewed his extracts from the Bible as not involving "any questions of debate among the various denominations." Ozer understands McGuffy's last statement as an attempt to secure his readers in public schools regardless of the school controversy outcome

The public school controversies of the 1840s questioned New York city's handling of public school funds. Starting in 1805, Dewitt Clinton formed the Public School Society with the goal of educating children not wealthy enough to afford private education. Clinton pioneered publically supported primary education, and his successful efforts resulted in the Common Council of New York contributing state support to his program. The Common Council faced its first school controversy in 1831 when they deviated from their typical routine and allotted funds to the Protestant Orphanage Society. Immediately, the Catholic Benevolent Society responded with a request for their orphanage, and they received the request. But the decade to follow developed many additional tensions, specifically dealing with the Public School Society's use of the King James Bible and its use of an ecclesiastical history book which belittled the Catholic faith. Eventually, Governor William H. Seward, who sympathized with the Catholics came to their aid. Seward felt that education was crucial in incorporating the youth into American society, and expressed these views in a legislative message calling for the foreign born to be taught in their own language, with their own faith. A group of Catholics churches petitioned the Common Council for a share of the Common School fund. Conversely, the Public School Society petitioned against the Catholics' request, noting that this act would set a precedent by which any group could call for its share of state educational funds. Ultimately, the Common Council denied the Catholics' request and with the committee's favoring of the Public School Society, Catholics began to organize politically.

The rejection of the Catholic petition for state funds pushed this educational issue into the state political arena. After the Common Council decided to reject the Catholics' petition, the Catholics felt their citizenship meant nothing. As citizens of the state, the state funds for public education were as much theirs as any Protestant organization. Consequently, the group of Catholic churches urged Bishop John Hughes to assist in their request. In a petition to the Common Council, Hughes stated that the Public School Society was "filling the minds of Catholic children with errors of fact" through "books and teachings" noticeably "opposed to Catholicism." In response to this claim, the Public School Society responded to Hughes's statement, noting that they were "non-sectarian," and their only goal was to convey the truth of the Bible. These conversations between the two groups produced a meeting in which both sides would present their positions publically. On October 29, 1840 both groups gathered in front of a committee which concluded that the Catholic organizations would not receive any public funds.

Shortly after the committee's decision to deny funds, Hughes organized a petition calling for a "completely secular, state controlled religion." Hughes recognized this as the only way in which the Catholic church could remove the anti-Catholic teachings of the public schools. Although Hughes urged the issue to be removed from religious controversy--calling it one of education rather than religion--the press immediately stressed the Catholic-verses-protestant aspect of the issue. Despite Hughes efforts, religion overshadowed the whole discussion and regardless of the merit of the Catholic position, the press conveyed the problem to be one of religion rather than education. This petition appealed beyond local political agencies to the state legislature, and the New York state legislature found itself between the plea of the governor, calling for public funding of Catholic schools, and the discouragement of the Public School Society, warning of the precedent this act would set. Legislature decided to undertake a study of the situation and called on John C. Spenser, the Secretary of State and the Superintendent of State Common Schools, to analyze the problem and suggest a solution.

Hughes's voting tactics reaffirmed the Protestant fear of the Catholic danger to America. Spencer analyzed the issue and concluded that "the general laws of the state" should be "extended to New York city." Therefore, the Public School Society, a private organization, should relinquish its control of common schools. But legislature postponed making any official decision, and subsequently, the 1841 elections centered around the public school controversy. The Whig party, not appealing to the foreign vote, positioned itself against any changes in the existing school system; the democratic party, which usually relied on the foreign vote, tried to avoid the issue completely. Essentiality , the democratic party faced a dismal situation. Typically they needed the Catholic vote to defeat the Whigs, but because the school controversy positioned Protestants against Catholics, a platform sympathetic to the Catholics would lose all Protestant support. In an attempt to scare the Democratic party, Hughes urged the formation of a alternative ticket in which Catholics would follow by religious affiliation. Although Hughes probably intended to give the Catholic vote to the Democratic party when it pledged its support, the Democratic support never came: the Democratic party announced its position would call for no change in the school system. Consequently, the Catholic ticket remained, and Whig party defeated the Democrats. Although the Catholics succeeded in demonstrating their political power, the public saw Catholicism as a danger–the same danger that the works of Morse and Beecher warned of. With the faith of Catholicism uniting the Catholic vote, many moderate Protestants felt the this act threatened the liberty of the country–a liberty John Higham recognizes as our nation's "chief national attribute and supreme achievement.

One of the most detrimental elements of the Catholic cause came from the press misrepresenting the Catholic position. From the beginning of the controversy, the majority of the secular press stood against the Catholic call for equal funds. Although the Catholic church called for the removal of Bible reading as a way to keep its children from the misrepresentations of their faith, the press tried to show that the Catholic church stood against religious education. Moreover, some papers went so far as to say that the Catholic church stood against education entirely. Furthermore, when the appeal for state school funds failed twice, some Catholics began to disrupt hearings, and rather than presenting the unfairness of the hearings, the press focused attention onto the Catholics tendency to disrupt the American political process. Unfortunately, these misrepresentations acted as proof to many Protestants that the Catholic faith could not fit inside of the United States. When in 1842, legislature followed Spencer's suggestion and passed the Maclay act, the press portrayed this as proof of the Catholic destruction of the country.

The passing of the Maclay act moved many nativists to enter into the local political arena. Many Protestants understood the Maclay act as a complete victory for the Catholic cause and therefore passionately worked for an appeal of the law. Although the Whig party won the 1841 elections, the Democratic party still dominated state legislature, and the passing of the Maclay act returned Catholic support to the Democrats. The nativists were aware of the dangers of partisan politics, and from this concern, nativism began to build a political platform. The first official group called itself the Native Americans and understood all of New York's political and social problems to be the result of two-party corruptions. The Native Americans saw the immigrant vote, especially the Catholic vote, as a tool which certain parties competed for. The main platform of the party centered around the extension of naturalization laws. In 1844, the Native Americans reorganized into the American Republican party led by James Harper. In his book, American Party in Politics, the nineteenth-century historian John Hancock Lee witnessed the formation of the American Republican party and called it "uncontaminated" by the motives of "aspiring politicians." Essentially Lee understood the American Republican party to be the only party based on a sincere platform rather than a goal of political success The party allied with the Whigs which resulted in the defeat of the Democratic party. From this victory, the American Republican party demonstrated the local political relevance of the nativist movement which would later manifest on the national level through know-nothings.

In conclusion, nativism has relevance inside of both religious and political discussions of nineteenth-century America. The movement is responsible for acts ranging from the tragic burning of a convent to the formation of a political party geared towards restoring sincere political affairs. Furthermore, nativism represents the dangers of a cultural identity gone too far, a nationalism which refuses to accept those of a different faith or place. Finally, the past effects of nativism should urge any national or cultural identity to ask itself this question: can a group have the ability to balance its cultural pride with the importance of respect ing and accepting those who are different?


1. Ray A. Billington, The Protestant Crusade, 1800-1860 (New York: Macmillian Co. 1938) 53-55.

2. Ibid., 56.

3. Ibid., 58-60

4. Ira M. Leonard and Robert D. Parmet, American Nativism, 1830-1860 (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1971) 57.

5. Billington, 73.

6. Ibid., 86-90.

7. David H. Bennett, The Party of Fear (Chapel Hill: The University of Carolina Press, 1988) 29-30.

8. Ibid., 40-41.

9. Leonard, 54-56.

10. Billington, 99-108.

11. Jerome S. Ozer, The Foundations of nativism in American Textbooks, 1783-1680(Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of American Press, 1941) 77-91.

12. Leonard, 66-69.

13. Billington, 144-158.

14. Ibid., 147.

15. Ibid., 149.

16. Ibid., 150-153.

17. John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925 (New York: Atheneum, 1963) 6.

18. Billington, 155.

19. John Hancock Lee, The Origin and the Progress of the American Party in Politics (New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1970) 29.

20. Leonard, 71-75.

Return to the American Religious Experience Mainpage