Nativist: Definition, Theory & Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Political and economic changes in the 19th century led to changing attitudes about immigration. In this lesson, we'll discuss the political policy of nativism, and see how it impacted people's lives.


I am a Colorado native. This is where I was raised, this is where I live, and by golly, this is who I am. I love all things Colorado, but lately there's been a huge influx of people moving from California to the Rocky Mountains, and wouldn't you know it, they're taking all of our jobs! They're undermining our economy! They are even changing our culture! Therefore, I have become very anti-Californian. I think that Colorado businesses should only give jobs to Coloradoans, and that we need to pass laws to keep Californians out.

Okay, I don't really believe that, you Californians are all very nice, but this does illustrate a common sentiment that's appeared over the last few centuries. The political belief that an established, or native, group deserves preferential treatment over newcomers is called nativism. So, in this example, I would be a Colorado nativist.

Nativism was an unfortunate reality that many people have had to deal with across history, and is something that no one deserves. Not even Californians.

Historical Background

While people have been afraid of newcomers across all of human history, the idea of nativism is tied to a specific time period. In the 19th century, Western Europe and the United States started massive programs of industrialization, developing economies that were reliant on industrial technology. This led to the creation of huge factories that needed many workers.

By the second half of the century, these industrial economies were in high demand of laborers at the same time that many other nations were going through economic problems. The result was a massive wave of immigration as people from Eastern Europe, Asia, and predominantly rural nations flooded into industrial centers like London, Sydney, and New York.

Most of these cities had never experienced massive immigration before, not even those in the United States. With the visible changes to national demographics, many people started to get worried and began blaming immigrants any problem in society, and nativism was born.

Industrialization, as captured in this image of 19th century London, led to a huge rise in immgration

Example: Nativism in the United States

Immigrants Flooding In

While the United States was far from the only nation to experience a surge of nativism in the late 19th century, it does serves as a great example of what many nations were going through. Irish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants flooded the East Coast, bringing Catholic and Orthodox customs.

The West Coast, on the other hand, was inundated with Asian immigrants, who Americans saw as too foreign to ever belong. To make matters worse, these immigrants were generally willing to work for less money, since they were sending money back to families in their home nations, where the American dollar was worth a lot more. So, many Americans felt threatened, and believed that people born in America, particularly the white, protestant males, deserved preferential treatment.

The Native Americans in this nativist flag refers to white Americans, the established native group

American nativism was defined by a few important characteristics. For one, it embodied an opposition to immigration. It was sustained by the belief that immigrants would both undermine American cultural values and take all the jobs away from American laborers. It was justified by the belief that immigrants were either unable or unwilling to assimilate.

Political Demands

Most importantly, however, nativism was a political ideology, meaning that nativists expected actual, political change. In the United States, nativists demanded preferential treatment for white Americans and asked lawmakers to pass legislation designed to either inhibit immigration or persecute immigrants.

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