The Nativist Movement & Sentiment

Instructor: Eve Levinson

Eve has taught various courses of high school history and has a master's degree in education.

Nativism, a fear of outsiders combined with love of the homeland, became a political and social movement in the United States in the 1830s, as immigration increased.

Nativist Sentiment

Are you someone who struggles with trying new things? Perhaps you have a very specific daily routine. Maybe you turn your nose up at new foods. Could it be that you think your favorite music, or style of dress, or way of life should be the only way? There are many people who feel their preferences are the best of all options, but what happens when these opinions become laws? Can you imagine being on the wrong side of those opinions?

In the 1830s, nativism emerged as a political movement when immigration to the United States increased. This belief held patriotism as the highest ideal and viewed people of certain religions and nationalities as unable to become true Americans. They also feared that the new ideas being brought into the country would undermine the American foundation. In fact, the most fervent nativists felt particular groups should not even be considered for citizenship.

Perceived Outsiders

Nativists believed that only white, Anglo-Saxon (British), Protestants were the ideal Americans. They feared outsiders, setting immigration quotas to limit certain groups and creating organizations to unite in their cause. Throughout American history, different minority groups have received the brunt of nativist sentiment.

As early as the Puritans' first arrival in America, there were many who viewed Catholic tradition as running counter to American ideals. The conflict centered in the idea of American individualism versus the authoritarian hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church. Many states even passed anti-Catholic laws! By the 19th century, immigration from predominantly Catholic countries like Ireland and Italy increased, and the nativists feared the immigrants would place their commitment to religion above their status as Americans. Some were even suspicious that they would disregard the President's directives in favor of the Pope.

Another conflict arose because of the political philosophies many immigrants brought with them. Whereas the American revolutionaries of the 18th century hold a mythic place in history for their radicalism, by the 19th century Americans had a fear of radical thought. America was still a young nation at this time and there was concern that outsiders would destroy what had been built. Those who had been part of aggressive movements in their home countries were believed likely to bring such threats to their new home. Anarchists, who believe in the absence of government, and socialists, who believe government should control the means of production, were especially targeted as enemies of the newly stabilized American government and their views seen as entirely un-American.

The third major group that became the object of nativist attack were non-whites. While those with other skin colors fall clearly into this section of the population, during the 19th century people of Irish, Italian, and Polish nationalities were also considered to be non-white. The belief was that those who were not white had inferior blood. There were even some who practiced eugenics, which encouraged people with supposedly good genes to have children and occasionally forced those with bad genes to be sterilized.

Nativist Groups and Laws

Shortly after America became a nation and ratified the Constitution, President John Adams signed a series of laws known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. These made it easier to deport immigrants and to prevent immigrants from voting. They also limited public opposition to the government by fining and/or imprisoning those who wrote or spoke radical views.

In the 1850s, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, or the Know Nothings was formed to highlight how immigration had negatively impacted American society. The group operated in secret and was fairly short-lived, but set the tone for public discourse as anti-immigrant sentiment became part of later political movements as well.

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