Nativism is a strong dislike for ethnic, religious, or political minorities within one’s culture. In North America it was founded principally upon the fear that immigrant attitudes will erode the distinctive features of the majority culture. Unlike ethnocentrism, a generalized, largely passive perception of the superiority of one’s own culture, nativism leads to pronounced activism and sometimes hostile measures taken in order to avert a perceived danger. Nativism is common in most cultures during times of economic or political turmoil, and there have been periodic waves of nativism in both the United States and Canada throughout their histories.
In the United States, there had been from the earliest colonial days a mistrust among settlers from different countries and of different religions. These general antipathies first rose to form a nativist movement in the 1790s, when Federalists hoped to keep out what they saw as the corroding influence of radical immigrants by passing the Alien and Sedition Acts. With the majority of settlers in British territories being Protestant Anglicans and Puritans, Quakers and Roman Catholics were seen as potential threats to the traditional English order. While these attitudes persisted in the early republic, there was no full-blown nativist frenzy until the 1830s: The influx of more than a quarter million Irish, most of them Catholic, between 1820 and 1840 led to the second great wave of nativism in the United States. As most Americans were members of Protestant denominations that fostered the ethic of American individualism, it was easy to convince people in hard times that “papal schemes” to control American society were afoot. Samuel F. B. Morse’s Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States (1834) and Reverend Lyman Beecher’s A Plea for the West (1835) sought to alert Americans to clandestine plots being masterminded in Rome for the cultural takeover of the country. Sensational exposés of Catholic practices were common in the press. Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal (1836), purporting to tell the firsthand account of the author’s imprisonment in a Catholic monastery, was a best-seller and remained so long after she was discredited. In addition to vague fears of conspiracy, many Americans feared the potential power of the Roman Catholic Church to overturn the Protestant foundation of the emerging public system of education. This sometimes led to violence, as in the Philadelphia riots of 1844, when a number of Irish Catholics were killed and several churches burned. This anti-Catholic nativism led during the 1850s to the rise of the Secret Order of the Star- Spangled Banner, more commonly known as the Know- Nothing or American Party. The Know-Nothings were particularly strong in the Northeast and border regions. In the wake of their strong showing in 1854 and 1855, in which they gained control of several state governments and sent more than 100 congressmen to Washington, they attempted to restrict immigration, delay naturalization, and investigate perceived Catholic abuses. Finding little evidence to support Catholic crimes or conspiracies and with the country embroiled in the states’ rights and slavery issues, Know-Nothing political influence and anti- Catholic nativism waned. Many non-Catholic Americans remained suspicious of Catholics, and occasionally anti- Catholic nativism reemerged, as in the formation of the American Protective Association (1887). Generally speaking, however, religion became less and less a primary motivation for open hostility toward immigrants.
For almost two decades following the Civil War (1861–65), immigration proceeded without strong nativist opposition. The presence of large numbers of Chinese in the West during the economic slump of the late 1870s and the rapid rise of immigration from southern and eastern Europe after 1882 laid the foundation for a renewed tide of nativism that exercised varying degrees of influence between 1885 and 1895. Rather than religion, however, most nativists of this era were fearful of either racial or political incursions. Perceiving an unacceptable level of Chinese influence, the U.S. Congress framed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, although it was considered by most American politicians to be exceptional legislation and not aimed at limiting immigration generally. The Haymarket bombing in Chicago in 1886, for which several German anarchists were convicted and hanged, confirmed for many Americans the inferred link between aliens and radical politics, going back to the Molly Maguire riots and the violent railroad strikes of the 1870s. Although the Immigration Restriction League, founded in 1894, was at first unsuccessful, it gradually chipped away at the open door for immigration, leading to rising immigrant head taxes, greater restrictions on Asian immigration, and finally, after four presidential vetoes, implementation of a literacy test in the Immigration Act of 1917.
The theory of racial eugenics and international politics combined during World War I (1914–18) to produce an especially virulent strain of nativism. Widely read pseudoscientific works such as Madison Grant’s Passing of the Great Race (1916) and Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color (1920) argued that Anglo-Saxon vitality and success were threatened with mongrelization if immigration continued unabated. According to Grant, interracial unions led to reversions to a “more ancient, generalized and lower” race. Blaming the Central Powers for World War I and Russians and Jews for the Bolshevik Revolution, which led to the establishment of the world’s first communist state in 1917, Americans widely accepted the distinction between “old,” pre-1880 immigration from western and northern Europe, and “new,” post-1880 immigration from southern and eastern Europe. Throughout much of the 1920s, fear of German, Russian, and Jewish subversives was commonplace and led to a revival of the Ku Klux Klan as an antiforeign organization and to a wholesale adoption of restrictive immigrant legislation with the Johnson-Reed Act (1924) and the Oriental Exclusion Act (1924), the former practically eliminating immigration from eastern and southern Europe and the latter prohibiting virtually all Asian immigration.
Although nativism declined somewhat in the late 1920s, U.S. immigration policy remained consistently restrictionist until World War II (1939–45). Father Charles Coughlin, head of the Christian Front against communism, spoke out against the “problem” of the American Jew, another manifestation of nativism, to an estimated 30 million listeners during the mid-1930s. Nativism undoubtedly contributed to President Franklin Roosevelt’s unwillingness to support the Wagner-Rogers Bill (1939), which would have allowed annual admission beyond quotas, for two years, of 20,000 German refugees under the age of 14. Also during the depression years of the 1930s, more than 500,000 Mexican Americans were repatriated to Mexico. With the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, restrictions on immigration were increased. Fear of undercover agents led to a drastic reduction of admissions from Nazi-occupied countries, the Alien Registration Act was passed in 1940, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was moved from the Department of Labor to the Department of Justice, and a network of law enforcement agencies was authorized to compile a list of aliens for possible internment should the United States enter the war. This eventually led to the internment of some 3,500 Italians, 6,000 Germans, and, under the provisions of Executive Order 9066, 113,000 Japanese, more than 60 percent of whom were American citizens (see Japanese internment, World War II). Nativism began to ebb after World War II. The McCarran-Walter Immigration and Naturalization Act (1952) maintained quotas but eliminated race as a barrier. U.S. cold war commitments led to the admission of a variety of refugees (see Refugee Relief Act) on an exceptional basis. Finally, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished the national origins system and favored reunification of families, regardless of homeland.
The massive influx of Mexicans, especially illegal aliens, fueled a new round of nativism in the United States during the 1980s. In 1983, the Official English movement was launched in response to the growth of bilingualism, which had become common in the public schools in the 1970s to accommodate the increasing number of Spanish-speaking children. By the late 1980s, it became clear that Official English was closely linked to various restrictionist movements, including the controversial Pioneer Fund that supported eugenics research. Restrictionists redoubled their efforts when the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) legalized the status of nearly 3 million undocumented aliens. Although restrictionists enjoyed little success nationally, they did help organize the drive for Proposition 187 in California, which denied many government services to illegal aliens, including public education. Although the measure was declared unconstitutional, it clearly reflected the views of almost 60 percent of Californians who were concerned about the growing cost of providing services and the potential difficulty in assimilating such a large Mexican population. Californians spoke again in 1998 when they passed Proposition 227, giving immigrant children only one year to learn English before entering mainstream classes. With nativist movements in the 1980s and 1990s largely localized, a general equilibrium regarding immigration appeared to take hold. But the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, fueled fears regarding Arab and Muslim immigrants, leading to an extensive national debate on the compatibility of Islam and American political values.