Federalists attempted to safeguard the new nation (and their own political fortunes) against revolution by muzzling dissent and seeking to bar immigrant radicals and alien poor. These campaigns continued in the three decades before the Civil War—an era of unsettling change, disorder, and—for many Americans—uncertainty and anxiety. Jacksonian America featured the convergence of modernizing transportation and market revolutions, the emergence of liberal capitalism and government bureaucracy, as well as the concomitant growth of slavery and sectionalism and the dispossession of most Indian tribes east of the Mississippi River.
During this era, nativism became more complex, drawing its inspiration from a variety of sources. Antebellum xenophobes expressed the need for consensus at a juncture when constant and bewildering change appeared to threaten "the old landmarks of Christendom and the glorious common law of the Founding Fathers." A lack of institutional authority and standards strengthened the drive for common ideological unity. The very diversity of this period—with its myriad religious groups, faddist sects, and voluntary organizations—implied divisiveness and stimulated anxiety about the nation's future and tensions between individualism and community in a modernizing polity. Nativists took up the battle against autonomous groups combining secrecy with a demand for total loyalty. Such organizations as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Masonic Order, and the Roman Catholic Church troubled native-born and Protestant Americans as the antithesis of the egalitarian ideals of Jacksonian Democracy. In this era of "Pax Britannica," nativism provided worried Americans a series of contrived threats—moral equivalents of war—with which to rebuff autocratic adversaries and thus bolster the legitimacy and authority of republican institutions.
Anti-Catholicism during the Jacksonian era transferred the battle for democracy from the level of intellectual combat in the national arena to parochial politics and mob violence "where every son of liberty could strike his blow for righteousness." The Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819, concluded between John Quincy Adams and the Spanish minister Luis de Onís, struck such a symbolic blow. This "transcontinental treaty" extended American claims to the Pacific and thus "liberated" a vast expanse from a Catholic state. Four years later President James Monroe warned the European Quadruple Alliance not to intervene in the affairs of the newly independent Latin American republics. Monroe's "doctrine" was, of course, upheld by British sea power. Yet not a few Americans held to the belief that Europe's despots might attempt to reassert their power in the Western Hemisphere.
Such was the message of the artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, who in 1834 warned of a Catholic plot to undermine the Republic. Echoing his father, Jedidiah Morse, in decrying the apathy of most Americans, Morse's Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States declared that the European Leopold Association, currently assisting American bishops in the Mississippi Valley, was in fact an entering wedge through which Prince Metternich of Austria and Czar Nicholas I of Russia would seize control. A year later fellow New Englander Lyman Beecher published A Plea for the West. A prominent minister who became president of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati (with St. Louis, a stronghold of Catholicism), Beecher grasped the significance of American know-how for westward, ultimately global expansion and evangelicalization. Beecher hated demon rum, dueling, religious complacency, Unitarians, and Catholics. Unless Americans accepted God's challenge and transacted their extraordinary destiny, they could expect dreadful retribution. Either Protestant faithful would evangelize the west and the world, or the area would be captured by an institution that destroyed freedom of thought, cloaked its true atheism behind specious symbols of religiosity, generated revolution wherever it appeared, and knew no limit in its quest for riches and power. If Catholicism were not halted, Beecher averred, the republican experiment would expire in a wasteland of ignorance and infidelity.
The idea of America as a contingent experiment verging on the most abject failure provides a recurrent theme in nativist literature, linking congregationalist ministers in Federalist New England, to avatars of 1840s revivalism like Beecher, and to twentieth-century fundamentalists like Billy James Hargis and Jerry Falwell. Beecher no doubt spoke for traditional congregationalist clergy seeking to redress its loss of established power by spreading New England Protestantism westward. But the expansionist connotation of his message was clear, and alongside the influx of Irish and other Catholic immigrants, it generated concern among those unsettled by cultural change.
The immigration of the 1830s and 1840s indicated to nativists that Europe's leaders might not be able to launch navies across the Atlantic, but they could send their illiterate, destitute, and criminal elements. Perhaps because the economy recovered well from the Panic of 1837, and Europe seemed far away, anti-Catholicism did not become a staple of the Mexican War (1846–1848). That it did not underscores the marginal relationship between nativism and foreign policy at this juncture. Although observers on both sides of the debate on the war disparaged the imputed racial inferiority of the Mexican adversary, Protestant nativists never succeeded in making the conflict a religious jihad. Some southern denominations—moved by the racialism that girded slavery—did warn that the "yoke of papal oppression would be placed upon every state of the Republic" unless Mexico was crushed. But the absence of a unified anti-Catholic base was clear in the strength of other Protestant enemies, especially in northern states—including the "peculiar institution" of slavery, war generally, and the Mexican War in particular. Indeed, not a few northern Protestants scorned the threat posed by an aggressive slave-power conspiracy to extend its dominion into the western territories. Human bondage—here and now—proved more compelling than human bondage allegedly engineered by the Vatican.
More important, the cultural and social change that so alarmed Morse and Beecher had diluted Protestantism, secularized it, and stretched its basic tenets. Hence, most Americans rebuffed attempts to link Mexico with the Catholic menace. Midwestern Protestants generally held few uncertainties about the nation's future and the durability of their civilization. Mexican culture was primitive and impotent, and Mexican armies posed no threat to national safety. The historic Catholic culture of the Mississippi Valley would not halt American expansion to the Pacific.
Nevertheless, tales of Catholic atrocities persisted through the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, stimulating nativist imaginations (a form of ultra-Protestant pornography) and in urban and urbanizing venues making life difficult for Irish immigrants. The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk (1836), which detailed lustful priests, compliant nuns, and strangled babies born of unholy wedlock, was the best known of this apocryphal confessional literature, and sold more than 130,000 copies over the next twenty years (earning the sobriquet, eventually, as the Uncle Tom's Cabin of the anti-Catholic crusade). For their part, Irish immigrant supporters of the Young Ireland movement spoke out in their new country against English rule and incurred violent reactions in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Boston, among other cities. Anti-Catholic hostility centered upon such issues as the alleged role of immigrants in urban political corruption, trusteeship, the correct version of the Bible to be used in public schools, and rivalry in labor markets. In the late 1840s more than a million immigrants—expelled by famine— arrived in America "with hatred in their hearts for the British." The new arrivals made it necessary for politicians to heed their interests, thereby transforming urban politics in several venues.
Anti-Catholicism affected but was not coeval with antebellum nativism. Xenophobes also condemned non-Catholic immigrants and native Americans whose sociopolitical affiliations or religious tenets challenged local power structures or dominant cultural ideals. In addition, numerous immigrant groups—including Scots-Irish Presbyterians in Philadelphia and German radicals in the Ohio Valley—joined the Protestant crusade, as did many native-born Catholics. Bishop John J. Hughes of New York took the lead in denouncing the radicalism of Hungarian patriot Lajos Kossuth, while Boston Irish Catholics denounced German "48ers" as "red" republicans, anarchists and despoilers of the Sabbath. In fact, between 1846 and 1855 more than a million Germans came to the United States, leaving behind revolution and potato famine, and becoming politically active in their new home. This activism, though not unified, unsettled nativists.
The arrival of three visitors in the early 1850s connected nativism with foreign relations and domestic politics more closely than any episode since the 1790s. Hungarian nationalist Lajos Kossuth fled Europe after leading a failed uprising against Austria in 1848. Attacking New York's Bishop Hughes as an agent of Habsburg despotism and warning of a Vatican conspiracy to rule the world, Kossuth sought to enlist mercenaries to return to renew Hungary's battle for independence. Kossuth captured the imagination of Americans until most realized that he might upset the delicate balance between the means and ends of foreign policy. Democratic leaders who might have aided him did not embrace his cause. And by 1852, the Whig Party had sundered along sectional lines as a result of the slavery controversy. Hence, Kossuth failed to enlist political support and had to settle for leaving behind, in the words of historian Thomas A. Bailey, "Kossuth beards, Kossuth hats, Kossuth overcoats, Kossuth cigars, the Kossuth grippe, and Kossuth County, Iowa."
The arrivals of "Father" Alessandro Gavazzi and Monsignor Gaetano Bedini early in 1853 for a time appeared to transfer the battle for Italian unification to the United States. Gavazzi was an apostate monk who took part in the rebellion of 1848, while Bedini, representing the pope on his American visit, resolutely opposed Italian unification. Gavazzi's nationalistic denunciation of Bedini for leading papal forces at the Battle of Bologna converted what had been a pleasant visit for the papal nuncio into an ordeal, as hostile crowds greeted his every appearance.
The fear of immigrants assumed political meaning during the 1850s as the slavery question slowly immobilized both parties. In 1854 the secret Order of the Star Spangled Banner transformed itself into the American Party, or "Know-Nothing" Party (as New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley dubbed them), because members claimed to know nothing about the organization. Party faithful claimed to endorse the asylum ideal—they would welcome all immigrants, except paupers and criminals—as long as the newcomers promised to abstain from politics. The initial strength and subsequent weakness of the Know-Nothings lay in their promise of an issue, the danger of immigration, that skirted the slavery dispute. Nativism in this instance was less an end in itself than a means to achieve national unity amid growing sectional crisis.
Despite its nationalist gloss, the Know-Nothings were defined mainly by sectional and local conflict. Southern Know-Nothings focused their attention primarily on the tendency of most immigrants to settle in, and augment the political clout of, northern states. Conversely, New England Know-Nothings were often reformers, and most detested slavery. This contradiction undercut the American Party, which survived only as long as the Republic avoided commitment on the slavery question. Ironically, Know-Nothing nativism served to toughen immigrant resolve and cohesion. Abraham Lincoln wooed the German vote in 1860 by seeking to learn the language, reading a German-language newspaper, and naming immigrant Germans to his cabinet.
Know-Nothing nativism also toughened the resolve of Irish Americans who, though caricatured unmercifully, began to win the battle for urban America against lower-class Protestants. Indeed, by the end of the century, the Irish would join nativists in defending the United States against the "new" immigration from southern and eastern Europe.
Yet by the end of the Civil War, nativists could show no federal legislation restricting the immigration. American religious tolerance survived the socioeconomic turmoil and mob violence of the 1830s and 1840s, the Mexican War, and the Know-Nothing movement. Until the 1880s, in fact, confidence in the nation's power to assimilate newcomers checked nativism in most regions. Even the radical Irish Fenians, who used American soil to harass British North America after the Civil War—including an "invasion" of Ontario launched from Saint Albans, Vermont, in May 1870—fell far short of involving the United States and Britain in a war to free Ireland. In short, the "free security" of the Republic, afforded by the Atlantic and Pacific and weak neighbors to the north and south, combined with a hardy strain of Anglophobia to undermine resentment against Irish immigrants. The alchemy of the melting pot, which held that Americans had only to wait a generation or two to see immigrants assimilated, dominated the national mood. Immigrants had much to offer. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes observed, Americans were "the Romans of the modern world, the great assimilating people."