Welcome back, Know-Nothings

Just a bit of history—bear with me.

In July 1844, riots broke out in Philadelphia where anti-immigrant Nativists battled Irish immigrants. When it was over two Catholic churches and a Catholic school had been burned by mobs. At least 20 people died in the mayhem. In New York City a rumored attack on St. Patrick’s Cathedral was staved off when these so-called Nativists, afraid to confront a large group of Irish parishioners, ran off before they could attack the building.

By the 1850s this anti-immigrant movement had crystallized into several political parties, two of which were the American Republican Party and the Nativist Party. At the same time, secret societies with the same anti-immigrant philosophy began to spring up. One of them, the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, swore to keep immigrants out of America; and its members were instructed to answer all questions about the organization with the following words: I know nothing. History records their trivial and embarrassing moment in the sun as the “Age of the Know-Nothings.”

Well, folks, they’re back.

It should be noted that the original Know-Nothings ran a candidate for President in 1856—Millard Fillmore. During the campaign Fillmore himself shied away from the vitriolic attacks on Catholics and immigrants, losing the election in one of the worst Presidential election fiascos of all time. Abraham Lincoln claimed that if the Know-Nothings ever took power, the Declaration of Independence would have to be amended to say that all men are created equal “except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” (The 2015 crop of Know-Nothings is already making noises about altering the Fourteenth Amendment.)

As I said, they’re back.

In 1917, Congress enacted legislation requiring immigrants over sixteen to pass a literacy test. (Poles and Italians need not apply.) The Immigration Act of 1924 created a quota system that restricted entry to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in America as of the 1890 national census–a system that favored immigrants from Western Europe–and prohibited immigrants from Asia. (Sorry Jews and Russians, Chinese and Japanese—no soup for you.)

Now it’s the Mexicans.

It seems there are always some Americans unwilling to accept the fact that their being born in the United States was no more than an accident of birth—that they could just as easily be the Mexican family trying to make a life for themselves in Texas or—on a broader scale, the Iraqi family looking to Germany for a new beginning and a chance at a better existence. The arrogance is unfathomable.

Of course the term “accident of birth” may be difficult to comprehend for someone who knows nothing and is perfectly happy to admit it.



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