Sesquicentennial Thoughts

In the 1852 presidential election the Whigs, led by anti-nativist William H. Seward, tried to appeal for the Irish and Catholic vote. General Scott, Whig presidential candidate, was a high-church Episcopalian who had educated his daughters in a convent. As commander of American forces in Mexico he had protected Church property. In 1852 the Whigs planted friendly Irish questioners in audiences addressed by Scott, giving the candidate a chance to declare how much he “loved to hear that rich Irish brogue.” But this clumsy effort backfired, for while Irish Americans as usual voted Democratic, many Whigs were offended by the appeal to “paddies” and stayed home on election day. As the slavery issue knocked southern Whigs loose from their party, a renewal of ethic hostilities did the same in a number of northern states.

Several causes contributed to this revival of nativism. Immigration during the first five years of the 1850s reached a level five times greater than a decade earlier. Most of the new arrivals were poor Catholic peasants or laborers from Ireland and Germany who crowded into the tenements of large cities. Crime and welfare costs soared. Cincinnati’s crime rate, for example, tripled between 1846 and 1853 and its murder rate increased sevenfold. Boston’s expenditures for poor relief rose threefold during the same period. Native-born Americans attributed these increases to immigrants, especially the Irish, whose arrest rate and share of relief funds were several times their percentage of the population. Natives were not necessarily the most nativist. Earlier Protestant immigrants from England, Scotland, and especially Ulster had brought their anti-Catholic sentiments with them and often formed the vanguard of anti-Irish rioters and voters in the United States. Radicals and agnostics among the Forty-eighters who had fled Germany after suppression of the 1848 revolutions carried to America a bitter enmity toward the Catholic Church which had sided with the forces of counterrevolution.

Indeed, the Church entered a period of reaction during the papacy of Pius IX (1846-78). The 1848-49 revolutions and wars of unification in Italy made Pius “a violent enemy of liberalism and social reform.” He subsequently proclaimed the doctrine of papal infallibility and issued his Syllabus of Errors condemning socialism, public education, rationalism, and other such iniquities. “It is an error,” declared the Pope, “to believe that the Roman Pontiff can and ought to reconcile himself to, and agree with, progress, liberalism, and modern civilization,” The American Catholic hierarchy took its cue from the Pope. Archbishop John Hughes of New York attacked abolitionists, Free Soilers, and various Protestant reform movements as kin to the “Red Republicanism” of Europe.

Immigration had caused Catholic church membership to grow three times faster than Protestant membership in the 1840s. Pointing with pride to this fact (which Protestants viewed with alarm), Archbishop Hughes in 1850 delivered a well-publicized address The Decline of Protestantism and Its Causes. “The object we hope to accomplish,” said Hughes, “is to convert all Pagan nations, and all Protestant nations….There is no secrecy in all this….Our mission [is] to convert the world—including the inhabitants of the United State—the people of the cities, and the people of the country…the Legislatures, the Senate, the Cabinet, the President, and all!” The archbishopric’s newspaper proclaimed that “Protestantism is effete, powerless, dying out…and conscious that its last moment is come when it is fairly set, face to face, with Catholic truth.”

Such words fanned the embers of anti-Catholicism. Folk memories of Bloody Mary, the Spanish Armada, the Gunpowder Plot, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs were part of the Anglo-American Protestant consciousness. The Puritan war against popery had gone on for two and one-half centuries and was not over yet.

– James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (pages 130-132)

Dear Mr. McPherson,

Your book is a delight and is considered by many to be one of the best one volume histories of the Civil War, although my reactionary friends tell me I should pick up one of Eugene Genovese’s books for a clearer perspective — history straight-up, no chaser!

Anyway, this passage is rich in material for points I want to make for the blog, one of which is that the modern day Republican party is still busy with clusmsy efforts to woo recent immigrants, even though they should know better (see link in the quote).

Another interesting idea is your choice of words to describe the reaction of folks in America to the immigrants of the late 1840s/early 1850s: you say that there was an increase in crime and welfare costs during this period and “Americans attributed these increases to immigrants.” You even provide evidence that Irish immigrants had an “arrest rate and share of relief funds” that was “several times their percentage of the population.” So perhaps Americans had good reason to suspect all those immigrants? In other words, is there any doubt in your mind that immigration was not the causal factor driving the increase in crime and welfare costs?

Finally, I linked to the actual Syllabus of Errors so readers can get some proper context — otherwise they might really believe the Pope was against “rationalism”, tout court. And while public education raises an eyebrow or two, isn’t it obvious at this stage that the Pope was on target condemning socialism and liberalism?

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About Fake Herzog

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4 Responses to Sesquicentennial Thoughts

  1. MAR says:

    Great blog! BTW, I was in Chicago last week. Stayed at the Millenium Knickerbocker.

  2. steve burton says:

    Pius IX sounds like my kind of guy – opposed to public education!

    I’m quite serious.

  3. Einhorn says:

    Steve,

    I have mixed feeling about public education. Obviously, in its current form public schooling is a mess, which is why I generally support current efforts to “blow the system up” with vouchers, or even milder reform efforts (e.g. charter schools, ending union power, etc.) or the movement to homeschool. On the other hand, I think there is something to be said for the idea that the state should be in the business of inculcating civic virtues in its citizens — if not via the public schools where does this civic education come from? Obviously it can come from good conservative parents, but what happens to all those kids who are being indoctrinated in bad public schools? Are they doomed?

    • steve burton says:

      Einhorn – the big point, for me, is that kids should spend as little time as possible among other kids, and as much time as possible among adults. In that respect, I think that pretty much all modern “education” – public & private – is a disaster.

      Home-schooling is the way to go – even for relatively poorly prepared parents.

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