American Protective Association Is Formed

The American Protective Association was the largest anti-Roman Catholic, anti-immigrant, nativist group organized in the United States during the nineteenth century. Attracting native-born Protestants who feared the growing influence of Catholicism in the United States, the politically influential organization began to wane at the end of the century.

Summary of Event

The immigration of many Roman Catholics to the United States during the mid-nineteenth century resulted in conservative, native-born Protestants perceiving a growing threat to their way of life. Some Americans feared a “papal plot” (referring to the Catholic faith) to take over the United States; others simply felt that their values, economic position, and political dominance were threatened. Nativism, U.S.;American Protective Association
American Protective Association
Immigration;and nativism[Nativism]
Roman Catholics;and nativists[Nativists]
Roman Catholics;immigrants
[kw]Goodwin Develops Celluloid Film (May, 1887)
[kw]Develops Celluloid Film, Goodwin (May, 1887)
[kw]Celluloid Film, Goodwin Develops (May, 1887)
[kw]Film, Goodwin Develops Celluloid (May, 1887)
Nativism, U.S.;American Protective Association
American Protective Association
Immigration;and nativism[Nativism]
Roman Catholics;and nativists[Nativists]
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[g]United States;Mar. 13, 1887: American Protective Association Is Formed[5540]
[c]Immigration;Mar. 13, 1887: American Protective Association Is Formed[5540]
[c]Religion and theology;Mar. 13, 1887: American Protective Association Is Formed[5540]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Mar. 13, 1887: American Protective Association Is Formed[5540]
Bowers, Henry F.

Before the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), Protestants had organized nativist, anti-Catholic parties in order to oppose the new immigrants. Historians frequently refer to these groups collectively as the Know-Nothings because members would deny the existence of these groups if questioned about them. One Know-Nothing organization, the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, founded the American Party American Party in 1854. Its platform was dominated by nativism and anti-Catholicism. While it won a number of elections in the mid-1850’s, it was eventually absorbed into the Republican Party. Republican Party;and Roman Catholics[Roman Catholics]

Catholic immigration grew even more in the post-Civil War era. Approximately 25 million immigrants came to the United States between the end of the Civil War and 1917, when the United States entered World War I. These immigrants, many of whom were Catholic or Jewish, Jews;immigrants came primarily from southern and eastern Europe. This resulted in a new Protestant nativism in the last part of the nineteenth century as those Americans feared the growing economic, political, and social power of the Catholic immigrants. The anti-Catholic sentiment was part of a larger anti-immigrant nativism during an era when immigrants from Asia as well as poorer areas of Europe were entering the United States.

After the Civil War era, the Republican Party continued to raise the question of Republican Party;and Roman Catholics[Roman Catholics] Catholic political power. One major issue was keeping public schools free from ecclesiastical influence. In addition, the party advocated longer residence for immigrants before they could secure citizenship Citizenship, U.S.;qualifications for and the right to vote. In 1880, the Republican Party election platform supported a constitutional amendment that specified that no governmental authority could allow any public property, revenues, or loans to be used for the support of any school or other institution under the control of any religious sect.

Short-lived nativist newspaper published in Boston in 1852.

(Library of Congress)

While there were various anti-Catholic movements active in the 1860’s and 1870’s, the largest anti-Catholic group was formally organized on March 13, 1887, in Clinton, Iowa Iowa;American Protective Association . There, a group of seven men, in response to the defeat of a municipal slate of labor union candidates by Irish voters, founded the American Protective Association (APA) to combat the growing political power of Catholics. Henry F. Bowers Bowers, Henry F. , a lawyer, copied many aspects of the rituals of the fraternal Masons Masonic Order (Bowers was a Mason as well). The APA was a secret organization with elaborate rituals and costumes. Members were required to take an oath, swearing never to vote for a Catholic, never to employ a Catholic if a Protestant was available, and never to go on strike with a Catholic.

The APA’s 1894 program stated that the organization would defend true Americanism against the subjects of an un-American ecclesiastical institution by fighting for a free public school system, for immigration restrictions, and for a slower, more rigid system of naturalization. In particular, the APA called for a change in the laws so that immigrants could not be naturalized or allowed to vote unless they spoke English and had lived in the United States continuously for seven years minimum. The APA repeatedly denounced the Catholic pope and the Roman Catholic Church for trying, according to the APA, to subvert American institutions.

APA leaders protested a perceived attempt by Catholics—by “Romanish” priests—to make whole communities “foreign” in language and religion. The APA also believed Romanism concentrated Catholic immigrants in large American cities to gain complete control of those cities, that Jesuits were controlling national government leaders, and that Romanism was influencing the U.S. Army and Navy. The APA claimed that while only one-eighth of the population was Catholic, half of public officeholders were Catholic.

To attract followers the APA used bogus former priests and former nuns on a lecture circuit, claiming to have escaped “captivity” in monasteries. The APA also distributed forged documents to show the Protestant population that there was a papal plot or conspiracy. For example, one forged document was a papal bull that called for the massacre of Protestants in 1893. The APA also developed a press in 1893, and it has been estimated that in 1894, the group published approximately seventy weeklies. These publications were designed for a local audience and normally had a limited circulation of no more than one thousand each.

Unlike the Know-Nothing movement before the Civil War, which created the American Party American Party , the APA did not start its own political party. Rather, it targeted the Republican Party, promoting candidates at the local level and getting involved in primary elections and local party activities. The APA’s greatest political success was, consequently, at the local level, especially in municipalities in the Midwest. Here, local campaigns frequently focused on issues such as Catholic influence in local schools or Catholic domination over municipal patronage. Some of the cities where the APA had its greatest influence were Omaha, Kansas City, Toledo, Louisville, Duluth, Saginaw, and Rockford. It also had an impact in Detroit, St. Louis, Denver, Buffalo, and Rochester.

In terms of states, the APA’s greatest appeal was to residents in mountain and Pacific states, which had, more recently, been settled and were growing rapidly. These were areas where social tensions were greatest as a result of the influx of a large number of newcomers. The region where the APA was weakest was the South, which experienced little in-migration in the post-Civil War era. The APA had a number of supporters within the business community as well, but various later studies have indicated that the APA’s membership was somewhat more working-class, native-born Protestant than it was middle-class, native-born Protestant.


Although the American Protective Association claimed a membership of 2.5 million at its peak in 1894, historians have estimated that its actual dues-paying membership was closer to 100,000. By 1895 the APA’s membership had begun to decline and its political influence began to wane.

In 1896, the APA had opposed William McKinley’s McKinley, William
[p]McKinley, William[MacKinley, William];and American Protective Association[American Protective Association] nomination as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate because some of his close friends and supporters were Catholic. The APA spread false rumors that McKinley was a member of the Roman Catholic Church, that his secretary and campaign managers were Catholic, and that he had two children in a convent. McKinley’s subsequent election further illustrates that the APA’s influence in national politics had been declining. Although the APA continued to exist for at least five more years, it ceased to have significant political influence. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the APA was, for all practical purposes, defunct.

Further Reading

  • Daniels, Roger. The Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004. An examination of the U.S. government’s policy on immigration, beginning in 1882.
  • Kinzer, Donald L. Episode in Anti-Catholicism: The American Protective Association. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1964. The definitive history of the American Protective Association and its anti-Catholicism.
  • Knobel, Dale T. American for the Americans: The Nativist Movement in the United States. New York: Twayne, 1995. Examines a variety of nativist movements from the 1820’s through the 1920’s, including the American Protective Association.
  • Lipset, Seymour Martin, and Earl Raab. The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970. New York: Harper & Row, 1970. An analysis of right-wing movements in the United States within the framework of status issues and politics.
  • Wacker, Grant. Religion in Nineteenth Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. A historical narrative that discusses the rapid growth of evangelical Protestantism and its competition for dominance over religions such as Catholicism and Judaism.

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