“We, the delegates . . . , for the purpose of devising a plan of concerted political action in defence of American institutions against the encroachments of foreign influence, open or concealed, . . . mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
The Native American Party, also known as the Know-Nothing Party, was a nativist party whose political aim was to keep America free from outside influence. The party was at the height of its power and popularity when delegates to the party’s convention drafted their Declaration of Principles in 1845. In order to bring attention to the problems they believed were caused by increased immigration into the United States, the delegates proposed a plan to limit who could participate in voting and citizenship. Instead of following the mainstream idea of opening immigration to nearly anyone who wanted to start a new life in America, the nativists wanted to keep America separate from any foreign influences, which they believed would taint and debase American culture.
While immigration to the United States may have started out slow, with most new arrivals coming from England, Ireland, and Scotland, immigration was never stagnant, and it continued to change and develop. This was especially true for most of the country’s early years, when US policy was relatively lenient. President George Washington declared an open-door policy in 1793, and very few changes were made to the law until the 1800s, when the ranks of the nativists—those who favor native-born citizens and oppose immigration and the merging of different cultures—began to swell in the United States.
Nativism became prevalent in the 1800s in response to an increase in immigration to the United States and also because of a change in the types of immigrants. The mid- to late 1800s saw rapid growth in population, mostly due to a new wave of immigration from southern and eastern Europe. Immigration also saw an upswing in popularity when American Indian groups were removed as disturbances and more land could be settled by immigrants without fear of attack by the “savages.” The summer of 1845, the same year that the Native American Convention presented its declaration, saw the beginning of the Irish potato famine, which would ultimately cause over 1.5 million people to move to America in order to survive. Nativists believed that the increase in immigration would drastically alter the politics and culture of America, and they strongly resisted that change. By speaking out against allowing immigrants to vote and become full citizens, nativists were trying to reduce the impact and influence of immigration. They believed that if immigration were still limited to the types of people who had first come to America, such as “good” people who were fleeing religious persecution, then the changes would be fewer and the politics and culture of America would remain strong.
This specific nativist declaration was given during a political convention on July 4, 1845, which means the audience was limited to other members of the Native American Party. Because it was not intended for a wider audience, the delegates did not temper the declaration’s tone as they might have if they intended it for the general public. As such, it is full of emotive words and phrases about protecting American identity from the “danger of foreign influence.” The writers of this speech were using it to set up their political platform, on which they would base their actions during their time in office. These were the issues for which they were going to make a stand and fight in order to preserve their idea of America. The Native American Party was built strongly on emotion and the value placed upon traditional American values. This is apparent in the rhetoric, with its repeated use of words such as “justice,” “defense,” and “sacred right.”
The Native American Party was not formally created until the 1830s, but nativism had influenced American immigration policy for several decades before that. The party became known as the Know-Nothing Party because members would say “I know nothing” if asked about it by nonmembers. The first meeting of the Native American Party was in 1837, near Philadelphia. In the 1840s, American nativism was near its peak: it was used in the press, a political party was formed around it, and politicians used their influence to attempt to change immigration laws in the United States. Nativists’ goal was the reduction or even elimination of immigration to the United States, because they saw it as weakening the power of the “native” Americans, who were actually not Native Americans as they are known today but the descendants of white Europeans who wanted to keep the power that their ancestors had gained upon their arrival in the “New World.”
The Native American Party grew dramatically in 1854 and 1855, steadily gaining members in the North and South and building on the principles laid out in this 1845 speech at the National Convention. While originally secretive, the party openly campaigned for political leaders in the 1850s until they became divided on the issue of slavery. By the end of the 1850s, the party had mostly dissipated, rejoining other parties such as the Republicans and returning to other loyalties, such as the North versus the South.
The Native American Party stated its principles through an emotional plea to white Americans descended from European colonists, built on the fear they felt for foreigners and the love they felt for their country and traditions. From the date on which they congregated through the final line of this extract, concerning “false democracy,” the delegates roused the passions of their audience in order to build momentum for their cause and the radical changes in immigration policy they wanted to implement. While their support was sufficient to elect some of their party members to public office, it was not enough to give them a significant influence on national policy. However, their overall goal to ensure the purity of the American culture is one that continues to influence the legislation and making of policy in the United States. This declaration reveals a part of American history that shows the power of human emotions, namely fear and passion.
The Fourth of July is normally remembered as the day the Declaration of Independence was approved and the United States of America began, but since that day, many events have been held on July 4. They build upon and compound the significance of that date, making it ever more important in the history of the country. The Native American Party’s declaration uses the traditions and momentous pieces of American history to capitalize on the party’s main points. By also dedicating their speech to “the cause of human rights and the claims of our beloved country,” the party members open their address by firmly establishing their patriotism and enhancing the idea that whatever follows will be for the sole benefit of the country, because they love it so much. This type of emotional appeal is highly persuasive, and it is apparent throughout the document. Much of the analysis of this speech will focus on the emotional appeals used and how they fit with the historical events included by the speakers.
In the second paragraph of the excerpt, the delegates call upon the memory of the Founding Fathers, explaining that even at the founding of this country, its leaders knew that foreign influences were negative and a danger to the American way of life. References to the Founding Fathers and “American liberty” are still used in speeches today in order to give a sense of patriotism and gravity to the audience. By using these phrases, the delegates are attempting to tap into their audience’s patriotic deference to the people who created our government and rebelled against unjust rulers. The delegates hoped that listeners would have a hard time disagreeing with many ideas that the founders of the country agreed upon, simply because it would have seemed wrong to oppose men such as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington, whose lives and thoughts had reached heroic proportions. Furthermore, the phrase “every intelligent patriot” plants the idea in the minds of listeners that if they do not agree, they are neither intelligent nor patriots.
The next paragraph starts to delve into the heart of the Native American Party’s issue with immigration. The delegates state that when immigration to the United States first started, little damage could be done, since only those with extensive means and motivation could afford to move across the Atlantic Ocean and establish themselves and their households in the young nation. Also, any European countries whose citizens would be willing to relocate were so embroiled in battles with one another that their populations were mostly occupied with the conflict and were severely diminished. The dozens of conflicts across Europe, such as the Seven Years’ War, several Irish rebellions, the French revolutionary wars, the Greek War of Independence, and the Napoleonic Wars, were not conducive to the relocation of many people. According to the Native American Party, the number of “savage men” in America also dissuaded prospective immigrants, as they feared moving thousands of miles only to be killed by the native population of their adopted homeland.
Such small-scale immigration continued for much of early US history, until European countries realized that the United States was a good place to send their problem citizens and families and individuals with only a moderate income realized that it was a place to potentially change their lives. These new waves of immigrants became citizens and gained the ability to vote on issues, aided by President George Washington’s open-door immigration policy, instituted in 1793. The Native American Party wanted to drastically increase the restrictions on US citizenship for foreigners. Instead of what they called “open prostitution of the right of citizenship,” they proposed a twenty-one-year waiting period before an immigrant could become naturalized and gain the right and privilege of suffrage.
Early immigration to the United States consisted mostly of northern European Protestant families and individuals. As the nation continued to grow and to offer new opportunities to foreign peoples, the various types and ethnicities of immigrants increased accordingly. Intense racism against eastern and southern Europeans, as well as Asians, grew; nativists considered them to be the “worst classes” of people, as is stated in this declaration. The speech calls upon that emotion in order to further its point. By using phrases such as “unblushing insolence” and “insanely legalized” and the words abuse and degradation, the delegates verbalize the negativity with which they view all immigration to America. They reveal their beliefs and opinions on the subject, but that emotional content is all that this section of the speech conveys; no actual facts or events are described, just the delegates’ own distaste for foreigners, who they feel are not as good as native Americans. The last section of the fourth paragraph, which is filled with rhetoric meant to inflame but not to explain, speaks of a new plan. This plan is intended to save liberty and America from the injury done to it by foreign influences, although it does not say how it will accomplish its mission.
Much of the speech reiterates the previously highlighted emotional appeals, but the seventh paragraph depicts a slight change in tone, in that it now focuses on the failings of the American system. Instead of continuing to criticize the immigrants, the speech now focuses on how the United States’ open-door immigration policy created the overwhelming influx of foreigners who have too much power within the system. The Native American Party delegates use the phrase “gratuitous privileges” to explain how they believe immigrants could live perfectly happy lives without the full rights of citizenship. According to the delegates, having a say in the government and laws to which a person is subjected is not necessary to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The delegates argue that only the natives of a country, even if they are born of immigrant ancestors, should be able to influence that country.
The next section of the document concentrates on the changes through which immigration has gone and then reiterates the problems that the party has with the new immigrants. They state that in the last twenty years, the good immigrants—those who were intelligent, educated, and free of negative influences and who subsequently became good citizens—had been overcome by bad immigrants, those who were ignorant, criminal, and without the ability to participate in the government and politics in any helpful manner. The history of immigration in the United States is a complex topic and one that deserves to be considered in depth and out of the context of this speech. Without the emotional appeals, immigration policy and changes become much clearer for the audience.
The rest of the declaration is mostly invective against the immigrants and expressions of the delegates’ inability to understand why the United States would invite southern and eastern European immigrants into the country. The nativist delegates saw such immigrants as the lowest people of the European countries in which they were born—countries they already viewed as being baser than America. Underneath the name calling, there is one sentence that stands out because it states that Europeans are using America as a place to banish their criminals. While this was a common practice by the English government in the 1700s, it had mostly died out by the time of the American Revolution. Once America was no longer a British colony and therefore no longer bound to accept any immigrant that the British deemed necessary, penal transportation ceased almost entirely. It is possible that the delegates are using this idea in order to incite their followers further, even though the historical accuracy of this statement is weak at best.
In the last sentence of the antepenultimate paragraph, the delegates finally speak in plainer language about the problem they wish to change as part of their platform. They want to extend the amount of time it takes for a person to become a full citizen, because, as they see it, “free and enlightened citizens” take more than five years to develop. What they do not say here is that their proposed wait for a foreigner to be naturalized is twenty-one years, more than four times the required wait at the time. This incredible increase was most likely chosen to discourage people who wanted to immigrate.
The second-to-last paragraph has an inherent paradox in the argument, after laying out the increase in immigrant population and their fears about becoming a minority in their own land. For most of this speech, the delegates have been arguing that the immigrants are too ignorant or mad to be able to exercise their rights of citizenship in an effective manner. Here, they present the idea that these same immigrants are on a mission and have been “SENT” to climb the political ladder in order to gain power, put their friends in control, or overthrow the republic and replace it with a monarchy. The delegates do not address the contradiction within their argument: a group of immigrants who were as ignorant or mad as the delegates argued they were would not be able to orchestrate such large and far-reaching plots.
In the last paragraph, the delegates return to their low opinion of immigrants, calling them “uninformed and vicious.” They end their speech by explaining their fear of mixing American culture with that of other nations and ethnicities, arguing that the children of these immigrants somehow threaten what the delegates hold most dear. They say that they do not want to become involved in the feuds of the old countries, but the delegates fail to realize that by trying to block the naturalization of new citizens, they are creating new hatreds and new feuds in which they are becoming intimately involved. Mostly the delegates fear the overturn of democracy. Without any true reason to believe so or any plan of action, they are convinced that new immigrants and their children are going to try to destroy American democracy.
This document gives insight into one aspect of American politics and belief systems in the mid-1800s. Although the Native American Party basically disappeared a few decades after this speech, they were a significant part of the country’s history. Their five elected officials were the swing votes in the House of Representatives just a few years after this speech was given. Even though no official federal immigration policy was enacted because of their contempt for foreign populations, they did create a mindset for many Americans that would cause significant trouble for immigrants, even to the present day. Nativism may not be a widely recognized factor in the modern world, but racism and extreme patriotism, both factors in nativism, still causes issues between native and immigrant populations. Just because the party disappeared does not mean that their ideas faded as well. They are still a major factor in political discussions and social relations, even if they are labeled in a different way.
Through the fiery rhetoric at the Native American Convention and the political seats gained by the Native American Party, a strong and demanding impact would be a logical assumption. However, almost no change was made to national foreign policy because of their arguments. During the early to mid-1800s, even after this speech was delivered, there was a lot of anti-immigration protest, but no major changes were made to federal immigration policy until the Immigration Act of 1875. The short-term impact of this speech was a minor review of the requirements of citizenship, which could be obtained after five years, and an upswing in racism against immigrants. This upswing could also be considered a long-term impact, as anti-immigrant attitudes and discrimination were prevalent for decades after the decline of the Native American Party in the late 1850s.
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