Nativism Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Throughout the history of the United States, nativism has been an ideology that has driven Americans to strong, and frequently harsh, reactions against members of groups, particularly immigrants, who are perceived to be different. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, nativist movements were influential in helping to pass restrictive immigration laws.

Since the founding of the United States, Americans has frequently shown ambivalence toward immigrants. Because the country has been built on immigration, it has generally welcomed new immigrants as necessary additions to the labor force and as sources of new economic growth. On the other hand, immigrants have also been feared and resented because of their alien ways and their competition with native-born Americans for jobs and political power. Nativists, the most outspoken critics of immigration, feared that the American way of life, and even the republic itself, was in danger from the constant stream of newcomers. They developed an ideology of nativism that comprised three identifiable strains:NativismNativism[cat]ANTI-IMMIGRANT MOVEMENTS AND POLICIES;Nativism[03760][cat]STEREOTYPES;Nativism[03760][cat]NATIVISM;Nativism[03760]

•anti-Catholic nativism

•racial nativism

•antiradical nativism

These three strains often overlapped in the various nativist organizations that emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Anti-Roman Catholic Nativism<index-term><primary>Anti-Catholic movements[AntiCatholic movements]</primary></index-term>

Anti-Catholic nativism had its roots in the religious views of the earliest English settlers in the American colonies. As products of the Protestant Reformation in Europe, the early colonists viewed the pope as a foreign monarch who exercised dangerous influence through the Roman Catholic Church. The large influx of Roman Catholics;IrishIrish Catholic immigrants during the early nineteenth century fueled an upsurge of anti-Catholic propaganda, which alleged that Irish Catholics were agents of the pope intent on undermining republican institutions. During the 1830’s, inventor Morse, Samuel F. B.Samuel F. B. Morse wrote a tract, Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States (Morse)Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States (1834), in which he called for the formation of the Anti-Popery Union to resist the papal plot. His tract became required reading in many Protestant Sunday schools. In 1834, an anti-Catholic mob burned the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Ten years later, riots erupted in Philadelphia;anti-Irish riots[antiIrish riots]Philadelphia when IrishCatholics opposed the use of the Protestant King James version of the Bible in public schools.

The American Protective AssociationAmerican Protective Association (APA), organized in 1887, was the most visible manifestation of anti-Catholic nativism during the late nineteenth century. Its members swore they would never vote for Catholic candidates, employ Catholic workers over Protestants, or join with Catholic strikers. The APA drew strong support from workers in the midwestern and Rocky Mountain states who feared competition from cheap Irish labor. By the late 1890’s, however, as Irish and German Catholics became an important part of the electorate, the more extreme anti-Catholic sentiment dissipated. The APA itself disappeared during the 1890’s.

Racial Nativism

During the late nineteenth century, a racial strain of nativism, cultivated by the self-professed guardians of Anglo-Saxon culture and apparently supported by scientific research, began to be directed against immigrant groups. Ever since colonial times, white settlers had viewed themselves as culturally and physically different from, and superior to, Native Americans and African Americans. Some intellectuals adapted the research of Darwin, CharlesCharles Darwin on biological evolution to argue that certain races would inevitably triumph over others because of their inherent superiority. English and American intellectuals confidently trumpeted the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon “race” and its institutions, and researchers set out to “prove” their cultural assumptions by measuring the cranial volumes of skulls from members of various ethnic groups and devising crude intelligence tests. As a new wave of immigrants from Asia and southern and eastern Europe began to arrive, these newcomers were quickly labeled racially inferior.

Short-lived nativist newspaper published in Boston in 1852.

(Library of Congress)

Racial nativism reached its zenith during the early twentieth century. Influenced by the European Eugenics;and nativism[nativism]eugenics movement, with its emphasis on breeding the right racial groups, American nativists expressed alarm over the impact of the new immigrants. Passing of the Great Race, The (Grant)Grant, MadisonMadison Grant’s widely read The Passing of the Great Race (1916) summarized many of the racial nativist arguments. Grant argued that the superior Nordic “race” was being destroyed by the influx of southern and eastern Europeans, and warned that race mixing would result in an inferior hybrid race and the destruction of Anglo-Saxon civilization. Jewish and Italian immigrants, in particular, were often singled out for criticism in nativist publications because of their alleged racial inferiority.

Antiradical Nativism

Immigrants also came under attack for political reasons during the late nineteenth century. Nativist writers worried that most immigrants came from nondemocratic societies, harbored socialist or anarchist sympathies, and would foment revolution in the United States. The participation of some immigrants in the labor agitation of the period seemed to confirm these fears of alien radicalism. Antiradical nativism intensified following the 1917 Russian RevolutionRussian Revolution and the onset of an economic crisis in the United States. Although most immigrants were not socialists, immigrants nevertheless constituted a majority of the membership of the American Socialist Party. During the Red ScareRed Scare of 1919-1920, when many Americans feared that a communist revolution was imminent, immigrants and radicalism became synonymous in the public mind.

Impact on Public Policy

Nativism had its most significant impact on public policy in the area of immigration restrictions designed to discriminate against Asians and southern and eastern Europeans. In 1882, the federal Chinese Exclusion Act cut off further immigration by Chinese laborers. During World War I, Congress overrode a presidential veto to enact literacy tests for all immigrants, which discriminated against southern and eastern Europeans who had less access to basic education. During the 1920’s, the United States adopted a system of quotas based on national origins for European immigration, imposing a maximum annual limit of 150,000 and allocating most of the slots to northern and western European countries. The national origins quota system formed the basis of immigration law until it was abolished in 1965.Nativism

Further Reading
  • Bennett, David H. The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. Scholarly study of evolution of nineteenth century nativism into twentieth century political conservatism.
  • Billington, Ray Allen. The Protestant Crusade, 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism. New York: Macmillan, 1938. Classic historical work on early nineteenth century nativism.
  • Curran, Thomas J. Xenophobia and Immigration, 1820-1930. Boston: Twayne, 1975. Overview of the historical background behind restrictive immigration policies throughout U.S. history, focusing on nativism and such groups as the Ku Klux Klan.
  • Gabaccia, Donna R. Immigration and American Diversity: A Social and Cultural History. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002. Survey of American immigration history, from the mid-eighteenth century to the early twenty-first century, with an emphasis on cultural and social trends, with attention to ethnic conflicts, nativism, and racialist theories.
  • Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002. Classic account of anti-immigrant hostility in the United States from the Civil War to the final victory for restriction during the 1920’s.
  • Lee, Erika. At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Study of immigration from China to the United States from the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act to the loosening of American immigration laws during the 1960’s, with an afterword on U.S. immigration policies after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
  • Navarro, Armando. The Immigration Crisis: Nativism, Armed Vigilantism, and the Rise of a Countervailing Movement. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltiMira Press, 2008. Comprehensive history of the politics of immigration to the United States since the early colonial era, focusing on the role played by nativist movements.

American Protective Association

Americanization programs


Anti-Chinese movement

Anti-Filipino violence

Anti-Japanese movement


Eugenics movement

Know-Nothing Party

Ku Klux Klan


Categories: History