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Know Nothings

August 28, 2016

Anti-Irish political cartoon (“Usual Irish Way of Doing Things”) run in Harper’s Weekly, (1871), Author Thomas Nast, (PD-Age)

Between 1845 and 1854, 2.9 million men, women, and children fled to the United States due to economic and social hardship.

Characterizing these immigrants as unsavory and dangerous, the nativist Know Nothing Movement arose, in response.  The goals of this movement were to safeguard “real” American values (including a Protestant heritage), and to end – or at least sharply curtail – the influence of immigrants and Catholics, whether native-born or not.

A Protestant minister described the Catholic faith as “the ally of tyranny, the opponent of material prosperity, the foe of thrift, the enemy of the railroad, the caucus, and the school [1].”  Catholics were seen as trying to overthrow the government.

The Irish, in particular, were viewed as drunkards and degenerates, mentally impaired, and loyal to a foreign pope.  The New York Sun ran 15 job ads labeled “No Irish Need Apply” in 1842 alone [2].  The practice continued for some 80 years [3].

Despite all that, over 150,000 Irish served in the Union Army during the Civil War.  In Pennsylvania, they dug the canals and the coal mines.  The Irish laid track for both ends of the Transcontinental Railroad (the western branch of which was completed by Chinese immigrants).

Irish immigrants established labor unions, charitable societies, and parochial schools.  They eventually came to dominate police and politics in New York and Chicago.  In 1960, they helped elect an Irish Catholic president in the person of John F. Kennedy.

We Americans know so little of our own history that some of this may come as a surprise.  It was not though a fairy tale.

The road was long and hard for immigrants, and remains that way today.  New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco still have Chinatowns where immigrants new to this country first interact with American culture.  Los Angeles now has Thai Town and Little Saigon.

The dangers of terrorism and the exodus of manufacturing jobs have influenced modern American attitudes toward immigration.  Today’s white nationalists (among those calling themselves the “alt-right”) believe their message of hatred is gaining popularity [4].  But we have been here before.

We may decide to proceed with caution.  But, whatever our political affiliation, we must not be guided by fear.  The Know Nothings should have taught us that much [5].

Thus says the Lord:  Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed.  And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place” (Jer. 22: 3).

[1]  See, The Protestant Crusade 1800–1860 by Ray Billington (1938); and Catholicism and American Freedom:  A History by John McGreevey (2003).

[2]  Oxford Journals, Journal of Social History, “No Irish Need Deny:  Evidence for the Historicity of NINA Restrictions in Advertisements and Signs” by Rebecca Fried, 7/3/15, updated 6/20/16,

[3]  Long Island WINS, “High School Student Proves Professor Wrong When He Denied ‘No Irish Need Apply’ Signs Existed” by Patrick Young, Esq., 7/19/15,

[4]  Washington Post, “ ‘Racial Realists’ Are Cheered by Trump’s Latest Strategy” by David Weigel, 8/21/16,

[5]  It is a historical fact that many of the Know Nothings transferred their allegiance to the fledgling Republican Party.



  1. Monochrome nightmares permalink

    When in 1960, my parents decided we were going to leave Ireland
    and live in London, (I was 6 months old) they came across signs in
    windows saying, Room to Let. No Irish, no Blacks, need apply.

    In London at the time there were a lot of Irish, working in construction and
    road building, and a lot of first generation Jamaica’s, who had their flights to
    England paid for by the British government, so they would come and work
    on the London Underground (subway) and London buses. Jobs that the English
    did not want to do.

    The Irish and the Jamaica’s got on so well together.
    I have many happy memories of growing up in West London.


  2. Very interesting historical portrait. Despite varying viewpoints, the 19th Century immigrants were products of Judeo-Christian tradition who admired America’s freedom as a gift from God not a grant from government. They assimilated readily.

    Islamic immigrants come from a culture totally different than the American culture. The God of the Bible is a god of love. The name “Allah” was taken from a pantheistic religion the predates Islam. Allah was known as the god of war. The God of the Bible, says love your enemies. The god of the Koran, says slay the infidels, especially those of the Book (Jews and Christians).

    Islamic immigrants do not assimilate. A surprising number of “peaceful” Muslims support Sharia Law, which is diametrically opposed to our Constitution and constitutional law. Nevertheless, Sharia law is working its way into the American court system (at least 100 cases so far).

    The lever is that Islam does not recognize a separation of church and state. In Islam, the church is the state. The claim is made in American courts that Muslims should be governed by Sharia law, because of our First Amendment that guarantees freedom of religion. Tragically, judges are buying into that argument.

    Consequently, there is good reason to limit Muslim immigration. Nevertheless, God tells us to treat the one already here with love. Of course, part of that expression of love is an expectation of all immigrants to live within and abide by the laws of America. What do you think?

    • Dear Dr. Stebbins —

      This is a subject on which we clearly disagree. My position is stated above. Let me, however, add this.

      Unless we choose to abandon the principles on which this nation was founded, we cannot expect all immigrants to be Christians from northern Europe. The invitation on the Statue of Liberty reads:

      “Give me your tired, your poor,
      Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
      The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
      Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
      I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

      Many immigrant cultures were viewed as incapable of assimilation. The Chinese (Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian), the Indian (Hindu), and the Japanese (Shinto) come to mind.

      I am unfamiliar with the cases involving Sharia law which you mention. The internet, however, abounds with false rumors. Dearborn, MI has not adopted Sharia law. Nor has Texas. Nor have law enforcement agencies declined to enforce the peace in Muslim areas allegedly adherent to Sharia law.

      Any American court, federal or state, would require that Muslims adhere to American laws. Honor killings, for instance, have been prosecuted for years.

      Putting all this aside, we have, I believe, a two-fold obligation as Christians to reach out:

      1) As you say, Allah is not Yahweh. For that very reason, Christians have a duty to witness. We cannot, however, witness from behind a wall.

      2) The refugee crisis is a test of our faith. We may well be at risk from some immigrants. But then we are at risk from some of our own citizens. By contrast, thousands made homeless by war — many of them women and young children — would be deeply grateful, if we took them in. The greater danger is failing in God’s eyes.



  3. Anna thank you for this post! I think we will be fighting prejudice and ignorance until the Lord returns.

  4. Really interesting!

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