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Terry GolwayMarch 29, 2004

Given the culture of grievance that seems to dominate so much historical writing these days, it is surprising how infrequently the catalogers of complaint see fit to mention the Know-Nothing movement in the United States in the 19th century. Even when the Know-Nothings merit a citation in textbooks, they generally are dismissed in a vague phrase suggesting that they were against immigrants. That is both true and misleading: The Know Nothings were against immigrants all rightCatholic immigrants. And they were not overly fond of Catholics born on American soil either.

The Know-Nothing movement achieved extraordinary, albeit temporary, power in American politics. More than a million voters enrolled in the movement’s political organization, the American Party, in the 1850’s, and the party elected about 100 members to Congress. As millions of starving Irish immigrantspoor, uneducated, Catholic and sometimes not fluent in Englishpoured into the nation’s cities, demagogues predicted the fall of American democracy. Catholics, they said, had different values. They didn’t appreciate democracy, liberty and hard work.

The intellectual founder (and financier) of the Know-Nothing movement was Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, an eminently respectable and respected American and a rabid anti-Catholic. In a screed entitled Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States, Morse accused the Vatican of seeking to subvert the values and ideals of Anglo-Protestant America. Surely American Protestants, freemen, have discernment enough to discover beneath them the cloven foot of this subtle foreign heresy, he wrote of Catholicism. They will see that Popery is now, what it has ever been, a system of the darkest political intrigue and despotism, cloaking itself to avoid attack under the sacred name of religion. They will be deeply impressed with the truth, that Popery is a political as well as a religious system; that in this respect it differs totally from all other sects, from all other forms of religion in the country.

Interesting words indeed from a man whom historian Tyler Anbinder has described glowingly as one of the country’s few Renaissance men.’ One might make the argument that the country is fortunate indeed that there were not many people like Samuel Morse in the middle of the 19th century.

For many Catholics today, the Know-Nothing movement is part of a distant and forgotten past, dead and buried with no chance of eternal life.

If only....

In the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine, Samuel Huntington, a professor at Harvard University, warns that the country faces yet another subversive threat from predominantly Catholic immigrantsHispanics in general, and Mexicans in particular. These newcomers seem determined to destroy the Anglo-Protestant values that built the American dream, Huntington writes. Whether they arrive legally or not does not really matter. What does matter is that they simply do not value hard work, education and so many of the other virtues that apparently are the exclusive province of Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

There is very little in this treatise that was not said about Catholic immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Irish were accused of sloth; Huntington suggests that Hispanics are held back by a lack of initiative. Italians were condemned for distrusting outsiders; Huntington seems to believe Hispanics trust nobody outside the family.

The problem, as Huntington sees it, is that unlike the immigrants of a century ago, today’s Hispanicsparticularly Mexicansreject American values. Profound cultural differences clearly separate Mexicans and Americans, and the high level of immigration from Mexico sustains and reinforces the prevalence of Mexican values among Mexican Americans, he writes. And what, one wonders, are these Mexican values that are so subversive to Anglo-Protestant values? It could not be an aversion to hard work, for it would be fair to say that the typical Mexican immigrant puts more sweat equity into his or her work than most tenured Harvard professors. And it certainly could not be that Mexicans have no appreciation for self-improvement and sacrifice. Why would they be here, where they are often lonely and despised, if they did not believe their children or their children’s children will be better off?

Perhaps it is true that Mexicans and Americans are separated by cultural differences. Is that bad? Huntington thinks so. So did Samuel Morse, who said pretty much the same thing about an earlier generation of non-Anglo, non-Protestant immigrants. And as a matter of fact, Morse was right. Many Catholic immigrants did have different values, and America is better off as a result. Once Catholics achieved political power in America, they challenged Anglo-Protestant ideas about self-reliance and laissez-faire economics. Catholic politicians, through the old urban political machine, made it clear that the nation’s teeming cities were not Walden Pond, and that the poor were entitled to more than a lecture about rugged individualism.

Is it possible to debate immigration policy without condemning the values of those who wish to come here? Apparently not.

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Miguel Hernandez
13 years 5 months ago
It's interesting that for all his rabid anti-Catholic rhetoric Morse accepted and proudly wore the Order of Isabela the Catholic medal as well as medals of other Catholic countries like Portugal and Italy.
17 years 4 months ago
Some things never change. Terry Golway, in “Return of the Know-Nothings” (3/29), aptly takes Harvard professor Samuel Huntington to task for contending that Hispanics, and in particular Mexicans, are somehow a threat to the values that made America great. But as Mr. Golway notes, much the same was said about the Irish and Italians in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet history shows that none of these predominantly Catholic groups ever challenged the American creed—they absorbed it. What seems to be bothering Huntington is the challenge to WASP hegemony, not the failure of Catholic ethnics to assimilate.

In 1986, the main sponsor of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), John Tanton, wrote a private memo (subsequently leaked to the press) expressing his concerns about Latino fertility rates and their Catholicism. Now Huntington is sadly on board. Fortunately, most Americans understand that Little Italy and Spanish Harlem are very much a part of the American mosaic. So, for that matter, is Chinatown. I would have thought that social scientists employed at Harvard—which once had a quota for Catholics and Jews—would be beating the drums of diversity, not division. But, alas, some things never change.

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