In the 1840s and 1850s, there was a wave of immigration to the United States. Working-class immigrants poured into the country looking for work and a better place to live. Between 1845 and 1854, nearly three million foreigners arrived, equal to roughly 15 percent of the population in 1845; in 1854 alone, the flow reached a record high of 427,833, a figure that would not be surpassed again until the 1870s. Most of these immigrants came from Ireland or Germany. They filled boarding houses in the urban centers of the Northeast: by the mid 1850s, more than one fifth of all residents of Boston and New York were Irish-born.
This wave of immigration provoked a nativist movement that proved to be quite strong in the years leading up the Civil War. Immigrant workers suffered from extreme poverty and crowded into densely populated, squalid urban neighborhoods. Although their labor was welcome, their religion, ethnicity, and class converged to cast doubt on their desirability as members of American society, let alone the political system.
The nativist objections to immigrant political rights followed several key paths. Some believed that recently arrived immigrants, even if they became citizens, could not possibly understand American values and the workings of American democracy enough to make informed political choices. Others feared that Catholics were controlled by the Pope and thus posed a threat to the largely Protestant American society. The concern that working class voters would sell their votes or vote according to the views of their supervisors—the same concerns that beleaguered the propertyless earlier in the 19th century—echoed forward to the 1850s, exacerbated by stories of politically motivated mass naturalizations just days before many elections.
Whig and Republican objections to enfranchising immigrants were strengthened by the perception that many immigrants drank alcohol – in contrast to some teetolaing traditions of the time – and voted Democratic. But nativist sentiment was strongest amongst the Know-Nothings, a political third party that burst on to the scene in 1853. Originally a secret organization called the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, the Know-Nothings soon dominated political life in the Northeast and parts of the Midwest—by no coincidence areas that had large immigrant populations. By 1854, the Know-Nothings had a million members, as well as “lodges” in every northern state. They achieved huge electoral successes between 1854 and 1856, winning gubernatorial elections in nine states and controlling legislatures in at least six.
The political agenda of the Know-Nothings was somewhat of a eclectic mix of ideas. They expressed a disdain for the existing party system and opposed the extension of slavery. At the same time, they professed extreme ethnic and religious bigotry, denouncing immigrants, and Catholics in particular.
It was on the question of immigrants and their political rights that the beliefs of Know-Nothings were most coherent: they feared that immigrants, especially Catholics, wielded too much electoral power and would use it to subvert American values and institutions. To combat this threat, they proposed that federal laws be changed to require a twenty-one year (rather than a five-year) waiting period prior to naturalization. The Know-Nothings also advocated significant changes in state voting laws, including implementing registration systems and literacy tests. Recognizing that the nation benefited from the labor of immigrants, the Know-Nothings never endorsed a suspension of immigration; rather, they advocated restricting the political rights of immigrants until they had been “nationalized” through prolonged immersion in the American way of life.
The Know-Nothings succeeded in changing the substance of suffrage law in two industrial states with large Irish populations, Massachusetts and Connecticut. In 1857, Massachusetts passed a law requiring prospective voters to demonstrate their ability to read the Constitution and to write their own names: such laws, according to the Know-Nothings, would keep the “ignorant, imbruted Irish” from the polls.
After the mid-1850s, the influence of Know-Nothings decreased dramatically and they quickly disappeared from view, as nativism was eclipsed by sectional politics and the Republican Party gained the support of many former Know-Nothing backers.
“In my judgment, whenever the United States finds itself at war with a foreign country, and realizes the need of soldiers, the need of strong bodies, brawny arms and brave hearts, they will be liberal enough in extending the right of suffrage and the facilities to become citizens to our foreign born fellow men. But in times of profound peace, when war’s dread alarms are not sounding through the land, they relapse back into the old channel, and require them to serve an apprenticeship before they shall become voters or citizens of the United States.”
–Mr. Burns, Ohio Constitutional Convention, 1874
It took several years for the issue of immigrant suffrage to return to the forefront of American politics after the Civil War. But by 1900, the United States had become the leading manufacturing nation in the world, and its industrial output eclipsed that of its agricultural production. Since the Civil War, the country’s population had increased from 35 million to 75 million people, and employment for people who did not work on farms had increased three fold: by 1900, more than 10 million people worked in manufacturing, mining, construction, or transportation. By 1910, most urban residents were immigrants or the children of immigrants, and the nation’s huge working-class was predominantly foreign-born, native-born of foreign parents, or black.
The Irish and Germans continued to arrive in droves, and they were joined now by growing numbers of Southern and Eastern Europeans, few of whom spoke English, whose cultures were alien, and most of whom were Catholic or Jewish.
In 1870, only two cities in the United States had populations greater than 500,000: New York and Philadelphia. By 1910, there were eight cities in that category, and three with more than 1 million people. With the dramatic increase in urban population came the rise of machine politics—an apparatus fueled by new voters and almost entirely outside of the control of traditional political power structures.
To some, this mass of immigrant workers was an unwelcome addition to the electorate, and it did not take long for old stock Americans to begin parroting the old arguments of the Know-Nothings. To the traditional elites, immigrant workers seemed to lack the knowledge and commitment to American values necessary to make informed political choices. That they were poor, often illiterate, and did not speak English made matters far worse.
Furthermore, the disadvantaged position of immigrants made them more likely to support political machines, or “boss rule,” which threatened to legitimize their political power and undermine traditional political systems. Machine politics operated in a very transactional way—promising favors and benefits in exchange for loyalty and votes. The notoriously corrupt Tweed Ring in New York and other machines in cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and San Francisco flourished with immigrant support, and appeared to threaten core American values to those who opposed them.
Finally, many felt that the very poor constituted a threat to property. “There is probably no sweeter experience in the world than that of a penniless laborer…when he learns that by casting his vote in right way he can strip the rich merchant or ship-owner of a portion of his gains,” wrote nationalist historian Francis Parkman.