Ignorance and Bigotry – Two Constants in American History

The front page of the Syracuse Post-Standard today featured the “tweets” of the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate seat from New York.  In a series of tweets (because 140 characters is just not enough to contain her venom), the nominee, Wendy Long, claimed that crime and poverty follow the establishment of mosques, giving as examples a mosque in a particular neighborhood in Syracuse.   As if insulting one religious group wasn’t enough, she also claimed in a tweet that Catholic Charities was giving money to ISIS.   It’s been a while since I’ve thrown a newspaper across the room, but …sadly,  though, I know there are people who believe what the candidate is saying.    One story I’ve heard (and not through a reliable source, I admit) is that Arab shopowners in poor neighborhoods encourage young people to steal by offering to fence the stolen goods.  (Substitute “Jewish” for “Arab”, and it sounds like Nazi propaganda, doesn’t it?)

It is extremely disheartening to witness this display of bigotry and ignorance – and tragic that this is coming from a candidate nominated by a major political party.  If she had done a little bit of homework, she would have discovered that the neighborhood was already in a downward spiral before the mosque was established, and that, in fact, the mosque has had a stabilizing influence in that part of Syracuse.  It is also disappointing to have to accept that we haven’t really made much progress in this country in terms of toleration.

OK,  so can you identify who said it and when?

“The laws relating to immigration and naturalization favor foreign attack.”

“We have for nearly a quarter of a century been receiving several thousand [immigrants of a different religion] annually…We have given them land – almost for nothing;  employment at far better wages than they could have obtained at home; and political rights equal to those which are enjoyed by the sons of the best and noblest Americans….nearly 75% of our criminals and paupers are [these immigrants]; that fully 75% of the crimes of violence committed among us are the work of [these immigrants]

No, not Wendy Long nor Donald Trump.  The first quotation was from Samuel F.B. Morse (yes, the Morse who invented the telegraph) in 1835.  The second was from one of the most popular magazines of the mid-19th century, Harper’s Weekly, in 1860.  Both quotes are referring to Irish Catholics.

Irish Catholics began immigrating to this country in the early 1830s, a decade before the potato famine killed over a million and forced another million to flee.  The first Irish (including ancestors of both my family and my husband’s) who arrived here came for jobs, building canals, railroads, bridges, and roads.   They also brought with them their Catholicism, which many Americans feared and reviled.  In 1834, an angry mob attacked a Catholic convent and orphanage after hearing a rumor that priests were acting as pimps.   None other than Lyman Beecher, the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, spread rumors about Catholicism, and in 1835 Samuel F.B. Morse published a 110 page essay called “A Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States” in which he argued that Catholics could never accept democracy;  he also proposed that naturalized citizens never be allowed the right to vote.

Anti-Catholic cartoon

The Irish Catholics who arrived here after the early 1840s were particularly reviled for their poverty (the British government subsidized their ship passages to get them out of Ireland) as well as their lack of education (they weren’t allowed to attend schools in British controlled Ireland).  Without money or opportunities, many of these new immigrants crowded into already congested slums in New York, Philadelphia, and

By 1851, Morse and others had organized a political party based on nativism and bigotry, with the fancy title of the “Order of the Star-Spangled Banner”, but more commonly known as the “Know-Nothing Party.”  This political party actually won seats in the New York state legislature, elected several mayors, and at least one governor.  In fact, a former U.S. President, Millard Fillmore, became a leading voice in the party.  While the party resented any immigration, it was most focused on stopping Irish immigration, claiming that the Irish were criminals or worse.  Even mainstream publications published essays and cartoons depicting the Irish as sub-human and monstrous.

Anti-immigrant cartoons 19th century

The Irish were discriminated against well into the 20th century, denied entry into some schools and universities, private clubs, and even excluded from jobs.   In 1960, when an Irish-Catholic ran for President, voters in West Virginia were exposed to newspaper ads arguing that if Kennedy won the election, he would set aside a room in the White House for the Pope!!! (I would imagine that would be the last thing JFK would ever think of doing).

But here we are in the second decade of thee 21st century, in a time when tumors can be removed by lasers, and we can communicate through a device not much bigger than a playing card…and we still have politicians and patriotic citizens spreading bigotry and prejudice.





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