The Know-Nothings*

Published: July 10, 2017

By Jim Lichtman
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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  – George Santayana

Recently, I received an e-mail from a reader to a 2016 commentary (Fact-Checking a Reader) I wrote regarding candidate-Trump’s original statement calling for a “total and complete shutdown” of all Muslims entering the United States.

“I think if Trump would have left out the word Muslim,” this reader begins (July 2, 2017), “your argument would hold even less water. Referencing ‘Snopes’ [a fact-checking site] to reinforce your personal view point makes you sound like a libtard [liberal-retard] professor at a liberal college.

“You can try to insulate the Muslims from the backlashing they brought on themselves, and influence American citizens, but we are sick of these bastards ruining everything on the planet. So, as we conservatives see it, you are dead wrong on this issue. You cite nothing but spoken words and hear-say to support your Muslim terrorist friends.  …

“Please open your eyes and accept the Muslims for who they really are by looking at their record over the last 600 years. They cannot be trusted, ever. So, stop your ignorance, stop defending their invasion, and their lying tactics. You sound like a lying Muslim.”

Historically, the first thing that comes to mind was the oppression faced by thousands of Chinese immigrants to the Western U.S. in the late 1900s. Working under hostile conditions, these early migrants were responsible for constructing much of the Transcontinental Railroad. Despite their many contributions, Hearst-owned newspapers, frequently referenced the Chinese immigrants as the “yellow peril.”

However, something more subversive began 50 years earlier.

Beginning in 1845, hundreds of thousands of Irish working-class migrants came to the U.S. to escape the potato famine which was ravaging Ireland.

At the time, the U.S. population was heavily Protestant. The Irish were Catholic, and the American Protestants regarded the Roman Catholic Church and the pope as a direct threat to democracy.

Due to the centuries of hate that had built up between Catholic and Protestant, backlash was inevitable. In 1854, after several Catholic churches and convents were looted by Protestant mobs, a political opposition party was formed against the Irish.

The Know-Nothing Party* – an underground group of anti-Catholics – acquired its name from the response members gave when asked about the secret meetings they held (“I know nothing”). Also called, “nativists,” they believed that foreign-born Americans should not be permitted to hold any governmental position. For approximately 12 years, the party’s platform promised to limit future immigration from Catholic countries, and make it more difficult for immigrants to obtain citizenship. They also proposed that all public schools teach Protestantism.

At the end of the Civil War, with an influx of Catholic immigrants from Poland, Italy and Germany, religious pressures lessened. Nonetheless, prejudice against the Irish would remain for decades in the U.S.


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