The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the 1850s, the Irish faced the same hostility as today’s immigrants

This history provides lessons about why our current immigration panic is misguided

Asylum seekers in El Paso wait to board buses to New York and Chicago on Monday. (Paul Ratje/Reuters)
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The deportations were part of a strict new policy introduced with strong support from the voting public. Sixteen immigrants were rounded up and sent 3,000 miles away to their country of origin. Five of them were women with an average age of 71. They complained — in vain — of the hardship of being forced to leave a country where they had lived for 40 years.

Although this story is depressingly familiar, it does not come from today’s headlines. The year was 1859, and the immigrants were Irish, dispatched from Boston to Liverpool and from there on to Ireland. They were victims of the Western world’s first great immigration panic, provoked by a spike in the number fleeing famine and political upheaval on the other side of the Atlantic. The circumstances, and the fears expressed, were not of course identical to today’s. But the parallels are strong enough to raise the question: Can the events of two centuries ago provide lessons for a world in which millions of people are once again desperate to move?

Irish immigrants had been coming to North America since the early 18th century. Initially, most of them were Protestant farmers and tradesmen from the counties of Ulster, valuable collaborators in the task of building a new society. After the American Revolution, they had the additional advantage of being widely seen as refugees from British tyranny.

By the 1830s, however, the pattern of Irish immigration was changing dramatically. Immigrants to the United States now came from all parts of Ireland. Catholics outnumbered Protestants. A growing proportion of them were poor and without special skills, bringing with them no resources and with little to offer but a capacity for hard manual labor.

The overall number of immigrants had also risen dramatically. Between the 1780s and the early 1820s, fewer than 10,000 immigrants arrived each year from Europe. By the late 1830s and early 1840s, that number rose to 78,000. And between 1846 and 1854, more than 315,000 immigrants landed each year at U.S. ports.

The United States was eager to attract European immigrants to settle the expanding country and grow its industrial wealth. But on the ground, immigration on this scale deeply alarmed many Americans.

Their great fear was that immigrants raised in an Old World culture of despotic monarchy, aristocratic privilege and the suppression of ideas could not be expected to uphold the democratic values of the American republic. The immigrants were instead thought to be the tools of corrupt and opportunistic demagogues. There was also the widespread belief that Catholics, bound by their allegiance to the pope, could not be loyal U.S. citizens.

The Irish were not the only immigrants to be attacked on these grounds, of course. They were, however, the largest immigrant group at the time — accounting for 2 out of every 5 arrivals between 1820 and 1860. Their Catholicism, their general poverty and their prominence in urban machine politics in East Coast cities added to the sense that they posed a particular threat.

Hostility to the Irish more than once erupted into serious violence. In 1834, a Protestant mob destroyed a convent in the Boston suburb of Charlestown. Ten years later, anti-immigrant mobs rioted in the mainly Irish districts of Kensington and Southwark in Philadelphia — killing 20 people.

The anti-immigrant movement reached a peak in 1854 and 1855 when a new American Party, better known as the Know-Nothings, gained control of state governments in Massachusetts and elsewhere. The party did not seek to end immigration, which it recognized as essential to the country’s development. Instead, it wanted immigrants to serve a 21-year probation before being allowed to vote and called for restricting public employment to native-born Americans. It also sought intrusive inspections of Catholic religious institutions and restrictions on the sale of alcohol — seen as the characteristic vice of both the Irish and the Germans. State governments also stepped up the deportation of immigrants who, like the unfortunate women shipped to Liverpool in 1859, had entered a poorhouse or similar institution and so become a charge on public funds.

By the end of 1856, the American Party, divided on the issue of slavery, had fallen apart. Hostility to the Irish continued for decades, but over time, their image in American eyes improved. One reason was the arrival of new immigrant groups, southern and eastern Europeans and, even more so, the Chinese, who could be more easily stereotyped as alien than, by this time, the familiar Irish. When the United States introduced new restrictions in 1921 and 1924 to ban the immigration of Asian people and severely limit the immigration of the supposedly inferior Eastern and Southern Europeans, the Irish were grouped with other Northern Europeans and allocated quotas that would allow their immigration to continue largely unimpeded for four more decades. By the mid-20th century, attitudes about the Catholic Irish American — as seen for example in popular films like 1944’s “Going My Way” — were positively benign.

The parallels between the era of the American Know-Nothings and the present day are undeniable. There is the same insistence that migrants constitute a threat to the host society’s very existence. Where modern polemicists warn of a Great Replacement, 19th-century American nativists painted lurid pictures of an America conquered for the Catholic Church and placed under the rule of some minor branch of a European royal family. The spectacular rise of the Know-Nothings, disrupting existing political alignments, has parallels in modern populist movements driven by anti-immigrant sentiment. And there is, in both cases, the same demand for radical solutions, regardless of the human cost of implementing them.

It would be wrong to present simplistic parallels between past and present. Unlike many of today’s immigrants, the Irish were White, Christian (although Catholic) and English speaking. They arrived in a nation with vast territories, so alarmist visions of the country becoming “full up” had no credibility. And they came at a time when governments took minimal responsibility for the welfare of their citizens, so that their arrival had few implications for the provision of housing, education and health services that today are contentious.

That said, the events of two centuries ago, in Massachusetts and elsewhere, should make us think again. To examine past waves of anti-immigrant sentiment, such as the American nativism of the 1840s and 1850s, is to recognize the crude nature of the prejudices involved: The same charges recur, over and over again, in different time periods and against different groups of newcomers. In the Irish case, moreover, we see how newcomers initially reviled as an existential threat to the core values of society could, over time, come to be accepted as colorful and valued contributors to its ethnic diversity.

Finally, and most importantly, there is the contrast between the willingness of wealthy countries to exploit the labor of immigrants and the harsh, sometimes brutal treatment that those immigrants received. Here we are forced to recognize the collective hypocrisy, as alive today as at any time in the past, that allows affluent societies to stereotype and marginalize their migrant populations, while at the same time relying on them to do essential and very hard work.