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In 1844 America was in a state of deep unrest, grappling with xenophobia, racial, and ethnic tension on a national scale that feels singular to our time, but echoes the earliest anti-immigrant sentiments of the country.
In that year Philadelphia was set aflame by a group of Protestant ideologues — avowed nativists — who were seeking social and political power rallied by charisma and fear of the Irish immigrant menace.
For these men, it was Irish Catholics they claimed would upend morality and murder their neighbors, steal their jobs, and overturn democracy. The nativists burned Catholic churches, chased and beat people through the streets, and exchanged shots with a militia seeking to reinstate order.
In the aftermath, the public debated both the militia’s use of force and the actions of the mob. Some of the most prominent nativists continued their rise to political power for a time, even reaching Congress.
A new book The Fires of Philadelphia: Citizen-Soldiers, Nativists, and the 1844 Riots Over the Soul of a Nation (Pegasus Books, 2021) by Zachary M. Schrag is an account of the moment one of America’s founding cities turned on itself over the issue of immigration.
Zachary M. Schrag is the author of The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro; Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences and The Princeton Guide to Historical Research. He has received grants and fellowships from the National Science Foundation, the Gerald Ford Foundation, and the Library of Congress and has been awarded the Society for American City and Regional Planning History’s John Reps Prize. He is the director of the Masters Program in History at George Mason University.
Read about Irish immigration and nativism in John Warren’s three part series on the 1830s here.
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