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Anti-Immigrant Rage Is Older Than The Nation Itself

This 1881 illustration from the >>London News depicts Irish immigrants bound for the United States. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This 1881 illustration from the >>London News depicts Irish immigrants bound for the United States.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Kenneth C. Davis is a historian and the author of Don't Know Much About History. His most recent book is A Nation Rising.

On a warm Friday afternoon in May 1844, a few hundred people gathered in one of Philadelphia's Catholic neighborhoods. They were Protestants who rallied under the banner of "Save the Bible."

But one speaker after another denounced the Irish as "scum unloaded on American wharves" and railed against a plot to turn America over to the Pope. Young unemployed Irishmen stood nearby and jeered the speakers, who hurried away.

Three days later, the Protestants — known as nativists — returned, now 3,000 strong. Angry words became fistfights. A pistol was fired, and a young nativist fell dead. By nightfall, the neighborhood was in flames.

The City of Brotherly Love was in the full throes of the deadly "Bible Riots."

A maelstrom of sectarian violence that lasted for weeks, Philadelphia's Bible Riots were sparked when the city's Dublin-born bishop asked that Catholic children not be forced to read the King James Version of the Bible in the city's public schools. Back then, schooldays opened with a scripture reading, supplemented by a dose of anti-Catholic propaganda.

This religious animosity was one reason that American Catholics began to build parochial schools. Once Catholics launched their own schools, America's Protestant-Papist divide only widened.

But faith was only part of the fight. Since Colonial times, a deep strain of anti-immigrant vitriol had coursed through America's political marrow. Many "Anglo-Americans" viewed foreigners with disdain. In Colonial Pennsylvania, even Ben Franklin had denounced an influx of immigrants who spoke no English. In Franklin's day, they were Germans.

The animosity grew when a flood of mostly Irish-Catholic immigrants began arriving in the 1830s. America's mood had already been soured by the nation's first severe Depression. Then, as now, immigrants were accused of taking jobs and cheapening wages. They would also be blamed for the deadly cholera and typhus that swept Philadelphia and other cities in the 1830s.

Kenneth C. Davis is the author of A Nation Rising, which includes a more detailed account of Philadelphia's anti-immigrant "Bible Riots" along with other untold tales from 19th-century America. Nina Subin hide caption

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Nina Subin

Against this backdrop came the bishop's request that Catholic children be allowed to use a more "Catholic-friendly' Bible. When the rabidly anti-Papist nativist press got wind of his petition, it was conflated into a demand to "remove the Bible" from public schools.

From pulpits and newspapers, Philadelphia's Protestant majority took up the battle cry, "Save the Bible!"

The violence that followed explodes the twin myths of America as "Christian Nation" and "Melting Pot." When a second bout of rioting in July left dozens dead, hundreds of homes destroyed and two Catholic churches in ruins, a grand jury investigated the mayhem. They would blame it on the Irish.

As America confronts the firestorm ignited by Arizona's immigrant legislation, the specter of the Bible Riots speaks volumes about how deep America's anti-immigrant fervor runs. A vestige of this dark strain in the nation's political DNA lurks in the margins of anti-immigrant and other so-called populist movements.

And when politicians bait crowds with red-meat lines about speaking English only and being able to recognize immigrants by their shoes, they risk awakening that dangerous strand of nativist fear and loathing that once had churches in flames and blood running in the streets of Philadelphia.

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