American history loves to celebrate our role as a land of asylum, humanity and opportunity for people across the globe. It’s a pillar of our cherished self-image as exceptional among nations.
It’s the American Way.
Whenever tragedy has struck Americans put out their hands in compassion and help. This is indeed true of America but it is often not achieved without great resistance.
History books often overlook or minimize the contrasting truth – that along with setting out a friendly welcome mat there has always been opposition, reluctance and setbacks to that warm hospitality.
That too is the American Way.
Not So Hospitable Times
A Nation of Immigrants
In a nation of immigrants, many have been less than hospitable to the next generation of newcomers.
In this 1893 cartoon called “Looking Backwards,” artist Joseph Keppler depicts American descendants of immigrants denying entry to the country’s next generation of newcomers. The five wealthy men shown have shadows which portray their past lives as former immigrants or relatives of immigrants exposing the hypocrisy of denying the new immigrants a chance at the American dream which made them wealthy.
In this cartoon called “Where the Blame Lies” by Grant Hamilton, we see Uncle Sam looking disapprovingly at the recent arrivals of immigrants. Uncle Sam seems to believe that the values of America would not be upheld by many of these new Eastern European immigrants.
They were perceived as different both morally and politically and were a danger.
And we are seeing that today, bigly.
While many are protesting Trumps now blocked illegal and immoral executive order temporarily banning immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries, some Americans, panicked and paranoid, have supported Trump. Citing the risk to national security, Trump has essentially pulled up the welcome mat to tens of thousands of people seeking asylum, based solely on their religion.
Though the travel ban has been temporarily halted by a federal judge, the deep prejudices remain.
I Don’t Know Nuthing About Governin No Country
The sloppy, chaotic roll-out of this unconstitutional Executive Order has pointed to the glaring inadequacies of an often no-nothing Trump administration
In truth Donald Trump wasn’t the first “know nothing” to capture America’s attention.
America has a long inglorious history of worrying that the character of our country was changing and that new immigrants posed a serious threat to the American way of life. Muslims are just the latest religious group of other unwanted immigrants that have included Catholics and Jews.
Mr. Trump, This Buds For You
We can get an odious whiff of the Know Nothing sentiment in Budweiser’s recent Superbowl commercial which is hard not to interpret as a subtle rebuke of Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric.
The ad dramatizes the company’s founder Adolphus Busch’s arrival in the U.S. from Germany where as an unwanted immigrant the viewer witnesses firsthand the prejudice he endured after arriving here. “You’re not wanted here,” one man shouts. “Go back home,” snarl another.
Like most immigrants young Busch left his home country for a better life in America. He had a dream (I want to brew beer) And he is categorically shunned by Americans as soon as he gets off the boat.
Arriving in 1857 it was at a time when the anti-immigrant Know Nothing political party had risen in response to an influx of unwanted immigrants, empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by German and Irish Catholic immigrants. Though the Know Nothing party largely disbanded after the 1856 presidential elections, their anti-immigration platform endured for many years and helped make religious differences into political issues.
Reflecting a Steve Bannon-like “nativist” sentiment, the party (popular from 1840-1850’s) promised to “purify” American politics by limiting or ending the influence of Irish and Catholics.
Like today it was a period of great division. Increases in immigration to the US from cultures and countries considered by some more “exotic” than previous waves that had arrived from England, Protestant Germany, and Scandinavia caused grave concern.
On the west coast influxes of Chinese and Japanese found new homes and work. Millions arrived in the East from Ireland and Italy mostly Catholics, who elicited great suspicion.
People were worried that the character of their country was changing.
Although the Know Nothings didn’t last long as a political party, their brand of racist, anti-immigration policy seems as relevant today.
It’s worth reading what one future Republican President said in reaction to the Know Nothing party. In a letter to Joshua Speed dated August 1855, Abraham Lincoln wrote:
“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of Negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except Negroes.”
When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty-to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”
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© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2017.