Carroll County Times
Carroll County Times Opinion

Batavick: Anti-immigrant sentiment, yesterday and today

The small, picturesque town of New Windsor was once an outpost for the "Know-Nothings," a political party of the late 1840s and the 1850s that agitated against immigrants, especially those from Catholic countries like Italy, Spain and Ireland. It also dubbed itself the American Party, and adherents even published a newspaper, "The True American," edited by one of the town's doctors, Roberts Bartholow. Know-Nothing beliefs were fed by a spate of books that purported to make the case for the moral inferiority of these immigrants. The texts also doubted their loyalty to the U.S. Constitution because many of these newcomers had supposedly pledged fealty to a higher power, the Pope of Rome.

I own the 400-page, "A Voice to America" by Edward Walker, published in 1855. As might be expected, its embossed cover is draped in patriotic symbols: a U.S. flag, George Washington, an American eagle and other nationalistic icons, and its long subtitle warns of the republic's fall if something isn't done about "the present crisis in the United States."


The book is full of strident passages that resonate with today's politics. In fact, one such section would have been perfect to kick off a certain candidate's presidential campaign: "The Mexicans are, as a people, a nation of swindlers, thieves, and murderers." Or, if you change the country of origin, how about, "Three-fourths of the criminals of Ireland are Romanists." (i.e., Catholics.) No exaggeration here.

Concerned about Muslims and Hispanics in the military? The book offers, "Is it likely that in time of war these regiments of foreigners would be of the same service as when all speak the same language?"


How about fears over Sharia law? "Must we be expected to surrender our entire nationality to them, and to allow them to inoculate it with their own customs, tastes, opinions, manners and prejudices?... Must our hospitality be the means to its own destruction?"

The 1855 book even had concerns about the impact unbridled immigration would have on future elections. Sound familiar? "In 1852, the foreign vote was known with accuracy to be one hundred and eighty-eight thousand, or had risen to one-seventeenth of the electoral body," multiplying itself "by twelve, since 1840, while the aggregate vote of the country was not multiplied by three!"

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The capstone to the book's thesis was plain and simple: "In this country, the predominating race is Anglo-American … that invigorating blood, which reddened the Battlefields of the Revolution." That sentence would be no stranger to myriad alt-white websites today.

The human race continues to carry around baggage that is as old as tribalism itself. Each generation simply clothes its fears and anxieties in whatever fashion that's current. After the Civil War, white robes and hoods became quite de rigueur, and blacks joined Catholics as a hated class.

The targets of this hate evolve. T.S. Eliot was once the greatest living poet in the English language, a Nobel laureate, and a big advocate of a homogenous population. During the 1930s, he was virulently anti-Semitic and feared the waves of German and Eastern European Jews who were fleeing Hitler's Europe for America's shores. Eliot wrote, "What is still more important is unity of religious background … Reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable."

It would have made no matter to Eliot that among these immigrants was a famous mathematician named Einstein, and that of the other Jewish intellectuals who arrived, six were Nobel Prize winners who helped jump-start our atomic bomb and rocketry programs. When you build walls, you never know who you might be keeping out.

I don't kid myself that attitudes are going to soften about immigration. Just look at the overreaction to President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). Over 800,000 immigrants who have lived illegally in the United States since they were children are threatened with deportation. Paranoia that deep-seated doesn't go away in centuries or even millennia. The record is too clear. The people I fault are the politicians, media personalities and Internet content providers who know better than to exploit nativist fears for their own personal gain or the advancement of a warped and dehumanized agenda.

Today what makes America great are the legions of educated Irish, Italians, Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians and Jews who, along with many other ethnic groups, drive our economy, fight our wars, and serve in our state houses and Congress. In the near future, their ranks will be bolstered by even more Mexicans and Muslims, and we'll wonder what all the shouting was about.


Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears Fridays. Email him at