In 1844, Philadelphia, a hub for Irish immigration to the United States, witnessed a series of violent Nativist riots that targeted Irish Americans and Roman Catholic churches. In our season finale, Zachary Schrag discusses the events leading up to the Philadelphia Nativists Riots of 1844, who was there, and how it fits into the broader history of the century. Professor Schrag’s most recent book, The Fires of Philadelphia: Citizen-Soldiers, Nativists, and the 1844 Riots Over the Soul of a Nation (Pegasus Books, June 2021) is an account of the moment one of America’s founding cities turned on itself, giving the nation a preview of the Civil War to come. 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, but they did not attempt to stoke mob violence again.
This episode of 15 Minute History was mixed and mastered by Harper Carlton, Amanda Willis, and Will Kurzner.
- Zachary M. Schrag Professor of History at George Mason University
- Alina ScottPhD Candidate in the History Department at the University of Texas at Austin
I want to start our conversation today about what drew you to this topic. Why did you write this book?
So I was initially interested in urban riots and more specifically in urban riot control. So anyone who has lived through 2020 knows the scenes of people on one side protesting, most of them peaceful, some of them not some of throwing rocks and on the other side, this parade of law enforcement, some of them in helmets, some of them were shield, some of them on horseback with tear gas, with rubber bullets, all of these kinds of technologies. And I originally thought I would Right about how this develops in the 20th century when we get things like tear gas and riot shields coming in. But to answer that, I had to do a little bit of background reading on the 19th century and understand in particular why it is that of all the possible groups. It’s the national guard that gets called out to deal with violent mobs in the 19th and 20th centuries. And that question of where this all starts led me to the Jacksonian period, the 18 thirties and 18 forties, and particularly to Philadelphia in 18 44 which is the first time that the volunteer militia, the precursor of Today’s National Guard, really does a full-scale battle against a riotous mob. There had been Smalling actions, self-defense shootings, but nothing of this scale priority 1844.
So my next question is about the start of your book, which is this note on terminology, which I thought was really interesting as someone who studies Native American and Indigenous history. I was like, okay, this is, this is an interesting way to start the book. So you distinguish between natives, Native Americans, and nativists from American Indians and Indigenous people. And can you discuss what those definitions are before we jump in and then why these terms are used? And are these terms they’re using to describe themselves?
Yes. So this is something that came out in the editing process was a lot of people were understandably confused when they see the term Native American on the page because in our day, that usually refers to people of indigenous descent And that’s not how it was used in the 1840s. If people today have heard of nativists of the 19th century, they may know the term no nothing, which is going to show up in textbooks and courses about the civil war. That term the know nothings comes out of New York in the 1850s, so it’s not technically accurate To apply to the Philadelphians in the 1840s. Even though there are some linkages, the know Nothings are also somewhat different stylistically Term. No, nothing comes perhaps from the sense that nativists were a secret society and that’s not at all the case. In Philadelphia 1940s, nativists of Philadelphia were public. They were, they had rallies, they had ads in the newspaper, they had their own newspapers, it was a very public movement And they had two different terms for themselves. The earlier term coming out of the 1830s was native American and that meant people who had been born in the United States as opposed to immigrants, especially opposed to Irish immigrants. And then later on they come up with another term american Republican as a possible official name of their party. And these terms get used just back and forth interchangeably all the time. Sometimes you see the term native american Republican to kind of mix up the two. So it’s confusing to people even at the time just to make things worse, they call themselves natives. And so sometimes, you know as a historian you have to deal with the terminology are given even if it’s not the terminology that you chose. So I am trying to write the book. Two See things through the eyes of the people in the 1840s and for better or worse, that includes using the term native American to mean that these are people of european descent born in the United States. Occasionally they do show enough self awareness to say, oh yes, the real native americans are the Cherokee or other indigenous groups, some of whom are being pushed off their land at this very moment, there’s the Cherokee expulsion. The war is against Seminoles in florida. So there is a little bit of self awareness that this term native american may not be appropriate, but they keep using it.
So you describe these nativists as having this idea about american citizenship that was very much limited to white males, native born protestant men. And that definition excludes many of the other groups that we see active in the 1840s, fifties, sixties and later in the 19th century, like Indigenous groups and abolitionists and women. So how does this speak to who is involved in the events leading up to the riots, who is participating?
So officially, the nativists claim not to be either anti immigrant or anti catholic. It’s a little hard to credit that, because they invariably say really nasty things about the catholic church and suggests very strongly that Catholics are incapable of the independent thought that is required for a voting member of a republic, that the catholic voter will do just what his priest tells him and therefore cannot be a true american. And similarly, they say they don’t want to restrict immigration, But they have all of these conditions for immigrants that they aren’t going to be allowed to vote until they’ve been in the country for 21 years, they don’t want to be a public charge. So really, you can’t take all of their rhetoric at face value. What you do see is a lot of rhetoric about the heirs of the revolution. So people will trace their ancestry back to the revolutionary generation and suggest that people who can do that are somehow superior citizens to those who cannot. So I I see this really as an effort to define the United States as a white protestant country and that would then exclude a lot of other groups. And it’s in this period around this time that free african americans in pennsylvania, for example, lose the right to vote. So it is tied into other kinds of exclusion. And eventually, Abraham Lincoln has this famous letter in 1855 where he says, look, all men are created equal. It doesn’t say except the negro, it doesn’t say except the foreigner doesn’t say except the catholic. So if no one else Lincoln is certainly linking the efforts for a very narrow white male protestant citizenship to the anti slavery movement, to immigration, to these broader issues.
So my next question is about the militia. I feel like our listeners, their ears will go up as soon as they hear this. But what role does the militia play in these riots? What is the militia in the 1840s?
So I think even at the time, people were confused about what militia was. And certainly today we are confused about that term. There are all kinds of debates over the meaning of the Second Amendment and other elements of the militia in the constitution. And that’s because the militia had two distinct meanings going back to the 19th century and arguably even to the 18th. On the one hand, it can mean every white man Of military age. So 18 to 45 is theoretically a member of the militia and they are called out once a year or a few days a year to drill. And this is compulsory, it is unpaid and it is extremely unpopular. It’s much more unpopular than even jury duty. You have to lose a day of work and stand out in the sun and have someone you yell at you. And so by the 18 twenties, a lot of men are resisting this. They are showing up with broomsticks or with corn stalks or with some other kind of, you know, implement instead of their muskets and they are dressing up in crazy hats and waving stupid banners and just making fun of the whole institution. And a lot of states decide that this is not working and they are beginning to move away from compulsory militia membership. At the same time, there is an entirely, well not entirely somewhat linked group, the voluntary militia, the uniform militia. They go by various names who are enthusiastic about it. So if you think about a volunteer Fire Department today, they may not be paid, but they are very professional and every other way they know their business, they train, they have uniforms, they have high morale. This is a much smaller group, but much more motivated and better trained. And these are the folks, the voluntary militia who begin to be called out to riot duty In increasing frequency. In the 1830s, they had been called out for Baltimore riot of 1812, for example, they don’t show up, but they are called out. But it’s really in the 1830s that they begin regularly to be called out by mayors and governors when the mobs are too big for the constables or the policies to handle. And so it’s this group that is called out in philadelphia in the main july riots and comes out in large numbers.
So let’s actually talk about the 1844 riots. Can you set the stage for what happens in the summer of 1844? In the 19th century, Philadelphia has become home to thousands of Irish immigrants. And by the summer of 1844, tensions start to boil over. And violence that targeted Irish Americans and Roman Catholic churches had really exploded in philadelphia. So what are some of the key like flash points leading up to these riots and why philadelphia?
So Philadelphia was one of the major cities receiving irish immigration. There was obviously a lot in new york and boston. These are the seaports and Montreal as well. So this is all before the great hunger, before the famine. But that doesn’t mean that Ireland is prospering. It was struggling with a very high rate of population growth and they are under british domination. So Ireland is not thriving. A lot of irish are taking advantage of both steamships to England and increased sailing ships across the atlantic to come to North America. And so this begins to be an irritant for again, these sort of protestant nationalists, both in the United States and british north America. The changing status of Catholics within the British Empire, I think alarms a lot of people prior to 1829, Catholics could not vote, they could not hold office. That gets relaxed in 1829, and I think there is a kind of transnational panic over Catholic rites. But what really gets going in the 1840s is more successful political organization, both in New York and in Philadelphia. Sometimes the 18 44 riots are called bible riots, because there are disputes about the use of king. James, bibles in the public schools with the catholic clergy do not like they regard the king James as a fragment, mistranslated part of the bible, But that’s not what immediately sets off the riots. What immediately sets off. The riots are a series of political events, first in April 1840 for the successful election of a nativist to be mayor of New York City. And that encourages the Philadelphia parties to say, Hey, maybe we can do that in our elections. They have, there are a lot of elections in the 19th century is not just once a year, they got the spring elections, they’ve got local elections, they’ve got the presidential elections and it’s extremely important that 1844 is a an election year. So they start holding rallies all around philadelphia county, including in the irish catholic neighborhoods. And a couple of these rallies spark heckling and some rock throwing and that turns into fistfights and that turns into a gunfight and that turns into a riot. So you have a series of escalations, but it’s very much tied to the political calendar.
So what happens after the riots begin?
So the first phase of riots is in May 18 44 there’s again a little bit of a dispute on May 3rd, but it really gets going May 6th, 7th and 8th. Those are the three days as they become known in philadelphia. And on the first day you have gunfights and several Protestants are killed and it could have ended there. And I sort of try to think about different turning points. But on the second day, the nativist side sort of, they’ve got a big meeting outside of Independence Hall and they decided to march back to kensington. The third war, the irish neighborhood, and that starts the second round of gunfire and also the nativists begin to use arson. They set fire to irish houses and an irish fire station and burn a bunch of the third ward and many more people are killed. And then on the third day the gunfire tamps down, but two catholic churches are set on fire and destroyed, one in kensington, which is outside of the city of philadelphia. And another just inside the boundaries of philadelphia city itself and this is quite shocking. So again, philadelphia had lots of riots, It had arson before the famous burning of pennsylvania hall. The abolitionist center had burned, but to burn churches and more specifically to burn white people’s churches was a step too far for a lot of Philadelphians, the militia At this point, they are giving five minute warning is five minutes, get off the street or we open fire throughout all of this. However, the militia does not kill anyone. There are some stabbings with bayonets, but no actual shootings and surprisingly to some things calmed down after three days of violence and arson, I say surprisingly even after this, no one is to sure that violence is over. The militias stays prepare. There’s lots of discussion about what to do if the violence resurges, they make it through the rest of May and june without any major conflicts. But lots of insults in the street, that kind of thing. And then the nativists hold what may have been the biggest parade in philadelphia’s history, A massive fourth of july parade, complete with tributes to the martyrs of kensington and banners denouncing the catholic church. And in response, a catholic priest in Southwark, which is a district just to the south of the city, decides that he is going to get some weapons in self defense for his church. He already had somebody get some more in the nativists find out about it. They decide that he must be planning to murder them in their sleep and so they mobbed his church. And that sets off another round again really three days july 56 and seven. And on that third day july 7th you have canon bombarding the church that have been stolen off of the dwarves. The militia is attacked and then finally the militia fires into a crowd. People had been kind of half expecting this all summer, but it finally happens. You compare this to Kent state the shock and horror of citizen soldiers firing into fellow citizens and shooting some rioters and shooting some innocent bystanders. And this turns into a nighttime battle where the militia is sort of stuck in this hostile area. Night is falling, they can’t get out. So they take over a city block and defend themselves from attack until dawn breaks and then they count the dead.
So your book subtitle is citizen soldiers, nativists and the 1844 riots over the soul of the nation. And I really want to discuss that. Less than two decades after the riots, the US. is the deadliest conflict had ever seen, the civil war. So how do the politics leading up to this riot impact? Conversations about slavery, citizenship and who is american in the years leading up to the civil war?
So I think the anti immigrant riots can be understood on their own terms, but they should also be understood in terms of this larger uncertainty about the Identity of the United States, because at the same time that this is going on again, there’s all kinds of violence in the 1830s and 40s at the time that The news of the second wave of riots in July 1844 is in the newspaper reports are coming in of the death of Joseph Smith in Illinois. So the tail end of all of that violence between mormons and gentiles in the midwest, you have the Seminole wars in florida going on, you’re going to have the mexican war in just a couple of years. And veterans on both sides of the philadelphia riots end up going to Mexico and joining a common cause there and also fighting each other in Mexico. They’re not terribly well behaved even in the army. And then behind all of this is of course, the massive backdrop of the permanent violence that is slavery as well as the more sporadic violence of anti abolition riots. So, you have a number of attacks on abolitionists and african american communities in philadelphia. There’s a moment in 1844 where a songwriter pens a minstrel song that has his imagined black space characters saying isn’t remarkable that the white people aren’t attacking us this time and it’s a very racist song. But I confess that it’s also somewhat funny that there is this recognition that however horrified people are about the violence against or by average Catholics. This is kind of usual for a lot of african americans. They have had their churches burned before they had been attacked without quite the same kind of outrage. So there is a certain recognition there that Most of the violence of the 1830s and 1840s has to do with slavery. But again, if you’re with Abraham Lincoln, and I think a lot of us are, you realize a kind of commonality here. And so Lincoln expresses this in his famous lyceum address about mob violence. He expresses this in a condemnation of the violence in philadelphia, and then he’ll go on to express it in his condemnation of the know nothings and Lincoln’s view is that in democracy, you need both majority rule and minority rights. And that’s a very hard thing to balance part of what’s going on in philadelphia in 18 44 is a debate about who is the majority, because if you are purely majoritarian, then why not impose protestantism on everyone? Because that is the majority religion, right? So, in that sense, the Protestants are nativists are saying, look, we’re the majority here, we should be able to set the rules. And if these irish catholic immigrants don’t like it, they can go home. And uh that’s not actual democracy. And Toqueville is great on this. Uh you know, he’s of course a catholic writer, among other things. But Toqueville has whole chapters about the tyranny of the majority in his democracy, in America, where he points to this is a real problem that majoritarian is um is not Real democracy. On the other hand, minority rule has proposed by Calhoun is not real democracy either. So it’s a problem in the 1840s and I think it’s a problem that persists throughout the 19th century and into the 20th and 21st centuries is how do you balance the rights of the majority and the rights of the minority?
So my final question is pretty broad, but I’m wondering if how this is resolved, how these riots are resolved and if there are any lingering impacts of the riots on legislation or life in philadelphia.
So unfortunately, there are kind of a series of unhappy endings that I can give you one part of the resolution is that the militia brings out its artillery and fires, canister shot into the mob and that does deter future mob actions. I think it kills some of the most brave and violent of the organizers of these mobs and persuades them perhaps to try other means. That’s not a great resolution, but it’s part of the story. Another part of the story is the elections of 1844 in the fall, when nativists win big, uh, they win a number of local elections, They don’t quite get to be mayor of philadelphia, but they come close surprisingly close. They send representatives to Harrisburg and they send three congressmen to Washington under the nativist ticket. And one of those is one of his louis Levin who is as responsible for anyone uh, for these riots. He’s actually under indictment for treason at the time of his election, but those charges are dropped. And so, you know, in that sense, the nativists win and don’t have to write anymore if they’re getting political power, that eventually saves. But then they come back in the 18 fifties, it’s no, nothing’s uh, a third. And even more awful resolution to this is the potato famine In the fall of 1844. As Philadelphians are sweeping up for the riots. They’re reading about this weird light that is appearing in spots in New England and that eventually gets to Ireland. And the number of Irish migrants who come as a result of the famine just dwarfs the numbers who had been coming in the 1830s and early 1840s and makes a lot of this anti Irish agitation kind of moot. When you’ve got a million irish show up, You’re just not going to keep them down and out the way that the nativists had hoped. Again. The natives keep trying. In the 1850s with the know nothing movement, but eventually the Irish become an important part of the political body, especially the Democratic Party, and cement their power through numbers as much as anything else. There’s certainly no easy answers to any of this. It takes decades of course, before irish Catholics are completely accepted. You have the 19 twenties clan for example, burning crosses along the route that al smith is taking to campaign. So in that sense, nativism persists and you know, it’s certainly an active force in 2021. So I wish I could give easy happy answers to this. But as a historian, I am constrained with the facts and the sources that I have.