Nativists and Immigrants

'Beware of Foreign Influence'



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Between 1820 and 1860, 3.7 million immigrants landed in New York Harbor—at a time when the city’s population numbered less than one million. No laws existed to regulate or curtail the flow of newcomers. Economic and political unrest propelled people across the Atlantic, including more than half a million Irish fleeing famine from 1845-1851.

As the largest port on the eastern seaboard in the 19th century, New York became the main point of entry for European immigrants. It also became a center of anti-immigration, or “nativist,” sentiment.

In 1835, New Yorker Samuel F. B. Morse and others created the first political party against immigration, the Native American Democratic Association. Other nativist activists formed clubs and political parties in the 1840s and 1850s that sought to lengthen the period before new arrivals could become citizens, vote, or hold public office, and to pass laws that protected Americans from immigrants competing for their jobs.

Irish and German Catholics were singled out for their religious practices and political views, in particular their perceived devotion to the Pope and the Vatican.

Immigrant men and women mobilized against nativist sentiment and carved out their own communities in New York. In the mid-19th century, Irish-Catholic immigrants created their own organizations and gained municipal political power, helping to shape the city and redefine who was American. But nativism did not disappear. Federal immigration laws of the 1920s established a quota system to limit the number of newcomers based on country of origin that lasted until 1965.



Key Events

Global  Year    Local


1777 New York’s new state constitution allows freedom of religion

The city’s first Catholic church, St. Peter’s, opens

End of Napoleonic Wars and of the War of 1812 usher in new era of immigration to America 1815




Samuel F. B. Morse and other New York Protestants form the Native American Democratic Association

Irish potato famine begins, sets off wave of new immigration 1845


American (“Know-Nothing”) Party founded 1853  
  1855 Over 50% of New York City residents are immigrants
Chinese Exclusion Act is passed to stop Chinese immigrants from entering or remaining in the country 1882  


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