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5 January 2012

Klansmen, Irishmen, and Nativists: The Origins of Racial Nationalism in America

Michael O'Meara

The heterogeneity of America’s European population has always posed a challenge to its national identity. Only late in the 19th century was this identity extended to European immigrants assimilated in its Anglo-Protestant values and, in the 20th century, to Catholics, whose Church (the “Whore of Babylon”) had learned to accommodate the Protestant contours of American life (or what John Murray Cuddihy called its
“civil religion”). From this ethnogenesis, the original Anglo-Protestant identity of the American people gradually evolved into a more inclusively European Christian identity, though one closely tied to its Anglo-Protestant antecedents. Based on this heritage, racial nationalists today define America as a European nation and designate its anti-White elites as their principal enemy.

It was, though, but in fits and starts that American Whites acquired an ethnonational identity. What’s often referred to as American nationalism — the expansionist slogans of Manifest Destiny, the ideology of Anglo-Saxonism, the gunboat diplomacy of the Progressives (McKinley, T. Roosevelt, Wilson) — was more a chauvinist statism legitimating territorial expansionism and land speculation than an ideological offshoot of the country’s racial-historical life forms. The primordial concerns of the American nation were thus only tangentially represented in these imperialist movements associated with the state’s expansion.

The first genuinely post-revolutionary expression of American ethnonationalism (i.e., “nationalism in its pristine sense”) began, revealingly, with the first wave of mass immigration, in the late 1830s and in“the hungry Forties,” as Irish and South German Catholics reached American shores, affronting “Anglo-Americans” with their “otherness.” The“nativists” (native born, White, Protestant Americans) opposing the new immigrants rejected the crime, public drunkenness, and pauperism the Irish brought, but above all the Catholicism of both groups, for “the Church of Rome” was an anathema to a liberal nation born of the Reformation and of the struggle against the Catholic empires of Spain and France. The nativist response was nevertheless a nuanced one recognizing the distinctions that culturally separated Irishmen from Germans. The latter, who began to outnumber the Irish only in the late 1850s, tended to be farmers and artisans. That they settled inland, away from the older coastal settlements, and engaged in respectable occupations also mitigated nativist opposition, although nativists opposed the formation of German-speaking communities, beer-drinking forms of sociability, and the Germans’ political radicalism. The Germans nevertheless seemed assimilable, which was not the case with the Irish. The first expression of American nativism was thus largely an anti-Irish movement, for the tribal solidarity of this unbourgeois people, their aggressive rejection of Protestant culture, especially as propagated in the public schools, their whiskey drinking and pre-modern behavior, and their anti-liberal sympathy for the slave states (which nativists resented because these states closed off land for White settlement) were an offense to the country’s Anglo-Protestant culture. This anti-Irish sentiment became especially prominent once the famine ships, with their destitute cargoes, began arriving.

The Irish, though, offended not simply the Yankees’ religious and behavioral standards, their exploitation of the political system offended their republican convictions. Though one of the most afflicted of Europe’s nations, Erin’s exiles were also one of the most politically “advanced.” Not only had they a long history of secret societies (such as the Defenders, Whiteboys, Ribbonmen, etc.), which had waged an underground war against English landlords and Orangemen, in the 1820s, Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association, “the first mass political party in history,” taught the Irish how to exploit the new electoral forms of liberal parliamentary politics in order to throw off England’s Protestant Ascendancy and its genocidal Penal Laws. In America, the politically savvy Irish (led by their priests, saloon keepers, and eloquent rebels) challenged not just Yankee folkways, but the individualistic tenor of republican governance. The terrible age of American ethnic politics begins with the Irish.

From the 1830s through to the late 1850s, nativist opposition to Catholic, specifically Irish, immigration took the form of intercommunal strife, the proliferation of anti-immigrant associations, and, then in 1854, the establishment of a national political party — the American party (known as the “Know-Nothings”) — which, for a time, became a refuge for abolitionist and free-soil opponents of Southern slavery who had broken with the Whig party but not yet affiliated with the newly formed Republican party. As a movement, the Know Nothings held that Protestantism was an essential component of American identity; that Catholicism’s “autocratic” Pope and Church hierarchy were incompatible with republican self-rule; that Catholics had acquired undue political advantage; and that a longer, more thorough process of naturalization (or Americanization) was necessary for the acquisition of citizenship. More fundamentally, it gave expression to the deep reservation which Anglo-American Protestants had about allowing their country to be overrun by Catholic immigrants. Like most future manifestations of American racial nationalism (though they lacked a genuinely racial dimension), the Know Nothings were moved by a populist distrust of the state and the established political parties, which were seen as indifferent to the communal and ethnic needs of native Whites.

Within but a year of its founding, the American party succeeded in electing eight state governors, more than a hundred Congressmen, the mayors of Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, and thousands of local officials. Its future looked bright. But the party fell almost as rapidly as it rose, having been swept up and then forced off the political stage by powerful sectional conflicts related to slavery and the preservation of the Union. Its struggle for an Anglo-Protestant America in the 1850s nevertheless represented the first bloom of American nationalism in its blood-and-soil stage (somewhat earlier than other European nationalisms, which were still at the liberal political stage). As such, it resisted a political system privileging economics over community, opportunity over belief, and a liberal over a biocultural understanding of American life. Though race was not an issue, religion, culture, and an endogamous sense of community were — issues that are preeminently ethnonationalist. Nativism became, as such, the foundation upon which the future defense of European life in America would be waged — for in however rudimentary and unfocused a way, it defended the American nation as an English and Protestant community of descent, not a political entity based on an abstract ideological or creedal notion of nationality opened to all the world.

The racial component of this biocultural definition of the nation would come into its own in the anti-Chinese movement that dominated California politics in the half century following the Gold Rush (1848). As European immigrants, native Americans, and the first Chinese made their way to California in this period, so too did racial conflict — though conflict here was not between natives and immigrants, but between Occidentals and Orientals. Against the first Chinese arrivals and the swarming millions threatening to follow in their wake, native Americans and European immigrants discovered their common racial identity. Almost from the start, they recognized the joint stake they had in opposing a people which worked at half the White man’s wage, retained their alien clothes, customs, and language, practiced a “heathen” religion, and formed distinct, often self-contained communities associated with vice and disease. Comprising a fifth of the California labor force in the 1870s, these Chinese newcomers, with their low living standards and servile conditions, were seen as threatening not just the racial definition of the nation, but the American way of life and, ultimately, White civilization. In such a situation, White solidarity became paramount – which meant that religious differences dividing Protestant natives and Catholic immigrants in the antebellum period were superseded in the face of the Yellow Peril. The Irish, accused of cheapening labor and introducing foreign elements in the East, were now welcomed into California nativist ranks — as Whites facing a common threat — and played a leading role in spearheading the trade-union, political, and communal opposition to the Chinese.

The extent of White solidarity in the popular classes was such that it spurred numerous official and unofficial measures to restrict Chinese participation in the economy and in other realms of American life. Local and state laws, for example, were passed to limit the types of jobs the Chinese could work, the land they could own, and the schools their children could attend, while White, especially Irish, workingmen not infrequently resorted to violence to drive them from certain trades and from their neighborhoods. Then, in the late 1870s, in a period of economic crisis, a Workingmen’s party, led by an Irish demagogue, Denis Kearney, was formed in San Francisco: Its principal slogan was “The Chinese must go.” Supported by a mass network of “anti-coolie clubs” and trade unions, the party championed the cause of Chinese exclusion. The state organization of the two established national parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, each, for the sake of appeasing the pervasive anti-Chinese sentiment the Workingmen represented, were forced to support its exclusionist policies. But more than transcending religious differences, the Chinese exclusion movement took aim at those large-scale corporate interests (primarily the railroads), responsible for importing Chinese contract labor and using it as a leverage against White workers. In effect, it targeted not just alien, but native threats to the nation’s bioculture. Its egalitarian slogan — “We want no slaves or aristocrats” — was thus not simply an anti-egalitarian affirmation of the existing racial hierarchy, but of the right of White men to the ownership of the land their people had conquered.

The movement’s achievements were momentous. For the first time, national legislation was passed to prevent the immigration of non-Whites to the United States and to prevent those already within its borders from setting down roots; White workers succeeded in frustrating capitalist efforts to change the country’s demographic character; and White racial solidarity triumphed over religious differences. Racially consciousness, populist, and at times anti-capitalist, the anti-Chinese movement of the 1870s (whose spirit, incidentally, lived on in the national-socialist novels of Jack London) helped preserve the American West as a White Lebensraum, representing one of the brightest historical beacons guiding today’s White nationalists.

The third great formative influence shaping American racial nationalism came during the First World War. The Ku Klux Klan, which emerged after Appomattox to defend Southern Whites from negro aggression and the Yankee military occupation, was re-organized in 1915 to address certain changes in American life. Like the European fascist movements of the interwar period, this “Second Klan” constituted a mass populist reaction to the war’s radical cultural/social dislocations. The war, for example, imbued the central government with unprecedented powers, enabling it to encroach on local communities in ways previously unknown; the recently founded Federal Reserve, in charge of the money supply, and the growing influence of Wall Street and the great corporations assumed an influence in national life that seemed to come at the expense of independent entrepreneurs and “the little men.” At the same time, the war effort assaulted the existing racial, familial, and moral hierarchies. Blacks in this period acquired a foothold in northern industries and discharged negro soldiers, “after having seen Paris,” were no longer willing to tolerate their caste status. The year 1919 was one of unprecedented racial violence, as negroes challenged the existing system of race relations. At the same time, the middle-class family came under attack. Suffragettes carried the day with the 18th Amendment, a “new women,” promoted by advertisers and by Hollywood, questioned conventional “gender” relations, divorce rates suddenly shot up, and children were increasingly exposed to anti-traditionalist influences. Finally, there was the specter of Bolshevism, which appealed to the unassimilated communities of recently arrived Eastern and Southern European immigrants and assumed a menacing form in the great industrial conflicts following the war. On every front, then, it seemed as if small-town, rural, and middle-class White America was in retreat. But not before making a last — and, for a generation, successful — stand in its defense, for within a decade of its founding, the Klan had rallied 5 million members to its ranks, penetrating local and national power-structures as few other anti-liberal movements in US history.

Comprised of White, native-born, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and anti Jewish elements, particularly in the South and the Midwest, this “Second Klan” saw itself as an “army of Protestant Americans.” As such, it sought to defend “pure Americanism, old-time religion, and conventional Protestant morality” – reviving those religious issues that had earlier divided Whites along sectarian lines. To this degree, it was a step back from the anti Chinese movement. It was nevertheless not the “reactionary” movement that academic historians make of it, for like its European counterpart, it was both traditionalist and populist, favoring measures that were anti-liberal (anti-cosmopolitan, anti-egalitarian, and preeminently populist) in spirit but by no means regressive. In this capacity, it forced the government to close the border to immigrants, it beat back the Black assault on White hegemony, it let the wheeler-dealers in Washington and New York know that their “progressive policies” would not go unchallenged in the Heartland, and it acted as a moral bulwark against the permissive forces of Hollywood and Madison Avenue. Above all, it upheld a racial standard for White existence. Only in the late 1920s, after successfully preserving many traditional areas of American life that might otherwise had succumbed to the race-mixing modernism of the postwar “Jazz Age” did the movement finally subside.


The history of American racial nationalism, as exemplified by the Second Klan, the Chinese exclusion movement, and the early nativists is a history whose legacy cannot but inspire Whites to take back the country they have lost. It thus re-affirms our belief that we have nothing to gain by allowing our society and territory to be overrun by alien peoples; that multiracial communities are unhealthy, conflict-ridden ones; that multiculturalism, Third World immigration, and non-White preferences are a threat to our people’s survival; that separation is the sole viable solution to what is becoming an increasingly ugly racial situation; and that divisive sectarian issues (between Protestants and Catholics, Leftists and Rightists, modernists and traditionalists, etc.) serve only the interest of our enemies. Most important of all, the heritage of American White nationalism summons us to defend the racial-cultural-civilizational “nation” to which our people once belonged and which, if regained, might again distinguish us from the world’s less favored races.

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