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Context of '1844: Philadelphia ‘Bible Riots’ Pit Irish Catholics against ‘Nativist’ Protestants, Energize Irish as Political and Labor Force'

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A portion of a painting illustrating the street violence surrounding the ‘Bible Riots.’A portion of a painting illustrating the street violence surrounding the ‘Bible Riots.’ [Source: Granger Collection / Smithsonian]Philadelphia is rocked by a series of conflicts that will become known as the “Bible Riots of 1844.” In the 1830s, Philadelphia, a large factory town, began simmering with conflicts and issues between a large and disparate number of groups, roughly divided into two: Irish and German immigrants, mostly Catholics, who are fighting for better working conditions and better treatments both through the Church and through the burgeoning labor movement; and “nativists,” a loose movement that has arisen in something of a backlash against the large influx of immigrants. Many of the Irish and German immigrants have become identified with urban Democratic political machines, sparking resentment among non-Democratic “native” Americans. The Irish in particular become targets of the “nativist” movement. In 1844, Catholics begin mounting complaints that their children are being forced to read from the Protestant King James Bible in public school every day. That version of the Bible (often abbreviated KJV) is required reading in Philadelphia public schools, in part because of the efforts of Pennsylvania legislator James Buchanan, who pushed through some of the country’s first legislation requiring public schools; however, the Pennsylvania legislature inserted language into the bill requiring daily Bible reading. Catholics see the mandated daily Bible readings as an attempt to undermine their religion, a view given credence when their requests that the KJV be substituted with Catholic Bibles are ignored. The complaints spark a series of riots that target Irish Catholic churches (no German Catholic churches are burned or vandalized, in part because Irish Catholics, a larger and more prominent group than the Germans, tend to be more vocal and are more closely identified with the “problem”). In response, groups of Irish Catholics target Protestant churches. The Philadelphia city government does little if anything to protect either group. Both sides accuse the other of vandalism and duplicity; the “nativists” insist that the Catholics want to install the Pope as the leader of the US government, and the Catholics accuse city officials of letting the “nativists” attack them at will. The riots result in a number of churches being partially or completely burned, at least 20 people dead, and the Irish Catholics becoming more forceful and more organized, taking a more aggressive part in politics and the labor movement. [Smithsonian Magazine, 10/2010; Patrick J. O'Hara, 2011]

Entity Tags: James Buchanan

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, US Domestic Terrorism

Deputy Attorney General James Comey expresses his concerns with US Attorney Kevin Ryan (see Fall 2004 and January 31 - March 21, 2005) to Kyle Sampson, the deputy chief of staff for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (see February 15, 2005) and the person in charge of the Justice Department’s planned purge of US Attorneys. On his initial list of US Attorneys, Sampson labeled Ryan as “strong” and did not list him as ripe for ousting (see January 9, 2005 and March 2, 2005). Comey tells Sampson that he considers Ryan a weak performer based on the documented morale problems in the office. Other Justice Department officials such as Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis and Executive Office for US Attorneys chief Mary Beth Buchanan share similar concerns with Sampson around this time. Comey tells Sampson that he knows Buchanan’s office is concerned about Ryan and is working with Margolis to address the problems. [US Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, 9/29/2008]

Entity Tags: Executive Office for US Attorneys (DOJ), David Margolis, US Department of Justice, D. Kyle Sampson, James B. Comey Jr., Kevin J. Ryan, Mary Beth Buchanan

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The New York Times, in an editorial, condemns the “nativist” anti-immigrant movement (see February 2009) as having what it calls “a streak of racialist extremism” and being far on the fringe of the American body politic. The editorial comes days after a presentation by the anti-immigration group American Cause at the National Press Club (see January 29, 2009). American Cause was founded by MSNBC contributor Pat Buchanan and is headed by Marcus Epstein, a young activist with a raft of ties to racist and white supremacist groups (see October 8, 2007). Epstein also releases a report to go with the presentation that claims the federal government has been far too soft on would-be immigrants, and blames the November 2008 defeats of Republican candidates on the party’s unwillingness to stand up for an absolute ban on immigration. Epstein accuses former President Bush and his political advisor Karl Rove of “pander[ing] to pro-amnesty Hispanics and swing voters,” and urges Republicans to work to completely seal the US borders and drive immigrants out. The Times observes: “This is nonsense, of course. For years Americans have rejected the cruelty of enforcement-only regimes and Latino-bashing, in opinion surveys and at the polls. In House and Senate races in 2008 and 2006, ‘anti-amnesty’ hard-liners consistently lost to candidates who proposed comprehensive reform solutions.… Americans want immigration solved, and they realize that mass deportations will not do that. When you add the unprecedented engagement of growing numbers of Latino voters in 2008, it becomes clear that the nativist path is the path to permanent political irrelevance. Unless you can find a way to get rid of all the Latinos.” Participants in Epstein’s presentation included Bay Buchanan, Pat Buchanan’s sister and the director of an anti-immigrant political action committee, Team America PAC; James Pinkerton, a Fox News contributor; and Peter Brimelow, an outspoken white supremacist who founded the racist VDare.com. The Times warns: “It is easy to mock white-supremacist views as pathetic and to assume that nativism in the age of Obama is on the way out. The country has, of course, made considerable progress since the days of Know-Nothings and the Klan. But racism has a nasty habit of never going away, no matter how much we may want it to, and thus the perpetual need for vigilance.” [New York Times, 1/31/2009]

Entity Tags: Marcus Epstein, Bay Buchanan, George W. Bush, James Pinkerton, Karl C. Rove, The American Cause, Peter Brimelow, Patrick Buchanan, New York Times

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

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