Klansmen, Irishmen, & Nativists:
The Origins of Racial Nationalism in America
The heterogeneity of America’s European population has always posed a challenge to its national identity. Only late in the nineteenth century was this identity extended to European immigrants assimilated in its Anglo-Protestant values and, in the twentieth 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 inclusive 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, accordingly, with the first wave of mass immigration, in the late 1830s and “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, 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 struggles 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, though 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, their whiskey drinking and pre-modern behavior, and their anti-liberal sympathy with the slave states (which nativists resented because these states closed off land to 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 quick 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. (That is, this nativist party was partly the creation of those who now seek our destruction as a people.)
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 (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 ethnocommunal identity 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 Anglo-Protestant community of descent, not a political entity based on an abstract ideological or creedal notion of nationality opened to all the world. (We Irish, supreme irony, have, as any roll of white nationalist ranks reveals, become the foremost exponent of this view today.)
The racial component of this biocultural definition of the nation did, though, soon 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 would not be between natives and immigrants, but between Occidentals and Orientals, White against Yellow.
Standing together against the first Chinese arrivals—and to the swarming millions threatening to follow in their wake—native Americans and Irish Catholics 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 created distinct, over-crowded, dirty, and often self-contained communities associated with vice and disease.
Comprising more than 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—the prevailing standard for what it meant to be a free white man—and, ultimately, white civilization.
In such a situation, white solidarity was paramount—which meant that, in face of the Yellow Hordes, religious differences dividing Protestant natives and Catholic immigrants in the antebellum period had to be superseded.
Accused of cheapening labor and introducing foreign elements in the East, the Irish were now welcomed into California nativist ranks—as whites facing a common threat—and, accordingly, they came to play a leading role—perhaps the 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.
As early as the 1850s, local and state laws were passed to limit the type 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 neighborhoods. In mining, logging, and construction, the Chinese were forced out entirely and in numerous small towns throughout California and the Northwest, Chinese communities were abandoned in face of angry white mobs.
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 became the chief vehicle for 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 and political differences between closely related whites, 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 leverage against white workers.
In frequent sand-lot demonstrations and in broadsheets, the movement, buttressed by large crowds of male workers, warned the monied men of Judge Lynch, targeting not just alien, but native threats to the nation’s bioculture.
Its slogan—“We want no slaves or aristocrats”—was an “egalitarian” affirmation of the existing racial hierarchy, and of the right of white men to the ownership of the land their people had conquered and created.
The movement’s achievements were momentous. For the first time in modern history, national legislation (to supplant the less effective immigration law of 1790) was passed to prevent non-whites from entering the United States and preventing those already within its borders from setting down roots.
White workers, supported by their trade unions, workingmen associations, and other organized expressions of white power, succeeded in frustrating capitalist and official efforts to change the country’s demographic character. White racial solidarity, at this stage, triumphed over those differences that stemmed from the religious wars of the Reformation.
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) succeeded in preserving the American West as a white Lebens-raum. As I see it (and I see it from both from an Irish and American perspective), it represents the single greatest movement of White America
The third great formative influence affecting the shape of American racial nationalism—though a step back from the anti-Chinese movement—came during the First World War.
The Ku Klux Klan, which had 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 had 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 accordingly one of unprecedented racial violence, as Negroes challenging the existing system of race relations set off bloody riots in 26 urban centers.
In the same period, the middle-class family came under attack. Suffragettes carried the day with the 19th 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 (only 10 percent of the CPUSA membership could speak English by the mid-1920s) and assumed a menacing form in the great industrial conflicts that swept up more than a fifth of the national workforce.
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”—in the process reviving those religious issues that had earlier divided whites along sectarian lines (like in the 1850s), yet at the same time attempting to preserve the hegemony of Anglo-Protestants against the forces seeking to subvert the nation’s historic ethnic core.
To the degree the Klan was more sectarian than racial, favoring the conformist, materialist, and philistine elements in American life, it was a step back from the white consciousness of the anti-Chinese movement. (A similar phenomenon occurred after the Second World War among recently assimilated, often Catholic, immigrants, whose support for Joseph McCarthy was part of a more general effort to demonstrate that the “Americanism” of the “old immigrants,” largely Irish and German, was superior to that of the established but liberal and cosmopolitan Anglo-Protestant elite).
The Klan (like McCarthyism) was nevertheless not entirely 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, and anti-egalitarian in spirit but by no means regressive.
In this capacity, it forced the government to close the border to immigration, 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 American 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 in face of the economic breakdown of the 1930s.
* * *
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 has, in the last half century, been squandered and suppressed by the elites now controlling American destinies.
Yet this is the legacy that the heirs of European-America today, if they are to survive, need to reclaim.
For this history confirms them in their belief that the popular classes in America have always rejected the creedal definition of the nation; that they refused to allow their society and territory to be overrun by non-whites; and that divisive sectarian issues (between Protestants and Catholics, leftists and rightists, modernists and traditionalists, etc.) served only the interest of their enemies.
Most of all, this heritage of American ethnonationalism calls on whites today, in this era of their dispossession, to defend the racial-cultural-civilizational “nation” to which they once belonged and which, if regained, might again distinguish them from the world’s less favored races.
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