Monday, September 12, 2022

Immigrants and the Nobel Prize

While combing through a 1905 issue of NationalGeographic that featured several articles on immigration, I came across a brief note, “Why No Americans Have Received Nobel Prizes.” The piece was not related to immigration. It simply pointed out that the Nobel winners for 1904 had just been announced, and not a single American had won any of the five awards.

Given America’s near domination of the Nobel Prize over the past several decades (46% of all winners between 1901 and 2021), I found this strange. Then I recalled that before World War I, America’s reputation in what we now call STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) was modest. Throughout the 19th century, Germany was the world’s scientific heavy hitter. In fact, German immigrants typically came to the United States believing that, at least in terms of education and high culture, they were taking a step downward. For many, it was a trade-off. The immigrant would gain personal freedom and economic opportunity but in an uncouth, unsophisticated country.  

The first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901, but no American would earn the prize until 1907. That year physicist Albert A. Michelson was honored for his work on the speed of light. Michelson was a German-born ethnic Jew, the first of a succession of Jewish scientists who came to America to escape antisemitism in Europe, particularly after the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s. Among these great minds, a half dozen would win the Nobel Prize. Albert Einstein was the most famous among them.

Since World War II, most of America’s Nobel awardees have been native-born, Still, many have been the children of immigrants, notably those immigrants who came from Central and Eastern Europe in the first decades of the 20th century when they were called the “new immigrants” to distinguish them from their Anglo-Saxon predecessors. Most came through eastern seaboard cities, particularly New York. Immigrants and their children—or “foreign stock,” a popular term then—represented majority shares of big city populations. America’s urban schools were dominated by these kids.  

Today, urban public schools are rarely as good as those in the suburbs. Yet, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, city schools were manifestly better than country schools. They regularly produced students grounded in the fundamentals. That’s to say nothing of select public schools like New York City’s Stuyvesant High School and the Bronx High School of Science (“Bronx Science”). Together, these two schools have produced twelve Nobel winners. I suspect that’s a larger number than most states can claim.

Clearly, America has come a long way since we had to explain our lackluster performance in the sciences. Ironically, that same issue of National Geographic featured an article arguing that large numbers of immigrant arrivals were bringing harm to the country. The newcomers just didn’t measure up to the ancestral stock that built the nation. This was a common belief at the time. It wouldn’t be long before the Ivy League colleges were imposing quotas to limit the admission of Jewish students, who were children and grandchildren of those turn-of-century immigrants. Today, a debate rages over whether Asian students are being subjected to similar quotas at several elite universities, including Harvard. The Supreme Court may soon rule on this issue.  

No matter the decision of the court, first and second-generation students of Asian ancestry are clearly echoing the academic achievements of immigrants from the past. Just look at recent winners of the Regeneron Science Talent Search or the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Is it too much to imagine some of these young people as future Nobel Prize winners? Probably not.  

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Americans Learn to Love Spaghetti…

Between 1870 and 1910, when nearly five million Italians came to America, spaghetti was considered a particularly alien dish. Here, in an 1899 cartoon, artist Hy Mayer pokes fun at Italians for their food and physicality. Mayer implies that Italians could not eat and talk at the same sitting. "Spaghetti and Gesticulations A Tale of an Italian Dinner Table," from A History of American Graphic Humor, 1747-1938.

Some cultures pay more attention to food than do others. Of course, people the world over like to eat, but some cultures have remarkably varied cuisines, put tremendous time and effort into cooking, use all sorts of spices, and prepare special foods to mark seasonal changes, holy days, and rites of passage. For others, food is a necessity, often a pleasant one, but hardly worth a lot of fuss. They may depend on a few staples and a functional, no-frills diet. 

In Europe, Italy is a food culture, England is not. If England’s cuisine has improved over the past several decades, then it is because of residents from Commonwealth countries like India and Hong Kong. By contrast, Italian food has been renowned since Roman times. Today, Italy is widely recognized as home to world-class cuisines. Among its great exports, pizza and spaghetti are loved the world over. This was not always the case, at least not in the United States. 

Until the late 1800s, Italians were a rare presence in the United States. The 1850 Census, the first to identify the nationality of immigrants, showed fewer than 4,000 in the entire country. That number grew steadily throughout the ensuing decades and then exploded. Between 1870 and 1920, nearly five million Italians arrived. 

Americans thought the food the immigrants ate was downright disgusting. To understand their disdain, it helps to know that early Italian immigrants were overwhelmingly men who came here as “target laborers” seeking to make enough money to return home where they could then live in comfort. That meant they often lived communally, worked twelve-hour days at low-paying jobs, and pinched every penny. They may have taken turns cooking, and the food they ate was simple fare. They ate little meat and more vegetables and fruits than urban Americans thought proper. Even before they came in large numbers, a journalist joked that Italians could extoll “the beauty of bananas and the importance of pennies.” 

American disgust derived from closed-minded prejudice. Call it ethnocentrism. Italians were viewed as truly alien, not only in language but also in behavior. Americans might see these men—“dagos,” they called them—at the train station, where the foreigners greeted each other with hugs and kisses on the cheek. American men were appalled at such public displays of emotion, particularly among males. They also found Italians entirely too verbally expressive, speaking their jibber-jabber loudly, gesticulating wildly, and conveying their emotions far too freely. Americans considered these habits undignified. 

At the time, mainstream Americans were mostly of northern European ancestry, their diets depending on meat and potatoes. Most did not have a clue what pasta was. They were unfamiliar with tomato sauce and gagged at the smell of garlic. The contemporary “foodie” may find this hard to believe. Italian food has become such an integral part of our national cuisine. Yet, American acceptance was anything but an overnight affair. 

World War I softened American attitudes towards Italian food because the Italians were among our allies against Germany. That didn’t discourage Buster Keaton and friends from using spaghetti as a comic prop. In the classic silent film, “The Cook” (1918)

Silent film star Buster Keaton tries spaghetti for the first time in the 1918 film, "The Cook."

Keaton wielded scissors to eat spaghetti. This scene opened with a caption describing spaghetti as “the Italian national food…or tapeworm a la carte.” Audiences laughed as Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle subjected pasta to multiple food gags, snipping the strands, knitting with them, and otherwise making a mess. Spaghetti was still an alien dish, and Italians were thought crazy to eat it. 

Several years after "The Cook", Hollywood was still using spaghetti for laughs. In this scene from Charlie Chaplin's, "The Kid," (1921) child actor Jackie Coogan does no better than Keaton in figuring out how to eat pasta. America had yet to learn. Pasta and pizza would not become popular for decades to come.
Courtesy of Movie

To be fair, few Americans had any exposure to Italian cuisine. Nearly eighty percent of the Italian immigrant population lived North of Ohio and East of Mississippi. Their immigration was also concentrated in cities, and America was still a small-town country. Even cities where the immigrants resided had few Italian restaurants. In Hungering for America, Hasia Diner points out that early 20th-century Italian demographics, notably the preponderance of single men, created a niche for small, inexpensive eateries, usually attached to boarding houses and serving homestyle cooking from the South of Italy. The owners made no effort to draw outsiders. 

Although most Italian men worked as day laborers, some became peddlers. By the 1900s, Italians dominated the sale of fruit and vegetables, first as “Pushcart Johnnies,” who hawked their wares in Italian neighborhoods. Eventually, a few became greengrocers opening shops in upscale neighborhoods. One commentator declared that “the Italians have made Americans a fruit-eating people.” Meanwhile, America was having a positive impact on the immigrant Italian diet. In the countryside of southern Italy, meat and olive oil were luxuries reserved for special occasions. Here they were affordable.

Italy’s status as an ally during the first World War may have helped earn Italian cuisine occasional praise in American women’s magazines, and by the 1920s, Italian food was winning converts among the urban smart set. Affluent young Americans occasionally went "slumming" into ethnic neighborhoods. These forays allowed visitors to sample immigrant culture. In The Restaurants of New York (1925), George S. Chappell urged his readers to put aside their old culinary habits and to explore Italian eateries where they would find such novel dishes as “brocoli (sic), that delicate blend of asparagus and artichoke." 

The 1920s was the decade of "One Hundred Percent Americanization" and the 1930s saw few Italian arrivals as anti-immigrant legislation went into effect. Second-generation Italian-Americans were under great pressure to conform to mainstream American behavior. Many did, but they refused to give up the old foodways. 

It would not be long before American servicemen were sampling Italian food in Rome and Naples, returning from World War II having tasted the real thing. Meanwhile, the American government commissioned the immigrant Boiardi Brothers to provide meals for GIs abroad. “Chef Boy-Ar-Dee” became the chief purveyor of rations to U.S. troops. The company’s canned spaghetti was a favorite, but no self-respecting Italian-American housewife would allow this confection into her kitchen. This didn’t stop Chef Boy-Ar-Dee from familiarizing the average American with a mass-production form of “spaghetti.” 

After the war, the children and grandchildren of Italian immigrants had embraced American culture, while holding onto many of the old foodways. It became almost obligatory for newspapers and magazines to depict Italian-American celebrities eating spaghetti. Joe Dimaggio, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin all did their turn. Yet when popular entertainers like Issur Danielovitch, Mary Anne Kappelhoff, and Joseph Levitch, were caught wolfing down heaping plates of pasta, one could say that spaghetti had made it in America. 

Immigrants and Population Growth, Now and Then

Last year the federal government began to release preliminary findings from the 2020 Census, and news outlets reported on America’s declining birth rate. Of course, given the pandemic, it’s easy to understand how young couples have been in no hurry to have children.  Yet, Census 2020 tells us that the drop in births is part of a longer trend. During the past decade, America’s birth rate has fallen to its lowest level on record.  Does this have anything to do with immigration?

Demographers point out that immigrants have more children than do native-born Americans. In fact, if not for immigrant fecundity, the American birth rate would years ago have fallen below 2.1 children, what is called the "replacement level," that is, the number of children per woman needed to maintain the size of the current population without in-migration. Yet, notwithstanding a sizeable foreign-born population, we are now at 1.6 children per woman. Even immigrants are having fewer kids. The boost that their large families gave to the population between 1990 and 2000 has become a nudge. Immigrant women still have more children than native-born women, but not enough for growth. Of course, this disturbs policymakers who want to maintain the demographic fuel for an ever-expanding economy. 

This 1909 cartoon from Puck depicts Uncle Sam luring to America the riff-raff of Europe who unworthy successors to the colonists who pioneered the country and created its institutions. In the background, various leaders of emigrant source countries are jubilant at the departures.  S.D. Ehrhart, "The Fool Pied Piper," Puck, June 2, 1909, Library of Congress

This wouldn’t be the first time that the Census has prompted concerns about immigrants and births. An early instance of immigration-related census shock came more than a century ago when returns from the 1880 Census indicated that native-born Americans were having fewer children. That alone wasn’t surprising news. Other industrialized nations, notably European powers like England, Germany, and France, also experienced fertility declines. The shock came with how the decline was interpreted by the experts. Chief among the American experts was Francis Amasa Walker, the country’s foremost economist.

New Englanders like Francis Walker feared that the new immigrants were replacing the descendants of America's founding population and wanted to prevent their coming. Cartoonist Udo Keppler points to the irony of their concerns. Puck, March 30,1898 

Walker was superintendent of the 1870 and 1880 censuses.  Early in his tenure, he approved of immigration from Europe, particularly immigration to areas where agriculture and industry needed labor—the South and Midwest. However, Walker changed his mind in the 1880s, turning against immigration as the flow of arrivals shifted from northern and western Europe to southern and central Europe. He believed the change in source countries accounted for a serious decline in immigrant quality. Walker argued that America’s founders had been a select population who had overcome almost insurmountable hardships in pioneering the country and founding its institutions.  By contrast, he saw the new immigrants as “beaten men from beaten races” who were politically unprepared for Democracy and fit only for the meanest of jobs.

Walker believed that mass immigration literally inhibited the growth of the native-born population. So alien were the “hordes” of newcomers that native Americans of child-bearing age were, he asserted, unwilling to bring sons and daughters into the world. Rather than see their progeny forced to compete economically and to mix socially with the interlopers, younger Americans were deciding not to have children! Thus, although America’s population continued to grow, it grew more slowly than before, and that growth was fueled by foreigners. The newcomers would replace the descendants of “colonial stock,” changing the character of the entire country. 

Of course, we now know how the story turned out. Population growth may indeed have slowed, as it did throughout the industrializing world, but the “new immigrants” blended into the mainstream, eventually intermarrying with old stock Americans, as well as with immigrants from other countries. At the time, though, Walker’s prominence lent legitimacy to the idea that real Americans were being “replaced” by interlopers of an inferior grade.  By the time of Walker’s death in 1897, annual arrival numbers were higher than ever before, and the ethnic mix was even more varied than in prior decades. 

Prescott Hall, co-founder of the influential Immigration Restriction League (IRL), would take this idea of replacement to an extreme. Hall was an intelligent guy, a Harvard man. Yet when it came to immigration, his feelings clouded his judgment, as when he argued that "native children are being murdered by never being allowed to come into existence, as surely as if put to death in some older invasion of the Huns and Vandals.” (Selection of Immigration, 1904)  It wasn’t much of a logical leap to the conviction that America was destroying itself by admitting large numbers of immigrants. Walker’s notion of replacement had evolved into the claim that White Anglo-Saxon Americans, as a group, were committing “race suicide,” a term that would take hold among enemies of immigration. They would soon use it to great effect in pushing the National Origins Quotas legislation that would shut America's doors from the 1920s into the 1960s.

America has had generous admissions quotas since the 1970s. Anti-immigration activists continue to sound the alarm about our national suicide and the demographic death of the West. Pat Buchanan has claimed for decades that "Third World Immigrants" will overwhelm the native-born population of America in much the same way as restrictionists predicted that the Jews, Italians, Poles, and other "new immigrants" would do a hundred years ago. Francis Walker was wrong then. Unless America somehow ceases to provide today's immigrants with freedom and opportunity, Buchanan's predictions will prove wrong tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

The Idea of "Campanalismo"

How Villagers from the Mezzogiorno Became Italian-Americans

And how similar processes are at work today.

In today's America, the development of pan-ethnic identities like "Asian-Pacific American" and "Hispanic" seems novel. Only a few decades ago, these labels didn't even exist, at least not with their present meanings. Yet the process that has given rise to them is not new. In the early 20th century, many immigrant groups developed wider identities than they had maintained in their home countries. 

A graphic attempt to convey the geographical breadth and ethnic diversity of the flow of immigrants to America at the height of "Great Wave" immigration. From Howard B. Grose, Aliens or Americans

Immigrants from Italy may be the best example. During the Ellis Island era (c. 1890-1924), Italians were the largest immigrant group, totaling more than 4 million. Yet Italy had only unified as a nation in 1870. Before then, the Italian peninsula was divided into city-states, papal fiefdoms, and regions under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Most who came to America were from the Mezzogiorno, the southern portion of the geographical boot we recognize today as Italy. They had little attachment to the central government in the North, which exploited them through taxation and military conscription. 

Garibaldi fought several campaigns to unify Italy as a nation. His message of unity won fewer converts in southern Italy and Sicily than elsewhere. Most immigrants from Italy to America came from the South and brought with them distinct regional identities. They became 'Italian' in the United States.

The Italian nation emerged largely through the unifying efforts of Giuseppi Garibaldi (1807-1882). In Italy's Many Diasporas, historian Donna Gabaccia recounts that when Garibaldi's partisans marched through Sicily, his men sought to rally local support for their leader and the cause of unification. They chanted, “Viva Garibaldi, Viva Italia!” The peasants mistook the second part of the chant as, “Viva Talia!”, thinking that Talia had to be Garibaldi’s wife (and their new queen?). Italy was to them a vague abstraction. They knew their village and region of origin. These were the loyalties that they carried with them to America, not some allegiance to a political idea.

The idea of campanalismo helps explain Italian identity at the time. It may help us understand what is happening with some of today's ethnic groups in America. Campanilismo derives from the Italian word campanile for “bell tower.” The term implies a sense of fellow feeling among those who lived within earshot of the village church bell. That bell would toll daily for morning Mass and evening vespers, as well as for baptisms, communions, weddings, funerals, feast days, and general emergencies. Each locality had its own church and campanile, as well as its own dialect, traditions, customs, foodways, and sometimes even distinct modes of dress.

The local parish church and its belltower drew villagers together in small-town Italy and nurtured a sense of fellow feeling among them.
Photo of San Gimignano (Tuscany) courtesy of Marco Lazzaroni

It has been said that only after arriving at Ellis Island did immigrants from Abruzzo, Catania, Messina, and other regions learn that they were Italian. Even then, they tended to recreate the home village by clustering together in their own neighborhoods. Americans used the term “Little Italy” to describe an Italian enclave, but each enclave typically consisted of regional blocs. A street or tenement would be dominated by people from a particular part of Italy. At first, these newcomers stuck to themselves. They found jobs through family and friends from the home, built churches devoted to local saints, took spouses from the same region of origin. Yet, over time in this strange new environment, they recognized commonalities with neighbors from different parts of Italy, commonalities not shared with immigrants from other countries or with mainstream Americans.

For their part, old-stock Americans rarely distinguished among newcomers from different Italian homelands. Instead, they lumped them all together as “Eye-talyin,” or worse, as “dagos” and “wops.” The immigrants were relegated to menial work and generally were looked down upon. The discrimination they experienced became a unifying force among them. The old home-based differences, once so important, now lost significance in the American urban environment. In sharing neighborhoods, parish churches, worksites, theaters, and schools, immigrants from the Italian peninsula became Italian-Americans within two or three generations. Similar processes worked among other immigrant groups from Europe, and they are at work among today’s newcomers. Mexicans come here with strong regional identities, as do many Asians, but these identities tend to weaken in the new American context. 

Contemporary immigrants are generally less limited in cultural outlook than the peasant immigrants who passed through Ellis Island. American popular culture has become more pervasive with globalization. Through the Internet, social media, satellite television, and other advances in communication, today’s newcomers come here with greater knowledge of American culture, elements of which they have already absorbed. They may be racially more diverse than their European predecessors, but through a kind of cultural leveling, they are more cosmopolitan than the peasant ancestors of today's European-Americans.

The very term "European-American" projects into the past a coming together of distinct peoples (The map above labels them "races"). This convergence happened over the course of the 20th century. We are seeing a similar kind of streamlining in the 21st century with the development of new, broader multi-ethnic allegiances among previously distinct peoples. For example, several of the largest Asian immigrant groups come from countries that have historically fraught relationships. Think of Japan's occupation of Korea and Taiwan early in the 20th century, its invasion of China during WWII (e.g., the Rape of Nanking), or of China's recent territorial expansion in the South China Sea, which Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines all dispute.  These conflicts and rivalries had great relevance for first-generation immigrants, but they matter less to the younger generation who find it easier to identify as Asian-Americans. Recent anti-Asian violence has fostered this broader perspective, just as past discrimination helped make Italian-Americans. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Samuel Morse: Anti-Immigrant Genius

Samuel Morse (1791-1872) is remembered as the inventor of the telegraph. Less well known is that Morse was an accomplished painter, perhaps the foremost American portraitist of his day. Retired presidents John Adams and James Monroe sat for him, as did the Marquis de Lafayette of Revolutionary War fame. All told, Morse completed more than 300 paintings. He was also a pioneer of photography and mentor of the great Civil War photographer, Matthew Brady. 

Samuel Morse photographed by pioneering American photographer, Matthew Brady. 
Morse was a contradictory character. He despised the Irish in general but took the young Irishman under his wing, teaching him the fundamentals of the daguerrotype.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Morse must also be remembered as a fervid opponent of immigration. His writings against America’s first mass influx of foreign-born were so influential that Morse might well be considered the Father of Nativism. In 1834, he inspired the fledgling anti-immigrant movement with a series of letters to the New York Observer. Writing under the pen name, "Brutus," Morse railed against "priest-ridden Irish" who came here, he believed, to advance a papal plot against American democracy. These letters were compiled and published in 1835 as Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States. They would later inform the political platform of the anti-immigration American Party also known as the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner or the Know-Nothings. It is ironic that a man of such wide intelligence as Morse could inspire men who embraced the nickname “Know-Nothings.” Sworn to secrecy when questioned about their party, they are supposed to have responded to questions about membership by claiming to “know nothing.” 

The Know-Nothings’ strongest objection to immigration was not cultural. Nor was it economic. It was religious. In this, they took their cue from Morse, who was convinced that immigrants, notably the Irish and German Catholics then crowding cities of the eastern seaboard, were loyal to the Church of Rome (Nativists almost never said “Catholic Church.”). Their growing numbers, especially as naturalized citizens, would undermine America’s core principle, the separation of church and state. To Morse, the Irish were a particular danger because they naturalized in droves and the law allowed them to vote even before they had become full citizens. Their unquestioning obedience to the Catholic Church meant that they would cast their ballots as their priests dictated. Thus, these foreigners would sway elections and eventually deliver the country into the hands of the Roman pope. 

All this may sound absurd now, but Morse passionately believed it. His biographers have pointed to his travel in Europe as critical in shaping his anti-Catholic convictions. Morse traveled abroad twice. As a young Yale graduate, he spent several years (1811-1815) in England. This sojourn allowed him to refine his technique as a painter but seems to have had little impact on his attitude toward Catholicism. In 1830, he embarked on a two-year tour of Italy, Switzerland, and France. This trip left a deep impression on his politics. 

In Rome, Morse was fascinated by the art, architecture, and rituals of the Catholic Church. It was at one of these ceremonies that Morse’s disdain for Catholicism hardened into dread. Out for a walk on the holy day of Corpus Christi, Morse came upon an elaborate procession on the Via del Corso. He joined a crowd of spectators who watched as the Host, shielded by a canopy and ensconced in a monstrance, was solemnly borne through the street. Unlike those around him, the American did not remove his hat as the Host approached. Whether he deliberately refused to show deference to the sacred spectacle or absent-mindedly omitted the courtesy is not clear, but commentators have made much of this incident because of what happened next. As the procession passed, a soldier in the entourage knocked Morse’s hat from his head and may even have forced the American to the ground with a blow from the butt of his rifle. Threatening the stunned American with a bayonet, the soldier cursed Morse and called him “Il Diavolo” (Devil). 

The incident is reminiscent of St. Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, as related in the Acts of the Apostles. Paul is not yet a saint, nor is he even Paul. Instead, he’s just workaday Saul the Pharisee, a Christian martyr-maker, intent on rounding up the followers of the false prophet Jesus and bringing them to summary justice. Galloping towards Damascus, where he expects to find a gaggle of early Christians, Saul is forced from his horse by a blinding light. Jesus appears to him and says, “Saul, why do you persecute me?” This vision marks a turning point in Saul’s life. Within days, he takes the new name Paul and becomes Jesus’s greatest advocate. An Evangelical Christian today might say that Paul was at that moment “born again.” 

The Via Del Corso episode had a similar albeit less dramatic impact on Samuel Morse. It provided what he would later consider his deepest insight into Catholicism. Prior to his being assaulted, Morse was ambivalent about Roman Catholic ceremony. Yes, he thought it violated the simplicity of the Gospels, but the elaborate protocols, pomp, and regalia of the liturgical display intrigued the artist within him. One account of the Corpus Christi event has him scribbling down a wide-eyed description of the procession before he is blind-sided by the bullying soldier. Although Morse judges the soldier a “poltroon,” he holds his assailant less to blame for the assault than the clerics who ruled over the procession. It was they who had demanded that spectators be controlled. After all, Morse concluded, Roman Catholicism was “the religion of force.” 

Not long after his return to America, Morse set about composing the Brutus letters. It is hard to say how much their preoccupation with “Popery” as a dangerous political force owed to Morse’s experience on the Via del Corso. St. Paul became a new man after being forced from his horse. Morse’s blow to the head did not change the trajectory of his life, but seems instead to have intensified a part of him that was already there, his antipathy towards “political Romanism.” 

In a CSPAN interview on YouTube, biographer Kenneth Silverman claims that Morse never forgot the incident and mentioned it over and over in his speeches and political tracts. On August 10, 1834, just days after the publication of the Brutus letters, an anti-immigrant mob sacked and burned down the Ursuline convent school in Charlestown, Massachusetts, Morse’s hometown. Morse is said to have been appalled by the destruction, and in an age when communications were slow (His telegraph was not yet working), it seems unlikely that Morse’s writings could have prompted the attack. Yet, Morse’s followers would soon know all about the Il Diavolo episode, which became a symbol of the Old-World despotism that had no place in America. Over the next two decades, Catholic church burnings and anti-immigration riots became commonplace. 

Today, when some Americans are predisposed to dethrone once-iconic heroes, Morse presents a quandary. He ranks among our finest artists and inventors. He also championed higher education for women and became in his later years a great philanthropist. Yet, in addition to his writing against immigration, Morse would go on to publish tracts in defense of slavery.  In sum, Samuel Morse was a complicated man. His artistic and scientific accomplishments suggest the expansive genius of a polymath, while his convictions about immigrants and Blacks were bigoted and small-minded. Perhaps it is best that Morse’s technological genius has overshadowed other aspects of his personality. A quick Google search reveals that several American schools are named in his honor and his statue occupies a prominent place in Manhattan’s Central Park. Were his attitudes to be considered more important than his accomplishments, we might have to expunge his memory altogether.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Incompatible Cultures?

I recently saw that University of Pennsylvania Law Professor Amy Wax continues to ruffle feathers. Wax is a contrarian thinker who does not shy away from controversy. She may even welcome a fight, as seems the case with her comment on Ruth Bader Ginzberg shortly after Ginzberg’s death last September.  Back in 2017, Wax blamed many of America’s problems on the decline of “bourgeois values.” She went on to say that the US would benefit from admitting fewer immigrants from cultures that are “incompatible” with ours. This is a mantra that Pat Buchanan has repeated in such best-sellers as Suicide of a Superpower (2011), and State of Emergency (2006), The Death of the West (2001). Today’s immigrants, he says, come from “cultures never before assimilated." Buchanan offers this critique as unique to contemporary “Third World immigration.” Yet, it's a very old complaint raised throughout US immigration history. 

In the 1850s, many Americans considered Irish and German immigrants as incapable of assimilation. Here the drunken, belligerent Irishman teams up with his German partner to steal an election as their fellow immigrants riot in the background.  Unknown artist (John H. Goater?), “Irish Whiskey and Lager Bier",” courtesy of The Civil War Era

When America experienced its first mass immigration in the mid-1800s, it was said that the Irish and Germans who dominated the influx would never fit in. Protestant America thought the Catholic Irish were ignorant drunks ruled by the Pope. If allowed to become citizens, they would undermine American Democracy. The Germans, especially those who fled the revolution of 1848, were considered radicals and free thinkers who had little respect for American institutions, particularly the Sabbath, which they consistently violated with dance, drink, and song.

Uncle Sam is scolded by the editor of Judge magazine for allowing a horde of unsavory immigrants to enter the U.S. "If Immigration was properly Restricted you would no longer be troubled with Anarchy, Socialism, the Mafia and such kindred evils!"  Grant E. Hamilton, “Where the Blame Lies,” Judge, April 4, 1891. Library of Congress.

By the time Ellis Island opened in 1892, the countries of immigrant origin had shifted to southern and central Europe. Critics like MIT President Francis A. Walker complained that the newcomers were “beaten men from beaten races.” Having been repressed for centuries by church and state, the Italians, Jews, Greeks, Poles, and others had no experience with Democracy and were, he believed, unfit for American citizenship. This unfitness went deeper than their history of persecution. It was in their blood. Many Americans considered these “new immigrants” racially inferior to the northern European colonists who had established the country.

Of course, the critics were wrong. Today, German-Americans are the country’s largest ancestral group and are stalwarts of mainstream American culture. Irish-Catholics have been instrumental in making the once “Romish” church more Protestant in outlook. As for the Ellis Islanders? More than 40% of Americans have an Ellis Island ancestor. These “beaten men” fought bravely for the U.S. Army in World War I, many as volunteers. They and their women would help nurture America’s “Greatest Generation.”

As long as the United States continues to afford new arrivals with the freedom and opportunity they could not find in their “incompatible” home countries, they, too, will contribute greatly to our society. If by "bourgeois values," Professor Wax means hard work, frugality, family orientation, respect for education, and other socially conservative norms, immigrants pose less danger to America than native-born Americans.    

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

How the Klan Copied the Catholics

An army of Ku Klux Klan stalwarts drives St. Patrick, representing Roman Catholicism and Irish immigration, back across the Atlantic. From, "Klansmen: Guardians of Liberty" (1926), by Bishop Alma White. Irish-Catholic lore tells of how St. Patrick drove the snakes from Hibernia. Here, papist snakes flee America with St. Patrick. 

After the riots at the U.S. Capitol last January, white supremacist organizations like the Proud Boys and Boogaloo Boys have gotten a lot of media attention, but America’s oldest and most infamous hate group, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), is rarely mentioned. Is it that the Klan just ain’t what it used to be?

Many Americans are familiar with the Klan’s history of intimidation, violence, and murder against African-Americans after the Civil War (1861-1865). The Klan declined in the late 19th-century under pressure from the federal government, but it reemerged in 1915, expanding in reaction to the movement of Blacks and immigrants into the cities of the North and Midwest.  While the KKK maintained an abiding hatred for Blacks, it added immigrants to its enemies list, because those coming through Ellis Island at the time were non-Protestants, notably Roman Catholics and Jews.

The KKK was not the first organization to oppose the entry of Catholics into the US. As early as the 1840s, the American Party (aka “Know-Nothings”) warned that Irish-Catholic immigrants were under the control of the pope, who sought to take over America. Nativists observed that the “Romish Church”—a term then used—was organized like the military. The Pope was its commander-in-chief. He demanded unquestioned loyalty from a hierarchy of cardinals, bishops, and priests. In turn, this clerical hierarchy held sway over the immigrant masses and dictated how the newcomers would vote.  Once the immigrants had achieved overwhelming numbers, they would rise-up at the Pope’s command and transform the United States into a theocracy.  

This alien religion, they said, was nothing like American Protestantism. Steeped in egalitarian traditions, Protestant believers owed allegiance only to the Lord Jesus. The Klan and other nativists also ridiculed the ostentation of Catholic religious practice. They mocked priestly vestments, the use of incense and holy water, the veneration of saints, and the deference shown Catholic prelates. All of this was described variously as “mumbo-jumbo,” “pope’s toe-ism,” and “idolatry.”  

It now seems obvious that the Klan, in making such criticisms, lacked self-awareness.  Just look at their regalia. Klansmen may have declared themselves fiercely opposed to papists, but that that did not stop them from wearing gowns that mimicked the garb worn for ages by Catholic “penitent societies” in the countries from which the immigrants the Klan so despised came. So closely do the two resemble each other that the BBC recently used photographs from Ku Klux Klan ceremonies to illustrate a story on Catholic brotherhoods in Spain. 


Some years ago, while visiting a cathedral in Spain, I stopped at a nearby shop selling religious articles. On display were rosaries, prayer books, saintly images, incense, and the like. The store also sold hooded robes for members of the local penitent society. A mannequin of baby Jesus was used to model toddler-sized robe and accessories. Today, such shops may assure tourists with labels that state, "No Ku Klux Klan - Spanish Tradition!"  

Other aspects of Catholicism that were anathema to evangelical Klansmen were the complex hierarchy and elaborate rituals of the Church. Hadn’t the Reformation rejected these trappings in favor of a spiritual return to the Gospels? True Protestantism would be egalitarian and austere in practice. Yet, when the Klan was going strong in early 20th century America, its rallies were notable for elaborate rigamarole and pageantry—burning crosses, flaming torches, solemn processions, and somber hymns—all presided over by a hierarchy of officers with arcane titles like “Grand Dragon” and “Imperial Wizard.”

A father and daughter, perhaps African-American tourists, pose in front of a Holy Week procession in Spain. The young woman looks upset at the resemblance the penitents bear to Klansmen. Her father seems to recognize that the similarities are superficial. Image courtesy of

Isn’t it ironic then that at least in its outward trappings the KKK adopted two medieval aspects of the Catholic Church it hated so much? No sane person would welcome the Klan's replacement by the likes of the Boogaloo Boys, but one can wish the hateful and anachronistic organization good riddance.