History as It Happens: The Know Nothings, America’s First “Replacement Theorists”

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A massacre at a grocery store in upstate New York, perpetrated by a young man who espouses a racist ideology, has renewed attention to the integration of “replacement theory” into American political discourse.

When the alleged shooter’s worldview came to light, liberals condemned Republicans as well as conservative commentators such as Fox News’ Tucker Carlson for vilifying non-white migrants and normalizing racist attitudes in the Trump era.

And Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, at odds with her party’s leadership since the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, tweeted, “House GOP leadership has enabled white nationalism, white supremacy and anti-Semitism. History has taught us that what begins with words ends up much worse. GOP leaders must renounce and reject these views and those who defend them. »

The idea of ​​powerful forces encouraging swarms of immigrants intent on subjugating or even eliminating the white majority has a long pedigree in American history. In the 19th century, conspiratorial nativism did not focus on immigration from Central or South America, but on Catholic migration from Europe.

In this episode of History As It Happens, historian Christopher Phillips talks about America’s first “replacement theorists,” the Know Nothings.

The Know Nothings were an urban movement that exploited the splits between Whigs and Democrats and sought to preserve America’s Protestant heritage against a tide of millions of Irish and German immigrants in the 1850s.

Know Nothingism attracted temperance supporters, alarmed by the drinking habits of new immigrants, and opponents of slavery. He grew to take positions other than excluding Catholic immigrants. Leaders of Know Nothing condemned establishment or patronage politics as practiced by the Whigs and Democrats, and within a short time party membership exceeded one million.

“When we talk about ethnicity, as we understand it, Catholics were seen in a racialized way,” said Phillips, a scholar of 19th-century American history at the University of Cincinnati. “And the terms that are so often used in racial discourse about the lower and unintelligent and dirty orders [people]…all of that was in place with the Catholics, especially the Irish.

The Know Nothing movement achieved runaway political success, winning majorities in several state legislatures, capturing governorships, and electing more than 100 members of Congress. But as quickly as the movement reshaped American politics, it faded from importance. The rise of the Republican Party and the enormity of the slavery crisis subsumed Know Nothings’ attention on immigration, but the movement left its mark.

Listen to the entire conversation with Mr. Phillips by downloading this episode of History As It Happens.

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