The Native American Movement of 1844

From A History of the Irish Settlers in North America by Thomas D'Arcy McGee

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Chapter XX.

"Native American" Movement of 1844—The Philadelphia Riots—Their Probable Origin—Conduct of the Military and Magistrates—Similar Movements in New York, Boston, and other Towns—Re-action—Reflections on the Principles involved in this Controversy

AN epoch in this history, which it would be culpable to pass over in parenthesis, is formed by "the Native American" organization of the year 1844. In all our great seaports there" has existed, more or less, from the beginning of the Federal government, a feeling opposed to foreign emigration,—opposed, especially, to Irish Catholic emigration. This feeling has been manifested from time to time, by fanatics of extreme Protestant opinions; by merchants and professional men of a pro-British bias, and by native workmen who have been brought into competition with, and frequently underbid by, emigrant workmen. But the two latter sections, though much the more reasonable in their prejudice, have never been able to affect public sentiment with anything like the influence created by the ultra Protestant agitators.

Philadelphia city and its Liberties had long been the home of a theological controversy, which reached its acme at the beginning of the year 1844. The Boston riots of 1834, the New York "school question," (as to whether the Protestant Scriptures should be used as a public school-book,) the increase of emigration, had all been artfully seized upon by the local speculators in excitement, who hoped to fish up civic honors from the troubled waters of discord. During the first three months of the year the most inflammatory appeals were made to the passions of the Protestants of Philadelphia. A paper called The Sun became the daily organ of disturbance, and "an English Jew," named Levins, and others, the heads of the new association. The firemen, and many of the military, were ardent disciples of this school, whose avowed principles were,—1. That no foreigner should be naturalized under a residence of twenty-one years; 2. That the Catholic religion was dangerous to the country; 3. That the Protestant Scriptures should be the foundation of all common school education.

On the 6th and 7th of May, Kensington and Southwark were the scenes of the first demonstrations against the Catholic churches and convent. Upon the former day, a party of Nativists had fired from an engine-house upon some Irish residents of Kensington, killing one and wounding others; whereupon, the friends of the attacked, in large numbers, issued out to capture the assailants.[1] These being reinforced, the riot became general, and amid the din the cry was raised, "To the Nunnery!"

That building was soon dismantled, the nuns and orphans expelled with blows and curses, its sacred vessels shamefully defiled, and its many graves violated. Saint Augustine's church was next attacked, and burned to the ground. In its tower, the old clock of Independence Hall, which had struck the hour of independence, was consumed; and all its sacred furniture was destroyed. One fragment of the wall alone remained, where, above the marks of the smoke and flame, might be seen, for months, the picture of an eye, with the words, "The Lord seeth." This was all that had been left of Saint Augustine's. Saint Michael's church shared the same fate, and for nearly a week the city was in the hands of the mob.

The military companies, the municipal officers, and the press, (with one honorable exception,[2]) connived at outrage after outrage, until the indignant expressions of opinion from other cities seem to have roused the guardians of the law to a consciousness of their neglected duties. Sheriffs and generals apologized to the rioters for interfering with their projects, and induced them to postpone their riot and arson for a short interval.

The scene of the July riot was Southwark, on the other side of the city, but men were now in command of the military, who resolved not to temporize. A contemporaneous account runs thus:—

"On Friday, the 5th inst., information was communicated by letter to the pastor of the church of Saint Philip Neri, Southwark, that it would be attacked on that evening. Having already taken some measures of precaution, with the approbation of Major General Patterson, and authority having been received from his Excellency the Governor, to form a company for the protection of the church, some fire-arms were procured, and introduced into the basement in the afternoon. This was an occasion of a gathering of persons in front of the church, who industriously reported that a design on the lives of citizens was entertained. The sheriff was soon on the ground, and, to remove all apprehension, took from the church the arms. A committee from the mob was allowed to search it thoroughly, and clear it of all firearms. The church, however, continued to be besieged by the mob, but no attack was made. On Saturday evening, General Cadwallader attempted to disperse the mob, and, on their refusal, ordered the military to aim; but Charles Naylor, the late Whig member of Congress from the third district, cried out, Don't fire! and the military did not fire. Mr. Naylor was put under arrest, and detained in the basement of the church until Sunday, at eleven o'clock, A. M., when the mob, having obtained from a vessel lying at the wharf, two pieces of ordnance, brought one piece to the front of the church, and with a battering-ram beat down one of its doors, and carried away Mr. Naylor in triumph. The captain of the Montgomery Hibernia Greens, with a very small force, had been left in charge of the church and of the prisoners, about thirteen having been put under arrest, who were, however, discharged by the magistrates. A small body of the Markle and Mechanic Rifle companies were sent to his aid. The mob clamored for the dismissal of the Montgomery Hibernia Greens, and promised to let them pass unmolested, threatening destruction if they continued to defend the church. Seeing themselves entirely unsupported, they consented to leave it, and came forth, not with reversed arms, as some papers have misstated. They had not proceeded far, when the mob assailed them, and they defended themselves by firing as they retreated; but, overpowered by numbers, they at length broke, each one seeking to save his own life. Robert Gallagher, a private, sought refuge in a house in Small street, and was pursued and inhumanly beaten almost to death. The mob, with a battering-ram, broke down the wall lately erected near the church, and forced an entrance into the church itself, which they desecrated, and attempted several times to fire.

"In the evening, about eight o'clock, General Cadwallader, with a part of the first division, arrived on the ground, and got possession of the church. The mob soon got into collision with the military, some of them attempting to wrest the arms from them. By command of their officer they fired, and six or seven persons were killed. The mob rallied with desperate resolution, and used effectually their fire-arms, the military maintaining their position bravely. Cannon were employed on both sides, and a number killed and wounded; how many, it is not known. Colonel Pleasenton was slightly wounded; and Captain R. K. Scott, commander of the Cadwallader Grays, dangerously, but, it is now hoped, not mortally. Sergeant Guier, of the Germantown Blues, was killed. Corporal Henry G. Troutman received a wound, of which he has since died. The military took one or two pieces of ordnance from the rioters, and made a few arrests. On Monday, the mob increased in number, and force, and violence, threatening to exterminate the military. The civil authorities of Southwark, fearing a desperate and bloody collision, requested the troops to be withdrawn, and expressed their confidence that peace would be restored. Some acts of violence were, however, committed on some Irishmen, after the withdrawal of the troops The governor arrived in the city, and issued a proclamation requiring all to be disarmed, unless those who report themselves, and are authorized to preserve the peace."

The decided conduct of the authorities at Southwark put an end to the Philadelphia riots, and every attempt to "get up" similar demonstrations in New York and Boston signally failed. In the former city, the life of the Catholic bishop was threatened, and, in the latter, the office of The Pilot, (then edited by the present writer,) was placed under the formal protection of the city authorities. This was a very necessary step, since that journal was then the only one, in the state which contains Mount Benedict, which dared to defend the church, or to stigmatize, as they deserved, the church-burglars and women-assaulters of Philadelphia.[3]

A political party, animated by the principles, but rejecting the tactics, of Kensington and Southwark, enjoyed a short success. In New York, they elected Mr. James Harper, mayor; in Boston, Mr. Davis; and in Philadelphia, Mr. Levins to Congress. Several public men, hitherto much respected, deceived by this hectic flush of victory, permitted them to use their names, among whom the adopted citizens saw, with deep pain, the names of Major General Scott and Daniel Webster.

In 1845, they again succeeded in electing some civic officers in the same cities; but, in 1846, they utterly failed in their political designs, and since then the party has dwindled down into a secret trades' combination.

A national party never could have been organized oil that "platform." The west, that counts its growth by the shipful of emigrants crossing the Atlantic, the labor-market, which would otherwise have no regulating medium, the youth of the continent, the justice of the constitution, all protest against excluding emigration. To admit emigration, but prohibit naturalization, is to admit the danger, and cast away the protection. Whosoever wants to disarm foreign emigration of its anti-American tendencies, let him naturalize the emigrant. That is the only way in which he can effect his object.

The truth of this argument soon began to be felt, and, for several years past, no public man has been elected on "Nativist" ground. The former candidates of that faction have paid for their fatal success, by utter extinction, and even Mr. Levins no longer enjoys a seat in Congress, or any other public position.

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[1] Testimony of Clarke, Hague, Wood, Mathews, Fougeray, &c., native citizens of Philadelphia, before the city Grand Jury, 1844.

[2] J. S. Du Solle, editor of the Philadelphia Spirit of the Times, displayed, throughout the entire riot, a courage and ability as admirable as they are rare, in times of trial like these.

[3] The familiar phrase, "cowards and sons of cowards," was applied, at the time of the second series of Philadelphia riots, to the nativist faction, by the present writer. It occurs in a lengthy article, in which he labored to show that, instead of representing the Washingtons and Jeffersons of the past, as they claimed, that party represented the Arnolds, Deanes, and Hulls, if they had any American parentage,—which was disputed.