The good people of Connecticut are terrified that society will be overrun by the dangerous, ignorant foreigners and their strange religion. Politicians fan the flames of prejudice to increase their personal popularity with voters. Editorial cartoonists depict these immigrants as less than human, with animal-like features. Sometimes the caricatures show the foreigners with weapons, including bombs, primed for use against innocent civilians.
This scenario sounds like today’s Muslim refugees from Syria, but it’s not. It was the life of the immigrant Irish of the 1850s.
At the time, Connecticut had been dominated for 200 years by a white, Protestant majority until the Irish — forced by starvation and oppression — came to our state in large numbers. There was a destructive backlash, now largely forgotten. The episode stains our collective history, and it should teach us something about the current resistance to the European refugees knocking at our door.
In the 19th century, Catholicism was considered a dangerous cult, run by a man in Rome. Priests were the Imams of the day, not to be trusted. Irish Catholic families lived in their own ghettos because no respectable building owner would rent to them. The local classified ads made it clear that there were jobs only for “Americans,” or, more bluntly, the want ads would read “No Irish Need Apply.”
This bigotry arose from fear of the unknown. Horace Bushnell, Connecticut’s eminent theologian, wrote that Irish surnames could not be found among the ranks of educated, wealthy citizens. Instead, they were found on the graves at Potter’s Field. To Bushnell, this was proof positive of genetic inferiority: here was a race with a violent, murderous nature fueled by a dangerous religion.
Today, Donald Trump and other Republican presidential contenders are building a political movement based on race hatred and fear. The Mexican border is old news; the Syrian exodus is the new fuel for the racist fire. Our country has seen this dangerous, willfully dishonest propaganda before.
The right wing media of the 19th Century called Hartford’s Irish neighborhood “Pigville” for 50 years. They demanded the eradication of “green clod hoppers, in every rum hole, in every nest of Irish.” These hateful expressions led to arson against church buildings and physical attacks against individuals.
Across the nation, the Know Nothing Party grew, based on an overriding hatred of the Irish. In Connecticut, the party pledged to defeat the “murderous policy of the Church of Rome.” By 1853, Nehemiah Sperry, a stone mason from New Haven, organized the state chapter of “American Party” (as the Know Nothings called themselves). The local movement quickly grew to 169 lodges with 22,000 members. Two years later the Know Nothings won the governor’s office.
Gov. William T. Minor led Connecticut on a comprehensive attack against the state’s Irish. The Know Nothings demanded literacy tests for those who wished to vote and a 21- year residency rule. (This voter suppression was successfully copied years later by the Jim Crow South.) Minor pressed for a law that forbade church officials from owning property, weakening the longstanding Catholic parish system. The governor disbanded six local Irish militias, only to have them reinstated when the Civil War loomed.
For decades Connecticut’s Irish united to fight discrimination. It was only at the start of the 20th century that they elected the first Irish American mayor in Hartford. Twenty years later, the cycle of hate repeated itself; this time the targets were Italians and Eastern Europeans.
The orchestrated campaign of fear always follows a similar pattern: label a group disloyal and violent; isolate and injure the whole class; twist the American people into a state of fear and loathing; watch as the one percent benefits politically and economically from the racial and ethnic divisions.
Trump and his cohorts have read their American history. They have extracted the lessons that benefit their ambitions. What have the rest of us learned?
Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer who writes for The Shoeleather History Project.