As Americans debate the place of immigrants in our society, the University has spoken strongly in favor of their presence. In the words of President Eisgruber ’83, “Throughout its history, the United States has benefited from the abilities, creativity, and drive of immigrants from throughout the world.”
But in the 1840s, when nativism entered the country’s lexicon, Princeton was less welcoming. An unprecedented influx of Irish and German immigrants was changing the religious composition of many communities, inflaming long-standing anti-Catholic prejudices. Princeton president James Carnahan 1800 had endorsed a publication called The Protestant, created in part to respond to “the astonishing and fearful increase of Popery in the United States.” And in July 1843, The Nassau Monthly published the first installment of a two-part article, titled “American Citizenship,” that exemplified this animus. Its unnamed author was later identified as John Joseph Entwisle, the Class of 1843’s Latin salutatorian.
Contending that the “indiscriminate bestowment of the rights of citizenship on immigrant foreigners” is “pernicious to our institutions and destructive of our welfare,” he argued that the depth of newcomers’ ignorance surpassed even that of enslaved Americans, who themselves could hardly be thought “capable of judging and deciding on our questions of policy, even the most simple.”
For Entwisle, it was Catholicism that placed most immigrants beyond the pale. “Every year,” he noted, “at least one hundred thousand Catholic immigrants come into our country” — adherents of a “religio-political system” that is “the most totally destructive of every thing dearest to man in this life and the next.” Abandoning all restraint, he continued: “The rights of American citizenship were obtained only with the life’s blood of men who had more of noble principle ... in a little finger, than is contained in a whole cargo of the cast-off refuse of Europe that inundate our shores. And shall these by their vile breath pollute, and their viler touch destroy what those paid such a price to obtain?”
The following year, in Philadelphia, nativist mobs answered this question by running amok in Catholic neighborhoods, leaving a trail of death and destruction that even the state militia was hard-pressed to contain.
John S. Weeren is founding director of Princeton Writes and a former assistant University archivist.