The Rise of American Nativism from 1900 to 1930

American society esteems itself as a sanctuary for the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses of the world. It adamantly claims to celebrate the principles of rowdy ethnic pluralism and colorful cultural diversity at the core of its identity. However, the proverbial melting pot of American society has not, and perhaps never will, epitomize the egalitarian spirit of the American Dream – the belief that this nation is an unlimited beacon of hope and opportunity. From the 1798 Alien Acts, which required the immediate expulsion of foreigners “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States,” to modern-day Islamophobia, American patriotism and fear during times of change have drummed up anti-foreign stirrings to a shrill pitch. Nativism, in simple terms, is a dogged adherence to the belief that race functions as the most important determinant of cultural identity; this played an important role in the shaping of America at the dawn of the twentieth century. The self-righteous clamoring of reformers during the progressive era coupled with the drastic changes of post-World War I America incited a new sense of nativism during the 1920s and 1930s that aimed to preserve a rose-colored conception of true Americanism.

The heart of the progressive reform movement during the first decade of the twentieth century was quite unlike anything American society had ever experienced before. Rather than campaigning for the government as a bulwark of individual liberty, progressive reformers fought for the government as an agent of human welfare. They felt that the burden of purging social, economic, and political corruption should be accepted by the government – that unbridled capitalism and unregulated politicking are dangerous for democracy.

However, an unfortunate extension of the logic behind economic and political regulation was the misguided belief that all aspects of society must be stringently monitored and delicately disinfected. Indeed, this Panglossian campaign for an ideal America provided the foundation for the upsurge of nativism in the 1920s and 1930s. To the progressives, compromising civic and economic freedom in the name of social sanitization was wholly justified. This mentality led to benignant new business regulations as well as coherent and odious eugenics and temperance movements. In his book Better for All the World, Harry Bruinius’ remarks, “Seeing their country as a land of innocence, many Americans had long clung to the idea of self-purification, attempting to excise that which posed a danger to the social good” (Satel 2). The temperance and eugenics movements, quite simply, were organized attempts at restricting personal freedom in the name of societal betterment. For example, the eighteenth amendment, the brainchild of early temperance crusaders, was the only constitutional alteration designed principally to restrict individual liberty. Likewise, America’s compulsory sterilization programs – having begun in 1907 when Indiana passed a law allowing doctors to sterilize the mentally or physically unfit – were borne out of the desire to control the genetic makeup of the electorate. For the first time in human history, doctors were instructed to operate on unwilling and healthy patients in the name of promoting social good.

The concepts of social restriction and genetic sanitation clearly buttress nativism. Harry Laughlin, an influential developer of the eugenics movement, remarked, “The recent immigrants (largely from Southern and Eastern Europe) as a whole, present a higher percentage of inborn socially inadequate qualities than do older stocks” (Quinn 39). Nativism was a logical outgrowth of a social mentality that pushed for a large-scale government-sponsored cleansing of American society. On a philosophical level, progressivism and nativism were reflections of the prevailing utopianism in the American public.

The aftermath of World War I left American society disillusioned by foreign intervention and apprehensive about the rise of radicalism abroad; these conditions provided an ideal setting for the fomentation of social purification programs developed during the progressive era and for the upsurge of nativism. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 fanned the flames of the isolationist movement by inspiring new fears of communist agitators in the minds of Americans. Many angry citizens blindly ascribed the scourge of labor strikes during the period between 1918 and 1919 to Russian revolutionaries. War-time American author stuck a chord in American nativism by declaring, “My motto for the Reds is S.O.S.—ship or shoot. I believe we should place them all on a ship of stone, with sails of lead, and that their first stopping place should be hell” (Bailey 280). The paranoid anti-foreignism and vindictive censorship of radicalism of the day are two hallmarks of nativism.

The hysteria reached epic proportions during 1919 and 1920, culminating in the first organized manifestation of brewing anti-foreignism, “the red scare.” Attorney general Mitchell Palmer capitalized on frightened Americans by zealously rounding up over six thousand alleged enemies of the state. Moreover, he successfully forced the deportation of 249 suspected radical communists back to Russia. In the name of protecting American freedom, Palmer fought for the passage of criminal syndicalism laws in each state; with this, he carelessly tore down the distinction between actions and words, made all threats of violence treasonous in the first degree, and abandoned fundamental principles of first Amendment freedoms. The reasoned remark by newspaper editor William Allen White, that a radical who “merely preaches his creed and does not preach violence, [ ] can do no harm” (Bailey 280) fell on the deaf ears of an over-patriotic American public.

No better example of the subversion of American justice in the name of American nativism exists than in execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The men were convicted of murder not because their guilt was proven beyond all reasonable doubt, but because their blasphemous ideology was known beyond all reasonable denial: they were atheists, Italians, anarchists, and draft dodgers. Vanzetti famously acknowledged, “But my conviction is that I have suffered for things that I am guilty of. I am suffering because I am a radical and indeed I am a radical” (Bailey 281). The supercharged atmosphere of post-World War I America – vivid dreams of a better future and dark fears of social collapse – provided an ideal environment for the triumph of narrow-minded bigotry.

Congress responded to the nativist pressures of the 1920s by passing the Immigration Act of 1924 – codifying the nation’s calls for provincial Americanism. According to this legislation, number of immigrants allowed from a certain country was set to the quota of 2% of the number of immigrants in 1890s America. Essentially, the system reflected prevailing prejudices by blatantly discriminating against foreigners of Eastern and Southern European descent. That year, Professor of Columbia University of president of the American Museum of Natural history, echoed the dark tone of the day by insisting that the battle “to maintain the predominance of our race,” has not yet been won, and that American must learn from the “decadence and decline of which undermined the great republics of Greece and Rome” by rejecting “the appeals of false humanitarianism.” The immigration restrictions were a collective triumph for eugenics movement: the legislation homogenized ethnic differences and shifted the racial composition of the country to its Anglo-Saxon origins. The racial restrictions, moreover, were a victory for pervasive nativism because they were pacified all society: the plutocratic alarm of immigrant restlessness, the middle-class vision of a pure society untainted by unworthy blood and the working-classes’ fear of labor competition.

Finally, the revival of the Ku Klux Klan during the first quarter of the twentieth century – membership exceeding a staggering 5 million by 1925 – embodied, perhaps more so than anything else, the violent nativism of the age. Spawned by the dizzying effects of rapid change, the Klan rose on the pillars hate and intolerance; it added antiforeignism, anticommunist, and antichange to its typical arsenal of hate. Reverend Bob Shuler of Shuler’s Magazine excuses the violent tendencies of the Klan by noting that “the tenets, principles, and aims of the Ku Klux Klan” include a “positive emphasis for Americanism as opposed to foreignism”; and therefore, the “the principles of the Klan are not so damnable as pictured” (Bailey 286). Pro-Americanism dignified violent antiforeignism, and the Ku Klux Klan rose to power.

The widespread bans on interracial marriage, the compulsory sterilization programs, the systematic deportations of intellectual radicals, the strict racial quotas, and the powerful vigilantly group founded on hate and bigotry cumulatively gave 1920s America the right to consider itself one of the most culturally repressive nations in the world. Nativism rose in the void left by the purgation of social corruption from American society and triumphed in the fearful paranoia of a post-War nation. Insular dread and idealistic fervor invariably bred nativism and ethnocentrism. The nation’s cultural beliefs swayed then – and indeed today – in the winds of political, economic, and social change: from acceptance to intolerance, from a call for diversity to a call for purity, and from an open democracy to a stifling tyranny of the majority.

Works Cited

Bailey, Thomas A., and David M. Kennedy. The American Spirity. Vol. 1. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

Quinn, Peter. "Race Cleansing in America." American Heritage Mar. 2003.

Satel, Sally. "A Better Breed of American." The New York Times 26 Feb. 2006.



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