September 2nd, 2021


The Nativist Riots and the 1844 Election

There was relatively little immigration to the United States from 1770 to 1830. In fact, following the Revolutionary War, there was significant emigration from the U.S. to Canada, as about 75,000 Loyalists left to once more be under the protection of the British Empire. A number of German immigrants left to resettle in present day Ontario, where they found better farmland. Immigration to the United States picked up in the 1830s, with the largest number of immigrants coming from Britain, Ireland, Germany, and other parts of Central Europe and Scandinavia. These immigrants were attracted by the availability of cheap farmland. Some were skilled factory workers and as the United States entered the industrial age, manufacturing jobs were available. Among this group were Irish Catholics, many of whom were unskilled laborers who found work building canals and railroads. They settled mostly in urban areas. Many Irish went to the emerging textile mill towns of the Northeast, while others became longshoremen in the growing Atlantic and Gulf port cities. The German immigrants headed to farms, in the Midwest and in Texas, while many became craftsmen in urban areas.

The influx of immigrants, especially from Catholic countries, led to a movement in the United States known as Nativism. These Nativists were largely anti-Catholic as well as anti-immigrant. The tensions among many Nativists came to ahead in Philadelphia in June of 1844, an election year, culminating in what became known as the Philadelphia Nativist Riots.

As Philadelphia became industrialized, immigrants from England, Ireland, and Germany settled in the city and the surrounding districts. The potato famine was taking place in Ireland, causing massive emigration from that country. As Irish and other European Catholic immigrants settled into various parts of the United States, tensions resulted from religious, economic and cultural differences

The majority of immigrants coming to Philadelphia were Catholic. The rising tide of Catholicism alarmed Protestants and native-born Americans in the area. They began organizing anti-Catholic and nativist groups. These groups began to spring up in the early 1840s. They distributed anti-Catholic literature and opened anti-Catholic newspapers. Matters began heading on a collision course when, a controversy arose over the Bible that was being used in schools. Students in Philadelphia schools were in the habit of beginning each school day with reading the Protestant version of the Bible. On November 10, 1842, Philadelphia's Roman Catholic Bishop, Francis Kenrick, wrote a letter to the Board of Controllers of public schools, asking that Catholic children be allowed to read the version of the Bible, used by Roman Catholics. He also asked that they be excused from other religious teaching while at school.

In response to the Bishop's request, the Board of Controllers ordered that no child should be forced to participate in religious activities. They allowed the children to read whichever version of the Bible their parents wished. This upset local Nativist groups. In their newspapers, they spun what had happened as being an attack against the Bible used in Protestant devotionals, inflaming the local Protestant population.

Hugh Clark, a Kensington school director, was Catholic. Nativists began to spread the rumor that Clark was visiting a girls school, where he demanded that the principal stop Bible reading in school. The story also claimed that the principal refused and that she would rather lose her job. Clark denied this version of events and claimed that after finding out several students had left a Bible reading to read a different version of the Bible, he commented that if reading the Bible caused this kind of confusion, that it would be better if it were not to be read in school. But the Nativists claimed that the Pope was directly trying to undermine local Protestantism, and wanted to remove the Protestant Bible from schools.

The American Republican Party was a forerunner to what would latter become the American "Know-Nothing" Party. They were unaffiliated with the Republican Party that would form in the next decade and continue to exist to this date. This group was a Protestant Nativist group that met on May 3, 1844, and held a meeting in a predominantly Irish part of the Kensington District, which was then a suburb of Philadelphia. The meeting was disrupted when a group of Irish residents attacked the platform where the speakers were standing, breaking up the meeting and sending the Nativists running. In retaliation, on May 6, a group of Nativists returned in larger numbers. They held another rally, which was interrupted this time by rain. The meeting was moved into a nearby market where the anti-Irish, anti-Catholic rhetoric continued. Fighting broke out between the local Irish Catholics and the Nativists and it spilled outside the market, where Nativists were shot at by people in the windows of nearby buildings. George Shiffler, an 18 year old Nativist leather worker, was killed in the shooting. This angered the Nativists, who attacked the Seminary of the Sisters of Charity and several Catholic homes before the riot ended. Numerous people were injured, and two more nativists were killed. Police were to stop the violence. The county sheriff organized a posse, but the posse arrived armed only with clubs and was powerless to do anything.

The next day, on May 7, Nativists used the incident as a rallying cry to denounce Catholics and called on Americans to defend themselves from what they called "the bloody hand of the Pope." A Nativist mob marched to Kensington, and once again gunfire broke out, but this time the Nativists fired back. A riot ensured and Nativist mobs set fire to and destroyed the Hibernia fire station, thirty homes and the market where the violence had begun the day before. Joseph Rice, a Catholic bystander, was shot and killed. The violence continued until the local state militia, commanded by General George Cadwalader, arrived and dispersed the crowd.

The violence began again the following day, May 8, when the Nativists came back to Kensington and burned down St. Michael's Catholic Church and rectory at Second and Jefferson Streets, as well as the Seminary of the Sisters of Charity, which had been attacked a few days before. Soldiers eventually arrived and the fire was contained. While the soldiers were busy in Kensington, another Nativist mob gathered in Philadelphia at St. Augustine's Catholic Church, located on Fourth Street between Vine and New Streets. City troops were stationed by the church, and Mayor John Morin Scott went to the scene to try to calm the crowd. The rioters threw stones at the mayor, and burned down the church. The were reported to have cheered as the steeple fell. A nearby school with a collection of rare books was also set on fire. During this riots, at least fourteen people were killed, around fifty people were injured, and two hundred fled their homes. The damage sustained amounted to $3.86 million in today's dollars.

Mayor Scott set up a force to protect Catholic churches, and Bishop Kenrick ordered all churches to be closed the following Sunday. Valuables were removed from the churches and hidden in homes for safekeeping. Bishop Kenrick asked Catholics to wait for the law to deal with the rioters. But on June 18, a grand jury blamed a poor response by law enforcement and the Irish Catholics for the riots

On July 3, Father John Patrick Dunn of the Church of St. Philip Neri in the Southwark District was warned in advance that The Native American Party, a nativist political party, planned to hold a large parade the next day on Independence Day. To prepare in the case of violence, the church applied for an arsenal that a volunteer company would use in case the church was attacked. Pennsylvania Governor David R. Porter authorized the formation of a company and the procurement of twenty-five muskets from the Frankford Arsenal. Major General Robert Patterson, commander of the Pennsylvania militia, put the troops on alert in case of violence. There was no violence before or during the parade, but the next day, on July 5, a Nnativist mob numbering in the thousands gathered at the church. The sheriff urged the crowd to disperse and left a volunteer posse to guard the church. The mob remained, and a man who was injured in the May riots made a speech to the crowd, calling for a search of the church for weapons. The sheriff, an alderman, and seventeen nativists entered the church and found three armed men, fifty-three muskets, ten pistols, a keg of gunpowder and ammunition. To avoid inciting the mob, the sheriff decided not to remove the armaments, and the search party stayed in the church. Just after midnight, July 6, Major General Patterson ordered a company of city guards to clear the streets. After the crowd dispersed, the arms found within the church were removed.

Later that day, around noon, the crowds returned to St. Philip Neri's Church. General George Cadwalader ordered the crowds to disperse, but they did not. By the evening, the sheriff had arrived with a 150 member posse. Three cannons were stationed on the streets. The soldiers cleared the streets near the church, as the mob hurled rocks at them. In response to the rock throwers, General Cadwalader ordered a cannon to be fired at the crowd on Third Street. By the morning of July 7, most of the soldiers had left, but the crowds returne. The crowds grew, and a cannon was brought from a nearby wharf and used to threaten the church. After securing the release of one prisoner, the mob attacked the church, damaging a wall with the cannon. A second cannon was brought from the wharfs and fired at the church, after which the mob pelted the building with rocks and broke in through a side door. The soldiers fired on the men breaking into the church, who promptly retreated. This incited the mob further. The mob forced its way into the church, causing extensive damage to the interior.
By the evening, a large number of soldiers arrived with orders to clear the streets, only to be met by more rocks. After a captain was attacked, the order was given to fire on the mob, which resulted in seven fatalities and nine injuries. Fighting broke out between the soldiers and the mob and it lasted for several hours, with the soldiers being fired upon from alleyways and the windows of nearby buildings. The soldiers brought in two cannons of their own and fired on the mob; the mob returned fire using their own cannons, armed with items such as nails, chains, knives and broken bottles. In an attempt to capture the mob's cannons, soldiers charged one cannon's position, only to be knocked off their horses by a rope tied across the street. The cannons were all eventually captured, and by early morning on July 8, the fighting had ended.

At least fifteen people, including rioters and soldiers, were killed in the riot, and at least fifty people were injured. On Governor Porter's orders, state troops continued to arrive in the city in the days afterwards, but there was no further violence. An estimated 5,000 militia were used to stop violence. Troops began to withdraw from the city on July 10, and the church took over responsibility from the district of Southwark of protecting the church on July 11. Once again, a grand jury blamed the Irish Catholics for the riots, but this time they supported the military's response to the violence.

The riots became an issue in the 1844 U.S. Presidential election. James K. Polk and the Democratic Party condemned the growing Native American Party and the Whig Party, which the Democrats accused of being involved in the Nativist movement. In Philadelphia, the Native American Party ended up making a strong showing in the city's October election. In New York City, there were fears nativists would target New York City's Catholic churches. Archbishop John Hughes organized defenders for the churches.

Polk carried Pennsylvania and New York in the election, in part due to the support of a number of immigrants, and Irish Catholic voters. Polk won both states, in the case of Pennsylvania, by less than two percent, and in New York, by one percent. Democrats were able to associate Henry Clay and the Whigs with the Nativist cause, in the minds of many of the Catholic voters.


After the riots, Bishop Kenrick ended his efforts to influence the public education system and pressed for the creation of Catholic schools, In the next sixteen years, 17 such schools were founded. The friars of the Church of St. Augustine sued the city of Philadelphia for not providing the church with adequate protection, claiming $80,000 in damages. The city argued that the friars could not claim their civil rights were violated, as the Order of St. Augustine was a foreign organization under the Pope. The Augustinians ended up successful, but receiving an award of only $45,000. The church was rebuilt in 1848.