State's First Major Wave Of Foreigners Widely Seen As A Threat
By CHRISTOPHER HOFFMAN, Special to the CourantThe Hartford Courant
7:24 a.m. EDT, June 22, 2014
Tensions between Irish immigrants and anti-immigrant nativists nearly exploded into violence during newly elected Connecticut Gov. William T. Minor's May 1855 inaugural parade.
A month earlier, Minor and his fellow Know-Nothing Party candidates had won a resounding electoral victory on an openly anti-Irish, anti-Catholic platform. Among Minor's campaign promises: Disband Irish militia units.
As marchers formed up for the parade, one of those units, the Emmett Guards of Hartford, found itself facing a New Haven-based Know-Nothing group called the Order of United Americans. The militia asked the group to break ranks to let it through. The nativists refused.
Roman Catholicism Executive Branch Government New Haven (New Haven, Connecticut) Wars and Interventions Discrimination Republic of Ireland Slavery Griswold New London (New London, Connecticut) New York City Norwich Stamford Ku Klux Klan Derby "The marshals of the O.U.A. immediately replied that they would never divide their ranks to let an Irish military company through," the group responded, according to a letter to the editor of The Hartford Courant.
The Irish nonetheless pushed their way past, and the two groups nearly came to blows.
In its letter, the group damned the Irish militia members as "ignorant and degraded foreigners, who desire to rule or ruin the land of their adoption." The letter went on to petition Minor to disband the company "before they have another opportunity to caricature and insult American citizens."
The ugly incident typified the prejudice, demonization and outright hatred the Irish faced during the 1840s and 1850s when they began arriving in Connecticut in large numbers. The backlash peaked with the election of Minor and the Know-Nothings, who not only carried out their promise to disband Irish militias, but also restricted voting rights, wrested control of Catholic Church property from its hierarchy and called for waits of up to 21 years for citizenship.
"The people of Connecticut felt very threatened," much as many Americans today feel threatened by immigrants, said Neil Hogan, historian for the Connecticut Irish American Historical Society. "They felt [the Irish] were dirty. They were Catholics, which was a bad mark against them. They were criminals. It's pretty much exactly [the kind of attitudes] you have today."
Small numbers of Irish had been in Connecticut since its founding, attracting little attention or controversy. Records show a smattering of Cotters, Kellys and Rileys in New London, Milford and other towns as early as the 1630s.
In the early 19th century, Irish immigrants began arriving in larger numbers to work on the Enfield and Farmington canals and the state's first railroads. Irish communities sprang up in New Haven, Hartford and other cities.
Religion was an especially tricky matter for the new arrivals. Early 19th-century Connecticut was an intolerant place. In spite of the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom, Congregationalism remained the state's official faith until 1818. Connecticut's old-line Yankees were deeply suspicious of Episcopalians and Baptists and outright hostile to Catholics.
An Irish priest got a taste of Connecticut's religious bigotry in 1827 when he asked the city fathers if he could say mass in a New Haven church.
"We have no popery now in New Haven, and we don't want any," he was told, according to a curriculum guide produced by the University of Connecticut School of Education.
The state's growing Irish Catholic population finally got its first church in 1829, Holy Trinity in Hartford.
In the late 1840s, the slow trickle of Irish immigration turned into a flood after a fungus destroyed Ireland's potato crop. The resulting famine killed a million people and sent another million fleeing overseas, many of them to America. An estimated 50,000 Irish immigrants settled in Connecticut between the late 1840s and 1860, transforming what had once been one of the union's most homogenous states.
Their arrival coincided with Connecticut's rise as an industrial giant. The new arrivals quickly found jobs in the state's booming factories. They also built railroads and labored in Portland's famous brownstone quarries, while Irish women worked as domestic servants and washerwomen.
Although work was easy to find, it was often dirty, dangerous and poorly paid. In 1849, journalist Rufus W. Griswold, writing in his New England Weekly Gazette, recounted the horrendous living conditions, exploitation and poor pay endured by Irish immigrant laborers toiling on the Willimantic and Harford railroad.
"Such misery, such squalor, such wretchedness ... we never before beheld," Griswold wrote of the workers' shanties.
Sympathetic to the immigrants' plight, Griswold mocked the callous attitude of many Connecticut natives at the time.
"A 'paddy' — who cares for a 'paddy' — He might as well be killed; there are enough more of them left," he wrote.
As the 1850s wore on, the Irish began to acquire citizenship and vote. They usually backed the Democratic Party, which incensed old-line Yankees because of the party's tolerance of slavery and opposition to restrictions on alcohol. Many came to view Irish Catholic voters as an existential threat to the state's democratic traditions, dominant culture and Protestantism. Catholics, so the bigoted belief went, were required to vote as their priests told them and would use the ballot box to subvert democracy and impose their religion.
Local newspapers, including The Courant and the New Haven Palladium, endorsed and stoked such fears and misinformation.
"The individual votes as the priest dictates," The Courant wrote in an 1855 editorial entitled "Can a Romish Priest be a True American Citizen?" "The final extinction of the heresy of Protestantism in free America by management of the ballot box is the object of all ranks from pope on down."
In complaints similar to those heard today, the state's nativists also accused Irish immigrants of using too many social services, while also saying they took jobs from Americans.
'I Know Nothing'
As the decade progressed, hysteria over Irish immigration exploded, spawning a new secretive political organization that called itself the American Party. Members were told to say "I know nothing" when asked about the party's activities, prompting the famous New York City newspaper editor Horace Greeley to christen them "Know-Nothings."
The party's bigotry was open and unabashed. Its goals, according to its constitution, were to "resist the Church of Rome and all foreign influences" and to assure that "none but native-born Protestant citizens" occupied elected and appointed offices.
The Know-Nothings arrived in Connecticut in 1853. Within a year, they had 169 lodges and 22,000 members in the state. In the election of 1855, the Know-Nothings fielded a full slate pledging harsh measures against the Irish and won a decisive victory.
In his inaugural address, Minor, the Know-Nothing governor and a Stamford resident, said that the "pernicious influence" of immigration "has excited just alarm of our citizens." He warned that many of the newcomers were "blind followers of an ecclesiastical despotism'' — a clear reference to the Catholic Church — rendering them unfit for republican government.
In response, Minor proposed, and the legislature enacted, a series of discriminatory laws. Voters were now required to be able to read at least part of the state constitution, and control of Catholic Church property was handed over to lay councils.
But Minor's most controversial action was to seek the disbandment of six Irish militia units, enraging the Irish community. Such units "are believed to be detrimental to the military interest of the state," he said.
The units had been formed out of pride and a wish to serve their new country, but nativists saw them as a possible source of sedition, historian Hogan said.
"It was taken as a very dangerous thing to have these Irish walking around with weapons and drilling," Hogan said.
Minor succeeded in abolishing the units, two from New Haven and one each from Hartford, Derby, Norwich and Bridgeport, but not before he had to fire the adjutant general, who refused to carry out the order. Even as he railed against immigrant military units, the governor allowed a German militia to remain intact.
When Minor ran for re-election the next year — governors faced the voters every year at the time — The Courant, which had endorsed another slate in 1855, backed him and his party.
The election, the paper editorialized, pitted "the genuine American, hard-working, self-governing, law-abiding," against "green clod-hoppers" from "every rumhole, every nest of the Irish." Native-born Protestants should set aside their differences and band together against the state's Irish Catholic immigrants, "the hucksters of Rum, Romanism and Slavery," the paper urged.
Minor won re-election, but the anti-immigrant legislation of the previous year proved the high water mark of Know-Nothingism in Connecticut. By 1857, Minor was out of his office and the Know-Nothing party in steep decline. The growing crisis over slavery soon overtook immigration concerns, and many Know-Nothings, including Minor, joined the new Republican Party.
With the Civil War approaching, Gov. William Buckingham, needing military manpower and know-how, revived the state's Irish militias in 1861, including the Ninth or "Irish" Regiment, which fought with distinction throughout the conflict.
"Things like the war helped," Hogan said. "Thousands [of Irish] enlisted. Gradually over time, the old Yankee elements kind of got to realize that the Irish were not very much of a threat and were good."
In 1881, just 26 years after the Know-Nothing takeover of the Capitol, Connecticut elected its first governor of Irish descent, Thomas M. Waller of New London, Hogan said.
While prejudice against the Irish diminished, it did not disappear. A November 1900 Courant ad seeking "a competent girl or middle-aged woman" for domestic work stipulated that "no Irish need apply." In the 1920s, religious bigotry flared anew when Ku Klux Klan membership exploded in the state, as it did nationwide.
Today, few states are as green as Connecticut. People of Irish descent make up nearly one-fifth of the state's population, one of the highest percentages in the nation. Four of the state's last eight governors have been of Irish ancestry, including the current governor, Dannel P. Malloy, and John Dempsey, who was born in the Emerald Isle.
The Knights of Columbus, the world's largest Catholic fraternal organization, founded in 1882 by a priest whose parents emigrated from Ireland, is based in New Haven. Connecticut's many St Patrick's Day parades are among the state's most popular annual events.
Once reviled as aliens who threatened democracy, Connecticut's citizens of Irish descent are today deeply woven into the fabric of the state's life and culture.