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The New England Identitarians:
A Study in Long-Term Ethnic Activism

[1]3,833 words

Colonial-stock American culture consists of several different groups. Those in the South are the ones most often discussed: they are the Scots Irish, located in the highlands; the Tidewater aristocrats located in Maryland, southern Delaware, and the eastern portions of Virginia and North Carolina; and the plantation culture of the Deep South, which begins in Charlestown, South Carolina and extends westward into eastern Texas. The South has a great deal of romance, and its culture is steeped in race realism. White Southerners also get blamed for America’s racial problems, and there is a sense on the Right that we should love them if only for the enemies they’ve made.

In many ways, though, Southern culture isn’t all that unique. The traditional Southern plantation economy is really just a better-run version of social forms that are common to many places, cultures, and times. Latifundium plantations abounded in ancient Roman-ruled Sicily, the Ottoman Empire, Russia, feudal France, and still exist today in Latin America. This means a small, wealthy landowning elite that rules over a large group of landless serfs or slaves. Southern racial awareness is also not particularly surprising. If one is ruling a large group of black slaves prone to misbehavior who could revolt at any moment, it is quite natural for every thought, law, and action to be in some way influenced by racial awareness.

On the other hand, Northern identity politics is a great deal more interesting. This article will argue that Northern whites with roots in the area, especially colonial New England, also played an identity politics game. They played the game well enough that one could say this group won a tolerable series of victories over a span of ninety-four years. It should be instructive for white advocates to see what they did and apply it to future efforts. The Yankees’ identity politics game started around the year 1830.

In 1830, New Englanders and those in their western extensions on the frontier were politically isolated, and had been so since Thomas Jefferson’s presidential administration. David Hackett Fischer sums the situation up best in a chapter of his book Albion’s Seed titled “The Jeffersonian Coalition: Virginia, Pennsylvania and the Backcountry against New England.”[1] [2] This was a big step down for the North. During the War of Independence, New Englanders had won a great many overwhelming victories and freed themselves from British rule by 1777. Victory in New England led to victory elsewhere.

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Western settlements of New Englanders in 1830 in yellow. Other Anglo-American settlements are in gray.

The North’s loss of national prominence and its control of the federal government occurred due to several missteps. The Federalist Party was the Yankees’ political expression at the time, and was descended from the Puritan Great Migration to Massachusetts between 1630 and 1635. To be a Federalist meant to be an Anglo of New English ancestry, and most likely a Congregationalist – a “Yankee” in the strictest sense of the word. Federalists were not able to make any inroads into their natural allies among the Germans and Quakers in Pennsylvania (“Yankees” in the looser sense of the word).

Additionally, while New Englanders had won the Midwest from Great Britain following independence, they failed to appreciate Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase. On that count, one can say that the Federalists were on the wrong side of history. During the War of 1812, New England participated, but only grudgingly so. For example, Massachusetts greatly expanded its state militia, but never fielded this massive army. When the Madison administration won two spectacular victories over the British in the final months of the conflict, New England and the Federalists appeared to be unpatriotic defeatists with little vision. Their lack of large-scale participation in the war’s campaigns meant that New England had no national-level hero such as Tennessee’s Andrew Jackson.

Thus in 1830, those of the North could see that they were in trouble. Yankee identitarians had three problems:

  1. They lacked political organization following the collapse of the Federalist Party. Yankee political expression was poorly transmitted through the only political party that was still around – the Democratic-Republican Party. (Called then the Republican Party, the name has been retroactively changed by historians to avoid confusion.)
  2. Increasing Roman Catholic immigration, especially from Ireland. Yankees at the time viewed this as a mortal threat.
  3. The South’s slavery system was expanding and controlled the federal government.
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The results for the Northern Whig Party in the presidential election in 1836, orange indicating Harrison voters and red, Webster voters. These results are a good proxy for the location of Americans who originated in either colonial New England or the Quaker hearth in the Delaware Valley.

Organizing Politically: The Free Soil Party, Whigs, and Know Nothings

Northerners had no real party of their own after the Federalists collapsed. One began to organize around those in politics who disliked Andrew Jackson,[2] [5] and became known as the Whig Party. If the party had an ideology, it could be described as “cuckservative.” Only four US presidents were Whigs, and of those four, only two were elected in their own right. The other two were vice presidents who succeeded to the presidency after their respective presidents died.

By 1836, it was clear that the Whig Party had no ideas, no loyal base, and no center of gravity. That year’s election saw four different Whig candidates run for President. The Northern Whigs voted for William Henry Harrison, while those in Massachusetts voted for Daniel Webster. A party which stands for nothing will eventually be replaced by parties that do stand for something, and in the 1840s, two parties emerged that eventually allowed for the effective political organization of the Yankees.

The first party that should be mentioned is the Free Soil Party. They only ran presidential candidates in two election cycles: 1848 and 1852. The Free Soil Party’s only issue was to oppose the expansion of slavery. It drew its membership from anti-slavery “Conscious” Whigs, anti-slavery “Barn-burner” Democrats, and a small, pro-Constitution abolitionist political grouping called the Liberty Party. The Free Soil Party didn’t win any presidential elections, but it did win two seats in the US Senate and fourteen in the House.

The second party with serious ideas between 1830 and 1865 was the American Party. It is often called the “Know Nothing” Party because it grew out of a series of American anti-immigrant lodges whose members were told to say they “knew nothing” of the internal workings of their organization. More about them will be explored below. Suffice to say that the Know Nothings also helped bring down the hapless Whig Party.

When the Republican Party was formed, Know Nothings had an important influence at the 1860 Republican Convention in Chicago. Although Abraham Lincoln was not a Know Nothing, his views on immigration were unknown to that faction of the Republicans who came from the American Party. This was in contrast to William Seward, the Republican Party’s initial frontrunner for the nomination. Seward was known to be unsympathetic to Nativism; as a result, Lincoln won the nomination.

After 1860, the Republican Party became the Yankees’ political expression. To become viable in the 1860 election, though, it had had to win over the Midland Quakers and the small Protestant sects supported by the Quakers, as well as those Germans whose origins were in Pennsylvania. They were helped by their message of good works in the here and now. Thus ended New England’s isolation by the Jeffersonian coalition:

. . . as tensions built over the extension of slavery to Missouri, Kansas, and other new states and territories. Midland opinion began to splinter along doctrinal lines. Religious groups whose beliefs emphasized the need to redeem the world through good works, moral reforms, or utopian experiments found common ground with the Yankees, first on slavery, and later on efforts to curb alcoholism, blasphemous speech, and antisocial behaviors; this led Dutch Calvinists, German Sectarians, Swedish Lutherans, Northern Methodists, Free Will Baptists, and General Synod German Lutherans to embrace the Republican Party.[3] [6]

Identitarians of New England origins did get politically reorganized after the fall of the Federalists, but there was a price to be paid: they were not able to abolish slavery without a disastrous and bloody war. Many of the negative consequences of that war persist today. They also took into their party the crony-capitalist, grift-seeking politicians who were common among the ranks of the Northern Whigs. Even today, the Republican Party often drifts back to a devil-take-the-hindmost form of reckless capitalism.

The Nativists – From 1830 to 1865

A Nativist backlash should always be considered a symptom of the failure of statesmen to guard against preventable evils. In the context of the period between 1830 and 1865, the problem went back to the Naturalization Act of 1790, which limited citizenship to free white persons of good moral character. Today, this Act is seen by those on the Right as the very model of probity and good government – but this view is wrong. In fact, the 1790 law was too permissive. To fully guard against preventable evils, the founding statesmen of the United States should have allowed naturalization only to free white persons who could easily integrate into the existing American milieu, which was Northwestern European ethnically and Protestant culturally. They should also have banned non-white immigration from abroad entirely. However, hindsight is always perfect.

Americans first discovered the trouble with immigration in the 1830s. One of the first men to sound the alarm was none other than the inventor Samuel Morse, of telegraph fame. Writing under the pen name Brutus, he published the book Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States[4] [7] in 1835. The book held that the Roman Catholic Church was fundamentally opposed to Americans and their concept of liberty.

To fully understand the alarm, one needs to put oneself into the historical frame of the time. In the 1830s, Morse was describing a politically active Catholic Church that was then suppressing republican forms of government in Europe. It was not an unreasonable stretch to infer that the Catholic Church was likewise against American self-government. Perhaps more importantly, in 1830 the Anglo-American view of the Catholic Church was still marked by Europe’s religious wars. The English, Ulster, Swedish, Rhineland, and Dutch pioneers who had founded the colonies had mostly come from the Protestant areas of Europe that had been under threat by Catholic France, Spain, and Austria. Their view of the Catholic Church was that of a globalist, violent, heavily-armed, and conformist institution that had a history of conducting sieges, invasions, hangings, inquisitions, and repressions. They therefore not unreasonably concluded that the Catholics remained hell-bent on their destruction in America as well.

The abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy, who was killed by a mob in Alton, Illinois in 1837, was also an anti-Catholic writer along the same lines as Morse. In Lovejoy’s case, however, he and his fellow Yankee settlers in Illinois were moving into an area which had long-standing Catholic French and Spanish populations who were slaveowners. Lovejoy’s identity politics and his death occurred in an area which became part of the United States due to Anglo-American expansion and conquest. He was also an example of how those with Free Soil sympathies were often Nativists.

The opposite of Lovejoy’s situation in the Mississippi River Valley was the East Coast of the 1840s. There, a large influx of Catholic immigrants felt like an invasion to the natives. The most politically active and organized of these Roman Catholics were the Irish. Clashes over identity flickered up and down the cities of the American Northeast. In 1844, Philadelphia saw a series of street battles between Irish immigrants and natives that culminated in a large riot on June 6-7 of that year. Irish homes were burned by a Nativist mob of thousands, and gunfire was exchanged. Two Roman Catholic churches were burned also, but a Catholic church in the area which had a German congregation was deliberately spared, showing that ethnic tensions superseded religious ones. After the riot, “Irish Catholic immigrants increasingly chose Boston and New York over Philadelphia as a destination. In these instances, notes the historian of the Philadelphia riots, violence achieved ‘tangible results,’ driving the unwanted populations away.”[5] [8]

The American Party gained control over the Massachusetts government in 1854. Once in power, they enacted a great deal of progressive legislation and deported many Irish Catholics elsewhere – New York State was one such place. The party was a national one, and had a significant following in Kentucky and Maryland as well. But it declined for two reasons. The first was that many of its members were abolitionists, so it became overwhelmed by the slavery issue. The second was that it won the immigration battle. Raymond Cohn argues that “the rise in and success of the nativism movement of the early 1850s was the primary reason that immigrant volume fell in 1855, though improved conditions in Europe played a supporting role.”

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As one can see on this graph from Peter Brimelow’s 1995 classic, Alien Nation, the Know Nothing’s main issue ceased to be a problem: immigration started to drop off in the mid-1850s. Know Nothing activities convinced potential immigrants to stay home, and others to go to different places.

The Better Second Act of the Nativists

Some historians estimate that the Irish Catholics took as long as one hundred twenty years to fully assimilate into America. A solid case can be made that the Irish who went to the Western United States assimilated more quickly than those on the East Coast. Their assimilation was really something of a series of lucky breaks for Americans. The situation could have developed to become similar to that of Ireland today, with an economically slack Catholic republic coexisting alongside a part of the United Kingdom that is rife with crime and sectarian violence. The reasons for Irish assimilation were probably the following:

  1. Many Irish deliberately chose to assimilate. Indeed, it was not uncommon for those of Irish Catholic ancestry to convert to Protestantism “on the boat.”
  2. The Yankee Protestants themselves were undergoing a reformation of sorts. When the Congregationalist Church ceased to be Massachusetts’ official religion, a great many new sects, denominations, and movements developed. If one can intellectually move from Congregationalism to Mormonism or another sect, one can also move from Congregationalism to Roman Catholicism.
  3. Those of the Protestant Yankee elite who had a negative encounter with non-whites did not feel that the Irish were the mortal threat that East Coast Protestants made them out to be. For example, Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather was killed by Indians in front of his children, and Lincoln himself served in the Blackhawk War as a Captain in the Illinois militia. He was also nearly beaten and robbed by Negroes while working on a keel boat.
  4. The Irish were genetically identical to old-stock Anglo-Americans.
  5. Both had common enemies: in the West there were the Indians and Chinese coolies. Later, the Communist and Muslim menaces also served to bring Catholics and Protestants closer together.

Immigration from Europe picked up after the Civil War, but much of that immigration consisted of Scandinavians, Northern Germans, and British who quietly reinforced America’s Anglo ethnic core. However, by the turn of the twentieth century, many of these immigrants were from Southern and Eastern Europe. The most troublesome were the Jews.

The nativists returned, but this second act was considerably better executed than the first had been. The new charge was led by Yankees such as Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant, among others. Instead of creating a new political party, they worked to influence both parties simultaneously. Often, they clipped away at the edges of the problem, and made progress in steps. Immigration reformers first cut off immigration from China, then from the rest of Asia. Facilities like Ellis Island were opened to weed out undesirable immigrants. The First World War and the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act then slowed immigration from Europe to a trickle, and it has never resumed. The new nativists also avoided religious questions, approaching the issue from a scientific, political, and secular starting point.

Until the 1965 Immigration Act – which was sponsored by a descendant of 1840s Irish Catholic immigration and Jews – one could say that the Yankee nativists were tolerably successful in dealing with the immigration problem. They did, however, lose something in the process. The 1844 riot in Philadelphia was sparked by the use of Protestant Bibles in public schools – which don’t include the books of the Apocrypha. To avoid such incidents, transmitting culture in America became a more expensive, private matter rather than a cheaper, public one. Yankees and other Anglo-Americans basically stopped caring about Protestantism. Furthermore, if the schools can’t teach a particular version of the Bible due to pressures from an out-group, eventually every form of cultural transmission could be blocked as well as these out-groups increase in number. For example, black activist Jessie Jackson’s push to eliminate Western Civilization classes in universities has its roots in the pattern set by what had happened in Philadelphia in the mid-nineteenth century.

The Fight with the Slave Power

The most important challenge facing New England’s identitarians was the fight against slavery. While this institution does represent white supremacy, it deserves some critical analysis from the viewpoint of the North American New Right. First, while the slave economy made a small political elite wealthy, it had to be subsidized by the state; slave catchers are an example of such a subsidy. Expanding slave territory had to be accomplished through war, which was also a big subsidy. Second, a slave economy has no room for a yeoman class. There are no middle men, small farms cannot compete, industry and inventiveness is sapped by the need to maintain vigilance against revolt, and plantation owners can just as easily buy manufactured goods abroad rather than support domestic industry. Finally, from a Darwinian perspective, slavery increases African reproductive fitness over that of whites. The slave plantations abounded on the best agricultural land in the South. That land could have sustained large white families on small farms for generations, but instead were populated mainly by black slaves. Thus, the slave states were not white ethnostates.

The first serious party to triumph against the slave system was the Free Soil Party. These activists were not head-in-the-clouds Negro-worshipers. Indeed, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was critical of the Free Soil Party due to its “white manism.” The thrust of Free Soil efforts was something akin to creating a white ethnostate with a large middle class. Many of their ideas were enacted during the Civil War, as exemplified by the Homestead Act of 1862.

One must concede that the anti-slavery activists’ achievements were extraordinary. They fought to eliminate a social system that had existed from time immemorial, and their movement was never a majoritarian one; they were essentially a fractious social movement that took over the state and then used state-sanctioned violence to achieve their ends.

The victory of the abolitionists, like the victory of the Nativists in 1860, was a victory, but not a complete one, for the New England identitarians. The lowest common denominator of the anti-slavery crowd was halting slavery’s spread. As the Civil War ground on, the lowest common denominator became abolitionism. This lowest common denominator led to many problems. Americans agreed on ending slavery, but couldn’t unite around a policy to send the blacks back to Africa in 1866, as they could have. Furthermore, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted birthright citizenship to non-whites born in the United  States. Anwar al-Awlaki, the late al-Qaeda terrorist, was a Fourteenth Amendment American.

After slavery’s end, several things happened. In the 1870s, many of the abolitionists became something like white advocates. They all worked to tighten immigration restrictions, and the generation that followed them completed their work in 1924, although they did not restrict immigration from the Western hemisphere. The former abolitionists stopped caring about the freed blacks when black uplift fell apart in the early 1870s. At that time, William Seward, Lincoln’s former abolitionist Secretary of State, called Southern blacks “Hottentots,” and stated frankly that he didn’t care what happened to them. Most of the Western United States became something of a white, Nordic homeland – but the negatives of this partial victory persist and reinforce each other.

These negatives include the fact that plenty of white activists today are still refighting the Civil War and trying to revive the nativist movement when they should be reaching out to their fellow whites. Additionally, the existence of blacks in the United States warps our politics. One political party is indeed dominated by black issues, and fumbling attempts to integrate Sub-Saharans has created all sorts of taboos and deliberate evasions of the truth. Furthermore, the black migration to Northern cities resulted in valuable real estate being reduced to crime-riddled slums. The old headquarters of the Grand Army of the Republic, an association for Union Army Veterans, is now a castle surrounded by ruins.

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The Grand Army of the Republic Headquarters: a monument to a partial victory.

Quo Vadis?

Looking at the dispossessed New Englanders of 1830, one sees remarkable parallels to today’s situation regarding white activists. What they did can be summarized as follows:

Notes

[1] [11] David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 844.

[2] [12] After Andrew Jackson became President in 1828, two new political parties effectively developed. The first centered on Andrew Jackson himself and was basically his creation: the Democratic Party, and it existed in roughly the same form from 1828 until 1968. The second was the Whigs. The Democratic Party’s base was in the South, and it supported (or at least claimed to support) the “little guy.” From the 1840s until the end of the Civil War, the Democratic Party supported slavery and its expansion. After the Civil War, the Democrats continued to be the party of the South, along with Northern Irish Catholics. After 1896, the party adopted new ideas, became viable nationally, and ruled over a prosperous, victorious United States. However, the Party became something new after the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention. This violent convention was the result of the twin disasters of the post-“civil rights” black insurrection and the Vietnam War. This new Democratic Party’s story is still being written.

[3] [13] Colin Woodward, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (Viking Penguin, 2011), Kindle Loc. 3044.

[4] [14] An 1841 reprint of this book is here [15].

[5] [16] John Bicknell, America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion, and the Presidential Election that Transformed the Nation (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2015), p. 246.