Protestant America, especially the sort with a Puritan pedigree, had a long folk memory of Catholic misdeeds. The fact that Protestants back in the Reformation behaved just as monstrously toward Catholics as Catholics did toward Protestants did not really enter into it. The Catholics, they believed, had it coming. Liberal-minded immigrants fleeing the reactionary crackdown in Europe could remind Americans of an older vintage of just that and supply new reasons that those awful thralls of Rome deserved steadfast opposition.
America, of course, already had native Catholics. But their small numbers, outside of certain locales, did little to draw Protestant fears. Louisiana stood no chance of somehow seizing control of national institutions for itself and the Pope. All of these new immigrants, however, could very well turn New York, or Massachusetts for that matter, Catholic. Would it stop there or would the whole nation soon bow, or be made to bow, to Rome?
The Know-Nothings’ fears had a great deal to do with simple bigotry, but they could point to more than phantoms to make their case. The Catholic church did, by and large, side with established reactionary regimes instead of liberal reformers over in Europe. Nor did anybody look to the Papal States, where the Pope ruled outright on all matters civil and spiritual, as a model of liberal principles. In countries where Catholicism predominated, both in Europe and the Americas, it did little to endear itself to unbelievers. Allen Nevins reports that in the Senate, Lewis Cass (D-MI) condemned the treatment of Protestants in Catholic countries, near and far. He highlighted two cases in particular:
An American woman died in Cuba, which had no place to bury her. Protestant bodies would not sully Catholic cemeteries. For her, the community offered only a hole in the ground where the mortal remains of Protestants heaped on top of each other like a human compost pile. Burying her elsewhere would earn the guilty parties a hefty fine. Taking her from the island required permission that rarely came and would itself involve a large fine.
In the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Catholic regime afflicted the living as well as the dead. The Madiais, a married couple, rotted in a Tuscan prison for the crime of owning a Protestant Bible. Archbishop Hughes, of New York, defended Tuscany to Cass. The Grand Duchy had laws against this sort of thing. It had an established religion and prohibited wooing its subjects away from that faith. He would not quite defend the arrest itself, but changed the subject to the burning of a convent in Massachusetts.
With oppression abroad, local churchmen making excuses for it, and the tide of new Catholic immigrants, a person of a certain bent could see the nation easily going the wrong way. Right here in the United States, Irish parades had turned into riots. The Irish, a nineteenth century American could say with confidence, just did that kind of thing. Drunken hoodlums to a man, they menaced the person and property of every godly Protestant American. Fools as well, one could depend on them to riot at the drop of a demagogue’s hat. Moreover, they came dirty and full of disease. This European detritus clogged up the prison and poorhouse alike. Did America really want still more? Even if, by some miracle, they did not imperil the Republic with their Catholic ways, they demonstrated again and again unfit for and unworthy of inclusion in the American body politic.
Of course, native-born Americans could also show strong clannish streaks. They rioted quite often, generally in the same cities where the Irish did. Their ancestors too came with strange ways and alien religions. Past generations had driven Quakers from New England and, a bit later, out of the South. More recently, they had driven the Mormons west with great enthusiasm. Plenty of Americans, right up until 1854, would gladly tell you that abolitionists had the same pedigree of dangerous religious fanaticism. Some still would. More than enough, including those tarred with the same brush in past generations, would eagerly deploy the same arguments all over again against immigrants from “the armpit of Europe”, from Asia, from Latin America, from Muslim countries, and from anywhere else. Some segment of the American population appears to hold it as an article of faith that people come to the United States only to recreate every horror they knew on foreign shores.