Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

"Nativism," "Nationalism," and "Americanism": We've Seen It All Before

 Lewis Chas. Levin (1808-1860)

Lewis Chas. Levin (1808-1860)

Note: In the final days leading up to Tuesday’s midterm elections, the POTUS has reverted to the political witch’s brew he firmly believes got him elected two years ago: three parts hatred of immigrants, two parts abject fear and five parts outright lies seasoned with Nativism, Nationalism and appeals to Americanism. Sorry to report, but King Solomon, employing the nom de plume “Kohelet” was right: “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Using immigration and fear of the alien as a wedge issue - if not foundational building block - of a political movement, is nothing new. American demagogues have been being playing off the same script since virtually the beginning of our nation’s history. This week, let’s meet one of the most prominent - if not most self-deluded - of these anti-immigration, pro-nativist folks, Lewis Charles Levin - preacher, publisher, lawyer, Congressional Representative and ultimate “Know Nothing.” What follows comes largely from my book The Jews of Capitol Hill (©2011, Rowman & Littlefield)


In the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, Koheleth, the self‑named author, states a profound truth: “What has been will be, and what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” [Eccles. 1:9]. Koheleth’s verity, which extends to both the political and the religious realm, might well serve as the epitaph for Pennsylvania’s Charles Lewis Levin, the second Jew to serve in Congress. For the major issue that obsessed Levin and made his brief moment in the political spotlight possible has resurfaced time and again. In Levin’s day, it was called “Nativism.” Toward the end of the nineteenth century, it was termed “Populism.” In the second half of the 20th century, it went under the name “White Supremacy”, or as one historian termed it, “the cult of national patriotism.”  Today, it is largely subsumed in the often-rancorous debate over “Immigration Reform.”  Indeed, it was a major issue in the 2008 presidential campaign. And today, in 2018, the national Republican base believes it is the single-most important issue . . . at least when it comes to getting their loyalists to the polls.

The issues Levin raised in the Twenty‑ninth, Thirtieth, and Thirty‑first Congresses – prayer and Bible-reading in public schools, keeping America free of foreign influence, strengthening moral values – are still being raised and debated on the House floor in the early 21st century.

Equal parts crusading moral zealot, paranoid conspiratorialist, spellbinding orator, and agitating dogmatist, Levin fashioned a barely coherent political philosophy that sought nothing less than “the attainment and preservation of America’s `national character.’” As he declared early in his first congressional term, “I go for everything American in contradistinction to everything foreign.” In the end, he proved himself remarkably unsuccessful in achieving his goal.

From the way Lewis Levin railed against paupers, drunks, Catholics, and those who “had not been sufficiently long in the country to have lost the odor of . . . steerage,” one might have taken him for some priggish Back Bay snob. Far from it. Although little is known about his antecedents or early life, it is clear that Lewis Charles Levin was the son of Jewish parents. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, on November 10, 1808, Levin spent the first sixteen years of his life growing up in a city that was home to early-nineteenth-century America’s largest Jewish population – somewhere between 600 and 700. From his later actions, it is clear that for the majority of his life, Levin felt like an outsider and tried desperately to escape from his Jewish past. Although there is no concrete evidence that he ever formally converted to another religion, he did become an advocate of Protestantism and married two non‑Jewish women, Anna Hays and Julia Gist.  

Levin graduated from South Carolina College [University of South Carolina] in 1824. Beset with wanderlust, he spent the next fifteen years earning a precarious living as an itinerant Christian preacher and teacher, settling variously in Maryland, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi. He also found the time to “read law,” and was admitted to practice in several states. In 1839 or 1840, Levin – at the time married to Anna Hays of Kentucky – moved to Philadelphia, which, notwithstanding his disaffiliation, was then home to some 1,600 Jews.

In 1842, Lewis Levin purchased a newspaper, which he called the Temperance Advocate. For the teacher/preacher/lawyer/cum budding journalist and politician, the subject of temperance was an early passion. His speeches and articles against the evils of drink brought him to the attention of like‑minded souls; in 1843, he was elected president of the Pennsylvania Temperance Society. In this capacity, Levin continued speaking out against drink, the stage, and anything that in his estimation led to moral debasement.  Like a fire-and-brimstone preacher, he distrusted man’s natural impulses. Without discipline and self‑control, he feared, American society would collapse beneath the weight of its immorality.

Levin sold the Temperance Advocate in 1843 and purchased a larger paper, the Daily Sun. Now he added the evil of foreign influences to his arsenal. Levin was not alone in disparaging foreigners. In the 1840s, America began playing host to its first great wave of European immigrants.  Many of these new arrivals were Irish Catholics, victims of the great Potato Famine. Their arrival served to fan the flames of dislocation, uncertainty, and religious intolerance. As a result, many Americans, looking for scapegoats, became attracted to the burgeoning “nativist” movement. This movement, which would eventually coalesce into a national political party, sought to identify and promote a purely American ethos. Foreigners, particularly Irish Catholics, became easy targets in a highly confusing time. Levin took this antipathy toward foreigners, and molded a paranoiac fantasy: the monarchs of Europe were plotting to take over America by means of the spiritual influence of the Catholic Church. In an article he wrote in his Daily Sun, Levin claimed that the crowned heads of Europe were planning,

 [To] people the country with Catholic immigrants, in order to provide for the contingency so patriotically prayed for . . . of our government changing to a monarchy---whereby his holiness [the Pope] will have a King ready, sprinkled with holy water, to mount the throne in the name of Catholic liberty!

 A Typical anti-Catholic Cartoon of the 1840s

A Typical anti-Catholic Cartoon of the 1840s

In 1844, Levin published a broadside entitled A Lecture on Irish Repeal, in Elucidation of the Fallacy of Its Principles and in Proof of Its Pernicious Tendency in the Moral, Religious, and Political Aspects. In it, he attacked both the Irish “Repeal” movement [the fight for the repeal of Ireland’s union with England and Scotland] and its leader, Daniel O’Connell. Levin claimed that in creating Repeal Clubs throughout America, O’Connell [1775-1847] and his followers were, in reality, establishing beachheads for an eventual Papal takeover of America. Levin claimed that he had uncovered “a nefarious plot to debauch and contaminate the institutions of the United States and to set up a monarchy.” His pen dripping with vitriol, Levin concluded, “The Irish Catholic vote is to be organized to overthrow American liberty. The extensive ramifications of Repeal Clubs have suddenly become affiliated societies, to carry out the intentions of His Holiness, the Pope!”

Fueled mainly by the diatribes of journalists, propagandists, and pamphleteers like Levin, the nativist movement continued to grow. In the mid-1840’s, a new political faction variously called the “Native American Party,” “American Republicans,” or the “Know Nothings,” came into existence. Wherever and whenever they held their conventions, violence against Catholics and Catholic churches was sure to follow. The party attracted followers by raising the fear that immigrants posed a concrete threat to the American way of life. When Levin and his allies added the issue of Bible in the public schools, their ranks swelled dramatically. One plank of the Native American Party’s platform boldly proclaimed:    

 We maintain that the Bible, without note or comment, is not sectarian – that it is the fountainhead of morality and all good government and should be used in our public schools as a reading book.

The Bible to which the Nativists referred was, of course, the King James [Protestant] version, which, they claimed, the Catholics wanted excluded from the schools. Levin’s diatribes to the contrary, this was simply not the case. As one Catholic bishop of the time stated, “I do not object to the use of the Bible provided Catholic children be allowed to use their own version.” Levin retorted that the King James Bible was actually a nonsectarian book! He and his Nativist allies pushed for what they called “Bible Education” – a program of learning that would inculcate proper moral values and promote Americanism. Underlying all this was, of course, an implied attack on the Catholic Bible, the Catholic Church, and Catholics in general. Although the Nativists attracted numerous followers, their appeal remained largely among a narrow segment of society. With regard to the Catholic-versus- Protestant-Bible issue, one contemporary observer wryly noted, “A large majority of the Protestants who fought out the question of reading the Bible in the public schools . . . would not have known the difference between the Protestant and the Catholic Bible if it had been placed in their hands.”

 The Burning of St. Michael’s Church

The Burning of St. Michael’s Church

In July 1844, Levin was indicted by a grand jury for inciting to riot. He made political capital by claiming that he had actually tried to stem the violence, which had taken place in Philadelphia’s Southwark district.  Moreover, he claimed, the indictment was part of a “Popish plot.” His name prominently before the public, Lewis Charles Levin declared his candidacy on the American Party ticket for Congress from Pennsylvania’s First District. During the three‑man campaign, Levin kept hammering away at the “pernicious foreigner” issue. His standard stump‑speech message from 1844 sounds hauntingly familiar even after more than a century and three-quarters: “Unless a remedy be found to impede the influx of foreigners in the United States, the day [will] not be distant when American‑born voters find themselves a minority in their own land.” Largely on the strength of this message and his public notoriety, Levin captured the First District seat. Shortly after the election, he stood trial on the charge of “riot, treason and murder.” He was found not guilty.

Levin served three terms in Congress, during which he became one of the least popular men on Capitol Hill. In speech after speech, Levin subjected his colleagues to rancorous attacks on the Catholic Church. Whenever a member of the House would challenge him or take him to task, Levin would simply accuse his antagonists of being a “paid agent of the Jesuits who hang around this Hall.” At one point Levin attempted to win Southern support for the American Party by claiming that the abolitionist movement was inspired by the Pope and his agents. Most Southerners, offended by Levin’s bravado and naked political opportunism, turned away in disgust.

  It has long been a truism in Congress that the best way to succeed on Capitol Hill is to make oneself an expert on a single issue or area of interest – farm price supports, foreign policy, defense, etc. For Levin, given his unique political pathology, that area of expertise, not surprisingly, was immigration and naturalization. Levin proposed changing the naturalization law to require a residence period of twenty‑one years in order to qualify for American citizenship. Moreover, he pushed a concept he called “federal citizenship,” whereby the federal government would be granted the exclusive right to determine qualifications for voting. After a prolonged and rancorous debate, the House concluded that Levin’s proposal was unconstitutional; it usurped the clearly enumerated right of the individual states to set voting qualifications.

Levin’s psychopathic hatred of immigrants was so great that he opposed a bill setting minimum passenger-space requirements for transatlantic ships bearing newcomers to America. The bill’s sponsor, New York Representative George Rathbun (best-known for being one of the few Congressman who have ever gotten into a fistfight with a colleague on the House floor), argued that current overcrowded conditions on the ships were “a revolting spectacle, a disgrace not only to our laws and our country, but to humanity itself.” In speaking out against Rathbun’s proposal, Levin sarcastically suggested that the legislation be amended to read “A bill to afford additional facilities to the paupers and criminals of Europe to emigrate to the United States.” Levin’s diatribe notwithstanding, Rathbun’s bill passed overwhelmingly.

Levin and his political allies attempted to turn their Nativist faction into a national political party but met with little success. Levin easily dominated the Native American Party’s three national conventions, held in 1845, `46, and `47. The party’s demise can largely be blamed on Levin himself. By resolutely demanding that “birth upon the soil be the only requisite for citizenship,” Levin caused an irrevocable split among his nativist colleagues. By 1848, the Native American Party was finished as a political force. Predictably, Levin was easily defeated for reelection to a fourth term in 1850, and returned to Philadelphia, where he took up the practice of law.

In the last years of his life, Levin’s tenuous mental makeup got the best of him. He spent at least the last three or four years of his life as a patient in hospitals for the insane in Baltimore and Philadelphia. Lewis Charles Levin died in Philadelphia on March 14, 1860 at age fifty-one, thus ending both a tortured life and a sorry chapter in American political history. Levin was buried in the nondenominational Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. His wife, Julia, tried to raise funds for a monument to his memory, but someone connected with the campaign absconded with the funds. To this day, no tombstone graces Levin’s final resting place. Ironically, Julia Gist Levin and Louis Levin [his son] converted to Catholicism in 1880.

In the spring of 1921, Congress went back to the issue of immigration, this time considering a bill that would establish a national quota system. Under  terms of this system, the number of immigrants in one year from any given country could not exceed 3 percent of the number of persons of that nationality residing in the United States in the base year of 1910. What infuriated Congressman Adolph Sabath (a Hungarian-born Jewish representative from Illinois) was that the bill's supporters kept referring to it publicly as temporary emergency legislation, but privately agreed that once enacted, it would become permanent. Sabath introduced an amendment to exempt all political refugees. It was rejected.

Less than three years later, Congress enacted the National Origins Act, which not only excluded virtually all immigrants from East Asia, but also lowered quotas to 2 percent based on the 1890 census. The act was, without question, slanted in favor of immigrants from Northwestern Europe. In their minority report, Adolph Sabath and his colleague Samuel Dickstein (a Polish-born Jewish Representative from New York best known for being the father of the House Un-American Activities Committee) condemned the obvious bias behind this disparity:

 It is curious to note that, taking the census of 1890 as a basis, Germany would be comparatively in the most favorable position, and Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Yugoslavia, Poland and Russia, with whom we were allied during the late conflict, are the most unfavorable. The obvious purpose of this discrimination is the adoption of an unfounded anthropological theory that the nations which are favored are the progeny of hitherto unsuspected Nordic ancestors, while those discriminated against are not classified as belonging to that mythical ancestral stock. No scientific evidence worthy of consideration was introduced to substitute this pseudo‑scientific proposition.

It was not until 1965, during the Lyndon Johnson administration, that Representative Emmanuel Celler finally got Congress to “get that idea (national origins) ripped out of the immigration fabric” by passing the Celler-Hart Immigration Act.  Although the final bill did not call for any significant increase in the then-current annual immigration level of 300,000, it did eliminate altogether – and forthwith – the old national quotas framework.   Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson at a dramatic ceremony held at Ellis Island in New York harbor, it marked the end of a long – and often lonely – crusade.

But regrettably, Levin and the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings are back with a vengeance. Indeed, there is “nothing new under the sun . . .”

Copyright©2011, 2018 Kurt F. Stone