Gangs of New York, Nativism, and the American Immigrant Experience

“You see this knife?  I’m gonna to teach you to speak English with this fucking knife!” 

This phrase screamed by Bill “the Butcher” Cutting in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film Gangs of New York reveals the nativist sentiment of 19thcentury New York City.  Those who recall the movie remember that the Butcher styled himself a true born and bred American with a deep hate of immigrants, particularly the Irish who he declares “niggers” in clip above.

Watching Gangs of New York calls to mind the often forgotten challenges Irish immigrants faced once they arrived in the United States; challenges that stands in stark contrast to the glorification of Irish ancestry that occurs in the United States today, especially on St. Patrick’s Day when millions of Americans of Irish and non-Irish decent dawn green clothing to celebrate Irish ancestry.  In fact, the vast majority of Americans probably do not even realize that 19th century Irish immigrants were degraded by white Protestant Americans of English and German decent.  They might even find the language used in the clip above to describe the Irish confusing.  However, 19th century New Yorkers would find the celebration of Irish ancestry today appalling.  The majority considered the Irish a drain on society and their neighborhoods cesspools of sinful activity.  To put it simply, they were hated.

This long arc of Irish-American history is especially important in the United States today when immigration debates concerning Mexican and Latin Americans dominate headlines.  The anti-immigration rhetoric in our current debates compared to that aimed at the Irish in the 19th century demonstrates that this not a recent phenomenon but rather a continuation – aimed at a different ethnicity.  Just as Mexican and Latin Americans are derided by certain segments of American society today, the Irish were denigrated in the 19th century by nativists.  Although political realities are slowly leading to a change in immigration laws, Americans need to remember that anti-immigration sentiments have a long history in the United States and that the debates and arguments of today are not new.  Rather, 21st century Americans selectively forget the vehement anti-Irish sentiments of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the Irish are not alone.  The Italians, Poles, Greeks, and numerous other ethnicities now proudly proclaimed were also once despised.

Scorsese’s film attempts to remind Americans of this forgotten chapter in immigration history by making the anti-immigration attitude aimed at the Irish one of the most salient features of Gangs of New York.  However, while the director reminds the audience of this fact, the importance of anti-immigration history is often overshadowed by the main plot which depicts a Shakespearean drama of dueling factions and a son seeking revenge for his father’s murder, relegating the story of Irish immigration to the background

The character Bill Cutting, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, is based on Bill Poole, a New York City butcher and member of the Know-Nothing Party. The Know-Nothings and other nativist factions were supported by white men born in the United States.  They often held Protestant religious beliefs and at some point included such men as Presidents Millard Fillmore and Ulysses S. Grant.  They viewed the immigration of Catholic Europeans to the United States as detrimental to America’s republic values and campaigned to slow, or even halt, immigration and naturalization.  Although their politics might seem absurd, the Know-Nothings won 75 Congressional seats in 1854.

At a time of increasing immigration to the United States, the nativists decried the arrival of the famed “huddled masses” from countries whose culture they believed differed from the United States.  Specifically, nativists objected to the massive influx of Irish Roman Catholics because they were supposedly “loyal” to the Pope, and if one was loyal to the Pope, one could not be loyal to the United States government.  The Irish were not the only ethnicity derided by the nativists as they also targeted German Catholics, Slavs, Greeks, and Asians.  Nativists believed that these ethnicities were incapable of republicanism because they were Catholic or emigrated from monarchist or authoritarian countries.

The harsh language invoked by nativists begs the question what exactly is American republicanism? Although no formal definition exists, American republicanism rejects aristocracy and inherited political power, and stresses the importance of liberty, independent civic action, and unalienable rights that no majority can remove.  Thus 19th century nativists argued that the Catholics and other immigrants were a threat to the United States because they would support inherited political power (like the Pope or a king) which would negate Americans unalienable rights, rights granted by God.

While these nativist attitudes proved unfounded, these views were derived from a perverted understanding of reality.  Observing the Irish underclass living in New York City, white Americans witnessed a significant increase in prostitution, alcoholism, opium addiction, child abandonment, infanticide, and crime.  Nativists associated this moral decline with the increased Irish population of New York City, a simple correlation.  However, this problem was circuitous.  Ethnic and religious discrimination by white Americans made in difficult for Irish immigrants to better themselves. Unable to improve themselves and with little aid from the wealthy of the city, the Irish lived in almost homogenous neighborhoods while their own errant behavior fed discrimination and nativist sentiment.

Unfortunately, these important cultural, racial, and political themes are rarely addressed in Scorsese’s film.  Nativist sentiments are embodied in the character of the Butcher who regularly derides the Irish.  At one point he jokingly remarks “on the Seventh Day the Lord rested, but before he did, he took a squat over the side of England and what came out of him … was Ireland.”  Although this insult ridicules the Irish, its target is the film’s protagonist, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio).  This is one of the main problems the film has in explaining nativism.  The antagonist, the Butcher, hates Amsterdam.  Amsterdam is Irish.  Therefore, the Butcher also hates the Irish.  There is no discussion of why the Butcher might despise all the Irish, even if Amsterdam did not exist.  Thus the tying of nativism to the films plot distorts the issue rather than clarifying why white Americans hated the Irish.

This distortion creates confusion during the film’s climax when a large gang fight occurs in the Five Points, a now defunct neighborhood in lower Manhattan, where the nativists and the Irish square-off during an actual historical event, the 1863 Civil War draft riots.  The gang fight occurs in the midst of armed Union soldiers and offshore bombing by the Union navy (historically the army doesn’t arrive until the day after the riots, they were too busy fighting in Gettysburg), basically relegating the conflict between the nativists and Irish to a minor brawl in a city-wide battle.  The fight between the nativists and the Irish no longer matters as the meta events of the era, the Civil War, racial tension, and the draft, eclipse the film’s plot.

Although the 1863 draft riots overshadow the film’s climax, they are also an important part of Irish immigration history because the rioters mostly consisted of Irish working-class New Yorkers.  These individuals resented the wealthy man’s ability to avoid the draft by hiring a substitute for $300, giving rise to the phrase “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” (a phrase many still use today during our current wars, 150 years later).  Moreover, the disturbance went from class anger to race riot when the rioters started attacking and killing blacks and destroyed two Protestant churches, abolitionist homes, and a black orphanage.

These targets help to clarify much of the racial and ethnic tensions in 19th New York City.  The mostly Irish rioters attacked wealthy white Protestants and blacks because they perceived these groups as perpetuating their poverty and forcing them to fight a war they did not necessarily want to fight.  The Irish targeted wealthy whites for supporting the war while at the same time avoiding the fighting by hiring poor immigrants, some literally walking off the boat, to take their place in the army.  On the other hand blacks were targeted not only because of racism but also because the Irish thought the war was being fought for the blacks, and thus the blacks were responsible for the Irish being drafted into the war.

Ultimately, Scorsese’s decision to set the film’s culmination during the riots is a major failure as the climax is obscured by the larger unrest racking New York City.  Moreover, DiCaprio’s character, Amsterdam, never espouses any particular views on the war and has a black friend. Why not just let the film play out in the Five Points street fight?  Why recreate the riots when the Civil War and black/white racial tensions barely register in films first two hours?  The riots are important and make good theater, but they detract from the film’s plot.

When Gangs of New York ends, DiCaprio’s character speaks as the audience watches the New York City skyline rapidly develop from the 19th to 21st century world metropolis it is today.  But here again, the closing soliloquy makes no attempt to address the nativism portrayed throughout the film.  Obviously, we know that discrimination towards the Irish subsides and disappears.  The question is how?

Following the Civil War, nativism declined to low simmer mostly because the Irish fought overwhelmingly for the Union:  thirty-eight Union regiments had the word Irish in their title along with the famed Irish Brigade and an estimated 144,000 Union soldiers were from Ireland.

This devotion to the Union cause helped to integrate the Irish into America society; they had proven there support of American republicanism. Moreover, as the historian John Higham shows in his classic study Strangers in the Land, nativism is cyclical – it expands and contracts based on economic and political factors.  In the north, the period after the Civil War saw a return to normality and economic growth as industrialization began spreading from the North East to other parts of the country.  The industrial expansion resulted in economic growth which in turn created jobs for poor immigrants, slowly absorbing them into the broader fabric of America, but not completely.  Not until the mid 20th century does the stigma of the Irish finally wear away.

As nativism is cyclical, the depression of the 1890s precipitated another bought of nativist opposition to immigrants as characterized by Matthew Frye Jacobson in his study Barbarian Virtues.  One of the central paradoxes of nativist thinking sussed out by Jacobson during this era is an American desire to civilize “savages” in places such as the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Nicaragua through military occupation while utilizing scientific racism to prevent these “uncivilized” peoples from migrating to the United States as they were incapable of becoming American.  Hence, the United States was trying to teach these people to become like Americans and at the same U.S. policy prevented them from coming to America because these could never be American.  Moreover, many Americans again believed that these “savages” they were trying to civilize abroad were incapable of becoming American.  Being uncivilized savages, these individuals were incapable of republicanism and thus should be prevented from entering the United States.

During the turn of the century period discussed by Jacobson, Irish ethnicity remained just as contested as it did the mid-19th century.  As Linda Gordon recounts in The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, the New York City perception of the Irish remained stagnant, and the Irish were still considered only slightly better than blacks.  Gordon shows that approximately150 Irish children were abandoned every week in New York City and that the Catholic nuns who cared for the orphans faced great difficulty finding homes for the children in Protestant New York.  Recognizing the problem, the nuns sought Catholic foster families in the American mid-west.  This process seemed to work until the nuns went to Arizona where they brought a dozen children to Catholic Mexican families.

The distribution of white children to the Mexican families created great alarm to the white settlers of the American southwest.  They could not believe that white nuns would give white children to “savage” Mexicans.  The white settlers viewed the distribution process with anger and disbelief. They regarded the adoption of the white children by Mexican foster families as a sin and forcibly took the children from their adoptive parents.  Thus the Irish children orphaned in New York City went from being considered black in the northeast to the paragons of whiteness in Arizona, demonstrating the complexities of race, religion, nativism in early 20th America.

These attitudes towards the Irish described above are no longer present in American society today.  Throughout the 20th century, the Irish further integrated into American society and it seems impossible to find someone without Irish ancestry.  The most obvious sign of the prevalence of Irish culture is our modern St. Patrick’s Day celebration.  For most, St. Patrick’s Day is no longer considered a religious feast day but rather a secular holiday where Americans celebrate their Irish roots.  On St. Patrick’s Day, everyone is Irish, everyone drinks Irish beer, everyone drinks Irish whisky, everyone dances to Irish themed music, and everyone wears green.  Today, the characteristics about the Irish that the nativists hated, religion, clothes, accents, are all things to be celebrated.

Those, like me, born in the late 20th century probably find the nativism described above hard to grasp and only recognize it through enduring stereotypes and slurs like Mick, Polack, Dago and WASP.  However, certain aspects of nativism remain present in the United States today and it is specifically aimed at Mexicans and Latin Americans.  Although the anti-immigration sentiment of today does not have a single unifying political organization like the Know-Nothings, the individuals espousing this rhetoric are a powerful constituency in American society, and citizens should identify the continuities between the nativists and the anti-immigration movement today.

The most pervasive similarity when characterizing immigrant communities presently is the homogeneous communities where Mexican and Latin Americans live.  Opponents of immigration argue that these communities not only prevent integration but are also unseemly crime ridden neighborhoods.  This supposition harkens back to the 19th century New Yorker debasing the Irish communities, and just as Irish discrimination prevented integration and economic betterment in 19th century New York, so too does the rhetoric and current policy prevent the integration of Mexican Americans.  By exploiting cheap labor and preventing law abiding immigrants a path to citizenship, U.S. policy perpetuates poor homogenous immigrant neighborhoods that breed crime and other social ills.  By enacting policies that encourage immigrants to become citizens, Mexican and Latin Americans will find ways to integrate and truly become Americans just as the Irish, Poles, Greeks, and Italians did.

Although many of these arguments are debatable and this comparison is far from equivocal, Americans need to remember that immigration has always been troublesome and contentious part of our history.  The concept of the American melting pot is simple and easy but we need to recall that immigration history is much more complex and violent than our national memory recollects.  The Irish were deemed Papists who could not truly be Americans, Asians were brutally employed to build the railroads, and Mexican and Latin Americans slave away picking fruits as migrant farmers, but over time integration slowly occurs.  Those who perpetuate the anti-immigration rhetoric of today need to remember that immigration to the United States has always been contentious and that melting pot concept is not perfect, but it does not discriminate either.  A melting pot includes peoples from all nations, ethnicities, and religions.

There are some positive signs of Mexican and Latin American integration presently.  The U.S. Senate is currently moving to vote on legislations that allows for a path to citizenship which will likely pass in the coming weeks, leaving the onus on the House of Representatives.  Moreover, just as St. Patrick’s Day demonstrates the full integration of the Irish, Cinco de Mayo celebrations are growing annually.  Americans may have no clue why Cinco de Mayo is important day to Mexicans but it is day celebrate Mexican ethnicity by wearing sombreros, drinking tequila, and eating Mexican cuisine. Just as Americans have adopted and turned the discrimination of the Irish into a reason to celebrate so too it appears to be happening with Mexican and Latin Americans.

In Gangs of New York’s closing monologue, Amsterdam states “no matter what they did to build this city back up again- for the rest of time- it would be like nobody even knew we was ever here.”  Here the Irish protagonist acknowledges that selective memory of American society and the fact that few will remember the challenges faced by immigrants once time moves forward.  This seems likely to occur with Mexican and Latin Americans. As they become part of the fabric of the United States few will recall the rhetoric and tension surrounding the problem as it exists today.


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