A tide of anti-immigrant rage among working-class voters. Dire warnings that the America we know and love is on the verge of extinction. One charismatic leader rides the wave of righteous anger. Sound familiar?
On a stormy Monday afternoon in the spring of 1844, a stout, well-built, 35-year-old Philadelphia newspaper editor ascended a makeshift podium assembled from a stack of packing boxes. Surrounded by some three thousand of his fervent supporters – butchers, grocers, carpenters and craftsman, many armed for this occasion – Lewis Charles Levin had come to the main market in Philly’s heavily Irish-Catholic neighborhood of Kensington. He was there to rail against the rising tide of Catholic immigrants taking jobs from proud Pennsylvania-born Protestants, and the resulting “consequence upon American liberty” he vowed would surely come of admitting even more foreigners.
Unsurprisingly, Kensington’s Irish residents did not take kindly to Levin’s provocation and within minutes he had more to dodge than the water pouring down from the heavens. Vegetables were hurled his way, followed by bricks and stones. Levin’s livid supporters responded in kind, sending the Irish streaming into the streets, guns soon blazing on both sides. By the time they were run out of the neighborhood later that week, Levin’s acolytes had set fire to some thirty homes throughout the neighborhood, even burning two Catholic churches to the ground. At least seven people were killed, with dozens injured on both sides.
“The sights presented … were truly sickening,” wrote John B. Perry in “A Full and Complete Account of the Late Awful Riots in Philadelphia,” published in 1844. “Men with their wives, and often six or seven children, trudging fearfully through the streets … seeking a refuge they knew not where … carrying away from their homes whatever they could pick up at that instant.”
While Levin was widely pinpointed for inciting the violence, in the days to come the charismatic speaker accepted not a hint of blame. In a heated defense, he asserted that his followers had nothing but peaceful intentions until “an armed body of ferocious foreigners” assaulted them. He greatly exaggerated the number of dead on his side, blamed his rivals in the press, and insisted a wide-ranging conspiracy was the real impetus behind the clash, while providing no real evidence to back-up the existence of such a conspiracy. “Levin stood alone … in his attempt to justify the violence and church-burnings,” wrote historian John A. Forman in his 1960 essay, “Lewis C. Levin, Portrait of an American Demagogue,” describing Levin’s argument as “characteristically emotional rather than rational.” (A portrayal that more than a few observers have applied to a certain bombastic billionaire running in our current election season.)
Another thing Lewis C. Levin had in common with Donald J. Trump was his ability to continually defy those who predicted his demise. Philadelphia’s bloody week was not, as some expected, the end of Lewis Levin, but rather the start of an upward climb that would soon elevate him to the center of mid-nineteenth-century American politics. The de facto leader of an angry anti-immigrant movement, Levin decried both of the era’s major political parties, won a seat in Congress, sought a seat in the Senate and became an influential figure in presidential politics for several election cycles. Described by Forman as “a provocative and belligerent speaker” who “flung accusations, insinuations, and reproaches in all directions,” he was abhorred by elites and made few friends among Washington’s ruling class. “A general sentiment of disgust for the man, and detestation for his principles, fills every decent mind,” reported one local newspaper, while at the Capitol, “his colleagues heaped only scorn and derision on him.”
Yet far from the halls of power, Levin ignited the passions of an aggrieved working class, men who felt the America they knew and loved was endangered by an onslaught of immigrants taking their jobs, driving down wages, and generally making a wreck of the place. While far from the only politician espousing such views at the time, Levin was unique in that, like Trump two centuries later, he “knew how to make an open and coarse appeal to the passions of the populace,” as Forman put it – and in this he “was aided by the technology of the times.” Not Twitter, but the steam-powered ‘penny press’ that had recently ushered in the age of mass-produced tabloids and thus, “enabled a ne’er-do-well like Levin to purchase newspapers and to use them as cheap vehicles through which communication with the masses was possible.”
For all his bellicose rants and doomsday proclamations, Levin was more than a two-dimensional caricature of an angry white man. For one thing, he seemed content to juggle public prejudice with private tolerance. The noted Army captain and writer John Gregory Bourke, whose parents were old friends of Levin’s in Philadelphia, surprisingly described “a very close intimacy” between the scorching anti-Catholic populist and Bourke’s own Roman Catholic father. (Although perhaps no more surprising than a candidate professing love and respect for his Jewish son-in-law while retweeting an image of the Star of David atop a pile of money).
Levin himself was no Mayflower descendant, but in fact a first-generation American. Even more confounding, he was born not to a Protestant family but to a Jewish one, with a father who emigrated from England. Yet his determination to preserve America for “Native Americans” (in those days the term referred to native-born whites) steered the course of his life while upending the politics of the time.
“Parties reeled, politicians changed and cowered before the fiery eloquence of this daring reformer,” wrote John W. Forney, the Clerk of the House of Representatives during Levin’s era. The passion of his followers was eclipsed only by the fervor of those who hated him. Eventually, he even drove himself mad.
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Born in 1808 in Charleston, South Carolina, a town that had a large Jewish population, little is known about Levin’s childhood. The man who would come to be known for his “superabundant physical energy” and “lusty, long-winded style,” as Forman stated, left home at the age of sixteen. He worked as a teacher and studied law, converted to Methodism, and moved to Woodville, Mississippi, a bucolic settlement among the rolling hills of Wilkinson County, just north of the Louisiana border.
Woodville would not be home for long. After surviving an armed duel with a nemesis who claimed Levin had stole one of his speeches, a severely wounded Levin fled the state. (It was reported in some sources that his opponent in the duel was none other than Woodville’s hometown hero, Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy.) Levin next lived briefly in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where he was reportedly “embroiled in a number of serious quarrels before moving on again,” at one point spending six months in jail for an unpaid debt. He married Ann Christian Hays in 1833, but she died just a year later. Levin remarried a young widow named Julia Ann Gist, whom he once said he met while each of them was shopping for tombstones for their deceased spouses.
Levin practiced law in three states before settling in the city of brotherly love, where, as Forman writes, “because of the Panic of 1837 and other factors, Philadelphia had lost most of her prosperity; hard times now seemed the rule.” The sharp economic downturn made his adopted city ripe ground for the political movement Levin would soon spark.
An avowed American exceptionalist who wrote that “we stand apart from, and above all other people,” Levin was passionate about three things: his home country, his adopted religion, and the plight of the working man – a personal holy trinity that would spark the crusade spanning the rest of his life. But like so many politicians, Levin was known more for what he opposed than for what he supported. He became a passionate anti-duel advocate following his own misadventure, and also denounced the vile, immoral nature of the theater.
But even worse, to Levin, was alcohol, which he saw as a device to keep the working class down while supporting the corrupt elite. To advance his agenda Levin founded the Temperance Advocate newspaper. Liquor was the enemy of choice for his first major public spectacle, held in January of 1842. Seeking to raise the profile of his local temperance club, which boasted a scant fifteen members, Levin staged “a spectacular bonfire of booze,” wrote the historian David Montgomery. After confiscating a cache of alcohol from a saloon in Kensington and “gathering as much of his audience as would fit into a nearby church,” Levin lit the hooch afire and “demanded that the public be allowed to vote on whether taverns should be tolerated in neighborhoods.”
He would soon turn his attention from booze-burning to Irish-bashing – a pastime that attracted significantly more interest than destroying perfectly good adult beverages. He sold Temperance Advocate and bought the Philadelphia Daily Sun, which became a vehicle for his anti-immigrant screeds, and he helped found America’s first nativist political party, quickly tapping into a pervasive sense of outrage most mainstream politicians had overlooked. “Lewis Levin stepped over from the temperance movement to take command of the American Republican Party and led it with such skill that within one year it was in full control of the political life of the county,” wrote Montgomery.
Levin’s fatalist fervor went beyond basic anti-immigrant sentiment. He savaged Catholicism as an institution, denouncing the “Roman Catholic slavery” that he believed kept the Irish in fealty to the Pope, and accusing the “odious” Vatican leaders of “an object so monstrous, so appalling, so hideous, as the possible overthrow of American Freedom.” The Holy Father, he insisted, was hell bent on flooding the New World with a stream of Catholic voters who would topple our young democracy at the ballot box, the end goal an insidious plot to force Catholicism on all. He railed against “political wire-pullers” who bought the votes of these new immigrants, despite the fact that “these men had not been sufficiently long in the country to have lost the odor of the steerage of the ships that brought them across the Atlantic.”
Levin’s newspapers steadily gained him a zealous readership in Philadelphia, reaching a fever pitch with the so-called “Bible riots” that erupted after his Kensington marketplace speech. The lead-up to the violence was a dispute over whether Catholic public schoolchildren could be excused from classes that utilized the Bible (a common practice at the time) because they objected to the use of the Protestant King James Bible. Levin and his ilk vehemently objected to such politically correct coddling of minorities. The lethal clashes, during which some nativists vowed to burn every Catholic church in town, stretched on through the summer of 1844. While Philadelphia was still blazing, Levin announced he would run for Congress under the banner of his new American Republican Party. Despite being arrested that summer on charges of inciting a riot, he won a large majority in a three-way race.
The livid lawyer from Philadelphia hit Washington like a freight train on fire. In his time there, “The House seemed to live from day to day in a state of constant and irritating uncertainty as Levin led a clamorous and exultant denunciation of the Catholic Church,” wrote Forman. For him, nativism trumped all issues. “In debate, he was almost always humorless, blunt in language, and provoking in speech.” He passionately depicted a country “on the very verge of overthrow by the impetuous force of invading foreigners.”
Levin was the only member of Congress to oppose a bill meant to relieve the sickening conditions on overcrowded ships transporting immigrants across the Atlantic. It was clearly a losing battle, but in characteristic pomp Levin snarkily proposed the language of the law at least be amended to read: “A bill to afford additional facilities to the paupers and criminals of Europe to emigrate to the United States.”
While he supported American expansionism, he wasn’t crazy about the idea that the Mexican-American War and resulting territorial acquisitions could lead to significantly more Catholics among the U.S. population. “If we look towards Mexico,” read an 1846 article published in his Daily Sun (although not written by Levin himself), “we are menaced by the accession of eight millions of foreigners, not only entirely ignorant of our institutions, but ignorant of everything, uncultivated in mind, brutal in manners…” Mexico, Levin surely would have agreed, was not sending its best people.
While Levin made little headway in Congress, in the widespread dissatisfaction with both the Democratic and Whig parties he saw an opening for a new, nativist third party. The contrarian congressman traveled state by state to build support for the first Native American convention, slated for Philadelphia on July 4, 1845. The new party’s platform included proposals to extend the period of naturalization for new citizens from five to 21 years and to bar immigrants from holding any political offices.
Rather than running their own presidential candidate in the election of 1848, the nascent Native Americans formed a cautious alliance with the conservative Whigs, successfully pushing Democrats from power and electing President Zachary Taylor. Levin seemed poised for higher office himself, “but his megalomania, his ambition, was to prove his undoing,” wrote Forman. From the get-go he ostracized even many in his own Native American party by his refusal to compromise on any issue, and, by 1850, enough of his party members had turned against him that he lost his own Congressional seat.
His movement, however, continued to influence politics in pre-War America. Clubby “secret societies” of Native American groups started to pop up around the northeast; as legend goes, when one member was asked about the party he deceptively replied, “I know nothing.” The informal name “The Know-Nothing Party” stuck. While some argued that the moniker more accurately reflected the party’s grasp of major issues, the Know-Nothings successfully elected a mayor in Philadelphia, racked up several electoral wins in Massachusetts, and fielded competitive candidates from coast to coast. In the 1852 presidential election, they turned against the Whig Party, whose candidate, General Winfield Scott, had Catholic family members and rumored connections to the Vatican. Even more objectionable to Levin, in an effort to broaden the party’s appeal, Scott went after the votes of immigrants. During one campaign stop he even complimented the “rich Irish brogue and sweet German accent.” Appalled, Levin vowed that his party would sway the election to Democrat Franklin Pierce, who was indeed victorious in the fall.
By this time, Levin’s years of constant confrontation had apparently started to take a toll on his mental health. Friends and family members grew alarmed at his increasingly erratic behavior, and he gradually retreated from public life. But when the next presidential election rolled around in ’56, the eternal firebrand could not resist one more rodeo. Back on the campaign trail, he delivered a blistering indictment of the new Republican Party’s nominee, John C. Fremont, for his refusal to protect what Levin deemed traditional American values. “Americans are now fighting a new revolution!” Levin declared. “Look at your Custom House and your Post Office. They are filled with foreigners.” A speech blasting Fremont at Philadelphia’s National Hall (now Independence Hall) would be the last major public appearance of his life and it was vintage Levin, ending with Fremont supporters literally dragging him off the stage.
Later that year Levin suffered a complete mental breakdown and was placed in the Philadelphia Hospital for the Insane. “For some time past,” reported the Evening Journal on September 27, 1856, “Mr. Levin has been laboring under mental aberration, and the worst fears of his friends have now been realized.”
In 1859, on a trip to visit family in South Carolina, he became violent and had to be subdued and detained in the train’s mail car. The man who once made parties reel and politicians cower was institutionalized a second time, dying at the Philadelphia Hospital for the Insane in March of 1860. His official cause of death was listed as simply “insanity.”
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Last week, just a few miles from the spot where Levin ascended a makeshift podium 172 years ago, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney strolled to a real one at the Democratic National Convention to speak ominously of Levin’s movement – and its potential return. “In 1844, an early version of the Know-Nothing political party held a rally here to protest the threat that Irish-Catholic immigrants posed to the American way of life,” Mayor Kenney remarked. “They claimed these immigrants – people like my family – were more likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens. Does that sound familiar…? I’m telling you this story for one reason: it’s happening again. The Know-Nothings have returned, and, last week in Cleveland, they vowed to ‘take their country back’ this November.”
Trump is by no means the first candidate since Levin to ride a wave of angry anti-immigrant rage. In his 1960 essay, Forman compared Levin to Joseph McCarthy and even Adolf Hitler, arguing that, “Levin is typical of the frothing emotional psychopath in political life, one who tries to carry people along a path of hate until his star begins to fade and his ‘medicine’ fails.” While many local anti-immigrant ordinances were passed during his time period, when it came to the national level, none of Levin’s major anti-immigrant proposals ever came to fruition. For all the fear and loathing he inspired, in the end a majority of Americans were in fact content with the growing diversity that would reshape the nation, and continues to do so today. The America he so passionately pined for was already a thing of the past.
Yet the echoes of Lewis Levin that Forman heard in Joseph McCarthy are unmistakably found in Trump, who told his own convention that “Nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens… They are being released by the tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety or resources… History is watching us now… It’s waiting to see if we will rise to the occasion, and if we will show the whole world that America is still free and independent and strong… We will make America safe again. And we will make America great again!”
One hundred and sixty-eight years earlier, an outraged outsider stood before Congress and declared, “The flood of immigration is sweeping its millions of foreign Roman Catholic voters over the land… The past is gloomy enough, the present awfully portentous – but the future is black… Shall we make a stand now… Or shall we surrender?”
Levin lost his battle, but the country persevered. He was survived by his wife Julia and his daughter Louisa, who soon married a Brazilian diplomat…and converted to Catholicism.
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Additional sources that proved tremendously valuable when researching this article include Tyler Anbinder’s “Nativism & Slavery,” Frank Gerrity’s “The Disruption of the Philadelphia Whigocracy,” The Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s “Riots in the City of Brotherly Love,” Unlearned History’s “The Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1844,” Villanova University’s “Chaos in the Streets: The Philadelphia Riots of 1844,” The American Catholic Historical Researches, Dictionary of American Biography, The Papers of Jefferson Davis, and Lewis Charles Levin’s “A Lecture on Irish Repeal.”