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Irish American Solidarity

No European ethnic group exhibited a stronger degree of ethnic solidarity in the United States than Irish Catholics. In politics, Irish Catholics were consistent supporters for the Democratic party from the 1840s onward. As recently as 1964, the Democratic presidential candidate, Lyndon B. Johnson, received 78 percent of the Irish Catholic vote.

In the economic sphere, Irish Catholics, more than any other European ethnic group, emphasized economic solidarity, collective action, and politics as keys to improving their economic position and resisting discrimination. Instead of emphasizing individual upward mobility, many Irish men found work in more egalitarian situations, on labor gangs or construction crews or as longshoremen. Irish Catholic men were also especially likely to seek government employment (especially as police officers) or to find jobs under contractors who held city contracts or in public utilities, such as street railways. During the 19th century, Irish Catholics often took the lead in forming and supporting labor unions.

This high degree of ethnic solidarity reflected both the discrimination that Irish Catholics faced as well as their belief that their job security and economic well-being depended on ethnic unity in the face of hostility from the nation's Protestant majority. From the early nineteenth century onward, Irish Catholics faced recurrent waves of anti-Catholic sentiment. The evangelical revivals of the early nineteenth century produced a "No Popery" movement. A popular children's game was "Break the Pope's Neck."

Mass Irish Catholic immigration in the mid- and late-1840s led to the rise of the viciously anti-Catholic Know Nothing party, which drew support from many native-born white workingmen. But anti-Catholicism was not confined to a particular social class.

Anti-Irish Catholic sentiment could also be found in the liberal press of the late-nineteenth century, especially through Harper's Weekly, where anti-Catholic fervor was particularly intense during the 1870s. Articles in liberal magazines claimed that Irish Catholics were more loyal to the Pope than other Catholic immigrants, and were hostile toward democracy. Liberal opinion was particular worried by late 19th century papal pronouncements against liberalism and modernism, especially the declaration of the doctrine of Papal infallibility.

Republicans regarded Irish Catholics as a core constituency of the Democratic party. They associated Irish Catholics with corrupt urban political machines, like New York's Tammany Hall.

The Progressive era saw yet another wave of anti-Catholic sentiment. In 1914, Florida's Governor, Sidney J. Catts, claimed that the Pope planned to invade the state. The state legislatures in Michigan and Nebraska debated constitutional amendments banishing parochial schools.

The 1920s witnessed a renewed outburst of anti-Catholic sentiment. Legislatures in the South, Midwest, and West, influenced by the staunchly anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan, sought to require daily Bible readings from the Protestant version of the Bible.

As late as 1960, anti-Catholic sentiment was still strong enough to threaten John Kennedy's presidential candidacy. But the Pope's visit to the United States in 1986 demonstrated a decisive decline in the prevalence of anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States. The Papal visit was celebrated as a symbol of the spread of religious tolerance in the United States.


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