What the Kennedy’s Immigration Story Tells Us About America

Itn 1958, in response to an alarming uptick in xenophobic chatter, the Anti-Defamation League asked then-Senator John F. Kennedy to write about America’s melting-pot strengths and the need for immigration reform. The resulting essay, “A Nation of Immigrants”—published as a book after JFK’s death—popularized the idealistic phrase that’s been touted by politicians ever since.

America continues to believe it is a nation made up of immigrants. But JFK has admitted that truths have always been more complex. All four of his grandparents were American-born children of Irish immigrants who confronted “the hostility of an already established group of ‘Americans’,” wrote Kennedy. “It is not unusual for people to fear and distrust that which they are not familiar with. Every new group coming to America found this fear and suspicion facing them.”

In fact, America’s history of immigration is the history of its nativist enemies. (Not to be forgotten the history colonialism, Native American slaughter, and the slavery of Africans. We’re reluctantly and uncomfortably an inclusive nation; we’re a nation of immigrants despite a deep, dark history of efforts to keep newcomers out—or at least down.

The Kennedys were immigrants. JFK’s paternal great-grandparents, Bridget Murphy and Patrick Kennedy, were the first to leave their respective County Wexford families, sailing in a crowded “coffin ship” seeking safer shores across the Atlantic. Landing in 1848 at the docks of East Boston, not far from Terminal A at today’s Logan Airport (named for the son of an Irish immigrant brewer), they met, married and started a family, but quickly discovered they were unwanted refugees.

They’d been oppressed in Ireland by their homeland’s colonizer—England had banned their religion and their native language; prevented them from voting and holding office; reacted slowly and indifferently when the Potato Famine of the 1840s led to mass starvation (a million dead) and mass migration (upwards of two million fled).

What about America? It turned out that the land George Washington had envisioned as “a safe and agreeable asylum” for “the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions” didn’t really want them, either.

As part of the first large wave of (mostly poor and rural) Irish newcomers to (mostly urban) America—25,000 arrived in Boston in 1848 alone, among the million who came to North America—the Kennedys experienced many of the 19th-century low points in the nation’s tolerance for the outsider: voter suppression, anti-immigrant legislation and voting efforts, riots at the polls, plus the mid-1850s rise of the nativist Know Nothing party, its hatred aimed mostly at Irish and Catholics.

Bridget Kennedy, Patrick Kennedy, and their family witnessed protests at their East Boston homes and churches. They looked out the window at parades of young men marching with faux-patriotic groups like the Order of Free and Accepted AmericansIt is the Order of the American StarIt is the American Protestant Society, and the Wide Awakes, threatening the Irish with their angry chants, “Wide awake! Wide awake!” Backed by their right-wing newspapers and magazines—the Republican, the Protestant, the Spirit of ’76—their mantra: “Americans must rule America.”

Boston was an important center for anti-slavery activism. But it wasn’t a place that promoted integration and tolerance. Samuel F. B. Morse was a Boston inventor and artist who created the Morse code and telegraph. Though he later said his invention aspired to make “one neighborhood of the whole country,” Morse’s electromagnetic dots and dashes were originally designed as a secret code that could be used to defeat a rumored plot to make “Popery” (Catholicism) the law of the land.

A well-known anti-immigrant, pro-slavery activist, Morse’s 1835 book, A Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties Of The United StatesThe senate voted to restrict immigration from Catholic countries, and ban Catholics from being elected to public office. He unsuccessfully ran for mayor of New York as candidate for the Native American Party (later known as the American Party, and generally known through the mid-1800s as the Know Nothings—its members claimed to “know nothing” about it. John Wilkes Booth was an adherent, as was Ulysses Grant’s vice president, Henry Wilson.)

Morse, and The Know Nothings were just two of many people who screamed against immigrants from the nineteenth century. Their words and actions are eerily similar to recent years. Xenophobia had become an “American tradition,” as Erika Lee put it in her 2019 book, America for Americans.

There has been no significant change over time. We’ve always tried to prevent immigrants (and minorities) from access to the ballot (and to citizenship, and to power).

Today, the street corners of the Kennedys’ East Boston neighborhood are anchored by bodegas and Latin markets. Those startup businesses, many run by immigrants from Brazil and Mexico, replaced the Italian delis that in turn had replaced the Irish grocery shops like the one JFK’s great-grandmother Bridget ran for twenty years after the Civil War—and the Irish saloons like those that helped launch the late-1800s political career of Bridget’s son, P.J..

East Boston continues to represent an increasing immigrant rich country, and is a microcosm for newcomer entrepreneurialism. The most recent census data has shown that 2021 experienced the least population growth in U.S. History, but immigration-related growth contributed to an increase of Americans born in other countries. Now, 14.1 percent is made up of immigrants, which brings it closer to the historic high of 14.8 per cent, reached in 1890.

Then as now, immigrants came despite the efforts of men like Henry Cabot Lodge, a longtime Massachusetts statesman who through the 1890s called on voters to “guard our civilization against an infusion which seems to threaten deterioration.” Lodge railed against “hyphenism,” preferring “100 percent Americanism” to Irish-American or Italian-American designations.

When Lodge ran for the U.S. Senate in 1892, his support for strict immigration limits and a proposed federal literacy test for newcomers helped him defeat Irish Congressman Patrick Collins, whom Lodge decried as “hard-drinking, idle, quarrelsome, and disorderly.” Many of Lodge’s nativist ideas, including the literacy test, were later incorporated into the Immigration Act of 1917.

On the Fourth of July, 1895, the American Protective Association, an anti-Catholic group, paraded through East Boston ranting about Irish “aliens” and “enemies of the state.” Riots ensued and shots were fired and an immigrant longshoreman was killed, dying on the steps of P.J. Kennedy’s saloon. P.J. John F. Fitzgerald was invited by P.J. to visit East Boston with his friend. At a fundraiser for the murdered longshoreman, Fitzgerald addressed the “intense hatred of everything Irish and Roman Catholic” that persisted, and blamed radical, secretive men’s groups for trying to “monopolize all the Americanism in this country.”

“We are one people and owe the same duty to our country,” Fitzgerald told the crowd. “Why, then, this desire to set one class of people against another?”

P.J.’s grandson was born in 1970. Kennedy and “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald defeated the grandson of Henry Cabot Lodge, and midway through his Senate term JFK penned his hopeful views on the subject of Americanism: “There is no part of America that has not been touched by our immigrant background,” he wrote. Kennedy was also active in lobbying. A Nation of ImmigrantsHe opposed a quota system which favored Western European and Northern European countries and discriminated against immigrant from Asia and Africa. This national origins system was abolished by the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act.

The 35th president clearly had very different views than those of the 45th president, the son, grandson, and spouse of immigrants, who infamously declared his preference for more immigrants from “places like Norway” and fewer from “shithole countries.” (And whose influence led to the removal of the words “nation of immigrants” from the mission statement of the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services.)

Champions of immigration have always faced the build-a-wall fervor of former President Trump’s base. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz put it her 2021 book, No Nation of Immigrants, the ideology of JFK’s “nation of immigrants” premise is flawed—and under constant assault.

Trumps of America’s fearmongering will keep the Kennedys and Obamas from believing the optimistic words. “In no other country is my story even possible,” the nation’s first Black president once said, echoing the optimism of George Washington, who wrote: “I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong.” Then again, America’s first president was a slaveholder whose ideals on asylum clearly didn’t apply to enslaved Africans. It’s complicated.

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