In her work, Sadlier often tried to vindicate her native country. As one historian has written, "The Irish Catholic immigrant of that day and for many years had a triple battle: to establish himself as an American, to preserve his faith in a subtly antagonistic setting and to continue to fight for the freedom of his homeland" (Healey, 14). Centuries of antagonism between Catholics and Protestants -- prejudice on both sides -- carried over into the United States. The descendants of British Protestants comprised a large part of the United States population and who controlled most social and economic structures. Native-born Americans, to a great extent, prided themselves on their British ancestry and their liberal Protestantism, and retained many British stereotypes of the Irish. Many Americans "believed that Irish poverty was a sign of laziness and immorality, of ignorance and superstition -- traits they considered inseparable from Irishness and Catholicism. Because of such beliefs, the newspapers in New York, Boston and elsewhere often depicted the Irish as violent and drunken, even as subhuman, more akin to apes than native-born Americans" (Miller, 54). Employers also posted the now-infamous "No Irish Need Apply" signs in their doors (Miller, 54). Thomas Nast's cartoons for magazines such as Harpers typically depicted the Irish as ape-like brutes prone to wife-beating, drunkenness and general anarchy. Ethnic tensions grew violent in 1837, when a mob of Protestant workmen from Boston burned down a Catholic convent in Charlestown, and in 1844 -- the year Sadlier emigrated to Canada -- when native-born Americans in Philadelphia rioted for a week, destroying many Catholic churches and neighborhoods and killing at least a dozen immigrants (Miller, 54-5).
Tensions over immigration led to the formation of the Nativist movement and the Know- Nothing party in the 1850s, mentioned by Sadlier in the opening pages of The Blakes and Flanagans but nowhere in Bessy Conway. Anti-Catholic laws were passed in some cities, and Know-Nothing candidates won control of several state governments (Miller, 55). Nativist suspicions over Catholic loyalty was inflamed by Catholic protests against the public school systems being established with tax payer support during the 1840s and 1850s. Catholics objected to the reading of Protestant prayers in the classroom and fought the enforcement of school taxes, at the same time they began to organize a separate Catholic parochial school system. The establishment of a new state school system seemed to substantiate Catholic fears that European secularism and Protestantism was taking hold in America, and that Protestants were using the public schools to undermine children's Catholic faith (Fanning, 110). Many native-born Protestants interpreted Catholic protests as separatism, and proof that Catholics were a "distinct and alien cult in American society." Organized Catholic opposition to public schools intensified Nativist "suspicions that they threatened the American traditions of civil and religious liberty" (Hueston, 173-4). Nativist tensions subsided, however, as conflicts over slavery and the Civil War took center stage in American politics. Massachusetts repealed its anti-Catholic laws during the Civil War out of concern for national security and unity (Hueston, 331). In 1850, however, the "schools question," as it came to be known, was the central issue of Irish-American politics and one of the major issues in New York and Massachusetts. The Blakes and Flanagans was written in part as a polemic about the schools issue.
Sadlier and other Catholic political leaders were not entirely groundless in their fears that Protestants were using the schools as a religious battlefield. Lyman and Catharine Beecher were motivated to leave Protestant New England for the western frontier of Cincinnati by a desire to halt the spread of Catholicism, due largely to the influx of poor Irish and German immigrants: "Just as Lyman Beecher had viewed Catharine's Hartford Female Seminary as a fortress against Episcopalianism in Connecticut, so her female college and his male seminary would be bastions against infidelism and Roman Catholicism in Ohio" (Hedrick, 68). Harriet Beecher Stowe, who relied on immigrants for domestic labor, used a German servant as the basis for a short story lampooning the ignorance of an immigrant servant. In "Trials of a Housekeeper," Stowe mocks a Dutch servant's physique and ignorance of American housekeeping practices. It was common for middle-class women to hire Irish women as domestics, while lamenting their unsuitability for the job. That some of the leading American writers showed this kind of antagonism to Irish Catholics illustrates why so much Irish immigrant writing is defensive and suspicious about American society. When Eliza Blake remarks, "How tiresome these Irish servants are!" she shows that she has appropriated dominant Nativist stereotypes of immigrants (Blakes and Flanagans, 302).<
Indeed, Sadlier was writing in a literary climate often hostile to immigrants. Outside the Catholic press, mainstream American periodicals often depicted immigrants in terms of negative stereotypes. Even women's suffrage newspapers -- mostly run by middle-class Protestant women -- indulged in lampooning the Irish for "their ignorance, lack of common sense, volatile tempers and total submission to ecclesiastical authority" (Diner, 147). Sensation novelists created an entire sub-genre of anti-Catholic fiction that described the lurid sins of corrupt nuns and priests. The Rev. George Brown, an American living in Quebec, authored a strongly anti-Catholic 1834 work called Lorette: The History of Louise, Daughter of a Canadian Nun, Exhibitingthe Interior of a Female Convent (Story, 254). Anti-Catholic Canadian historical fictions gave vent to a widespread suspicion of French Roman Catholicism (Toye, 271). Brown's position represented the most aggressive elements of American Nativism, a stance Sadlier attempted to counteract in her fiction (Story, 254).
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