The Fires of Philadelphia: Citizen-Soldiers, Nativists, and the 1844 Riots Over the Soul of a Nation

Pegasus. Jun. 2021. 416p. ISBN 9781643137285. $29.95. HIST
In the spring and summer of 1844, large and often violent riots erupted in Philadelphia over tensions between recent (predominantly Irish) immigrants and anti-immigrant white Protestants who referred to themselves as “Native Americans.” In this latest work, Schrag (The Great Society Subway) takes a close look at the riots and their effects on Philadelphia and American politics as a whole. The anti-immigrant sentiment was often represented as hostility toward Catholics; some clashes were as minor as arguments over which version of the Bible was read in local schools, while others were significant attacks on Catholic churches. Drawing heavily from newspaper accounts and manuscripts, the author covers the riots in great detail and successfully portrays the chaos and confusion of the gatherings and the role of rumors and indecision in galvanizing violence. Schrag keeps a fairly tight focus on Philadelphia until the epilogue, where he presents the city’s nativist movement as a foundation for later anti-immigrant political parties and eventual federal restrictions on immigration.
VERDICT This is a particularly important story in the history of Philadelphia, but it has relevance for all of American history. Recommended for readers interested in urban history or the history of immigration in the United States.
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