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Profile: James Buchanan
James Buchanan was a participant or observer in the following events:
A portion of a painting illustrating the street violence surrounding the ‘Bible Riots.’ [Source: Granger Collection / Smithsonian]Philadelphia is rocked by a series of conflicts that will become known as the “Bible Riots of 1844.” In the 1830s, Philadelphia, a large factory town, began simmering with conflicts and issues between a large and disparate number of groups, roughly divided into two: Irish and German immigrants, mostly Catholics, who are fighting for better working conditions and better treatments both through the Church and through the burgeoning labor movement; and “nativists,” a loose movement that has arisen in something of a backlash against the large influx of immigrants. Many of the Irish and German immigrants have become identified with urban Democratic political machines, sparking resentment among non-Democratic “native” Americans. The Irish in particular become targets of the “nativist” movement. In 1844, Catholics begin mounting complaints that their children are being forced to read from the Protestant King James Bible in public school every day. That version of the Bible (often abbreviated KJV) is required reading in Philadelphia public schools, in part because of the efforts of Pennsylvania legislator James Buchanan, who pushed through some of the country’s first legislation requiring public schools; however, the Pennsylvania legislature inserted language into the bill requiring daily Bible reading. Catholics see the mandated daily Bible readings as an attempt to undermine their religion, a view given credence when their requests that the KJV be substituted with Catholic Bibles are ignored. The complaints spark a series of riots that target Irish Catholic churches (no German Catholic churches are burned or vandalized, in part because Irish Catholics, a larger and more prominent group than the Germans, tend to be more vocal and are more closely identified with the “problem”). In response, groups of Irish Catholics target Protestant churches. The Philadelphia city government does little if anything to protect either group. Both sides accuse the other of vandalism and duplicity; the “nativists” insist that the Catholics want to install the Pope as the leader of the US government, and the Catholics accuse city officials of letting the “nativists” attack them at will. The riots result in a number of churches being partially or completely burned, at least 20 people dead, and the Irish Catholics becoming more forceful and more organized, taking a more aggressive part in politics and the labor movement. [Smithsonian Magazine, 10/2010; Patrick J. O'Hara, 2011]
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