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The Fires of Philadelphia: Citizen-Soldiers, Nativists, and the 1844 Riots

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Author Zachary Schrag discusses the riots that occurred in Philadelphia between the Protestants and the new Irish-Catholic immigrants.

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Today, Irish Americans command respect in every sphere of American society, and the Catholic Church is the nation’s largest denomination. But in 1844, Irish Catholic immigrants were unwelcome newcomers, feared and despised by native-born Protestants as threats to prosperity and liberty. These nativists couldn’t hope to keep the Irish out, but they did hope to keep them down, delaying their path to citizenship to deny them votes and government jobs. As immigrants and nativists clashed, Philadelphia—the cradle of American democracy and culture—became a bloody battleground. In May and July 1844, Protestants and Catholics shot each other in the streets, angry mobs set fire to homes and churches, and militiamen and rioters dueled with cannon. When all was over, dozens were dead, and the United States had endured its first great city riot. The mob had been tamed, but not defeated, and immigrants had learned that they would need to fight for religious freedom and full citizenship.

In his new book, The Fires of Philadelphia, historian Zachary Schrag tells the story of the scheming men who led violent mobs against Catholic churches and homes, of the Irish who desperately defended their neighborhoods, and of the determined citizen soldiers who fought and died to protect a religious minority and American ideals. Drawing on letters, diaries, official documents, and newspapers—including many sources held at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania—Schrag reconstructs the Philadelphia of the 1840s and gives voice to the people who fought over its future.

Author’s Bio: Zachary M. Schrag is a professor of history at George Mason University and the author of three previous books: The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro, Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965-2009, and The Princeton Guide to Historical Research

About this Series:

This program is part of HSP’s new virtual programming series: “From the Stacks,” which highlights topics or materials from HSP's collections. Our collections contain over 21 million items, encompassing centuries of American history. This series, held over the Zoom platform, will feature author talks, living history performances, conversations with staff, and more!

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