Ohio History Journal

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Immigrants and Temperance:

Ethnocultural Conflict in

Cincinnati, 1845-1860



In the United States the decade of the 1850s was marked by pro-

nounced social and political upheaval. Until recently, most historians

believed that this turmoil derived almost entirely from the issues of

sectionalism and slavery which dominated American life in this era

and which culminated in the Civil War. However, recent historical

work at the state and local level has revealed that so-called "ethno-

cultural" issues, principally anti-Catholicism, nativism, and temper-

ance, were frequently more important than sectional issues in spark-

ing  the  breakdown    of electoral politics and    the realignment of

contemporary cultural mores during the 1850s.1

The validity of this new perspective is demonstrated by the political

history of Cincinnati, Ohio, in the early 1850s. There, ethnocultural

issues severely disrupted the local party system and led to the virtual

demise of the Whig party several months before the sectional contro-

versy had been revived by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. But the history

of growing conflict between recent European immigrants and native-

born residents of the city during these years also reveals that anti-

Catholicism, nativism, and temperance agitation were not necessarily

overlapping or mutually reinforcing phenomena, although they have

frequently been treated as such by ethnocultural historians. Rather,

they were distinct, if sometimes interrelated, threads in the pattern of

antebellum history. They developed separately, had their own ad-




Jed Dannenbaum is an Instructor in the Art Department at Carleton College, North-

field. Minnesota. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting

of the American Society for Ethnohistory in October 1977.


1. See, for example, Ronald P. Formisano, The Birth of Mass Political Parties in

Michigan, 1827-1861 (Princeton, 1971); Michael F. Holt, Forging a Majority: The For-

mation of the Republican Party in Pittsburgh, 1848-1860 (New Haven, 1969); Idem.,

"The Politics of Impatience: The Origins of Know Nothingism," Journal of American

History, LX (September 1973), 309-31; and Joel H. Silbey, The Transformation of Amer-

ican Politics, 1840-1860 (Englewood Cliffs, 1967).