Zachary M. SchragFeb 20, 2023
The Fires of Philadelphia
Citizen-Soldiers, Nativists, and the 1844 Riots Over the Soul of a Nation
Pegasus Books 2021
Zachary M. Schrag's The Fires of Philadelphia: Citizen-Soldiers, Nativists, and the 1844 Riots Over the Soul of a Nation (Pegasus, 2021) is a gripping and masterful account of the moment one of America's founding cities turned on itself, giving the nation a preview of the Civil War to come. In 1844, Philadelphia was set aflame by a group of Protestant ideologues—avowed nativists—who were seeking social and political power rallied by charisma and fear of the immigrant menace. For these men, it was Irish Catholics they claimed would upend morality and murder their neighbors, steal their jobs, and overturn democracy. The nativists burned Catholic churches, chased and beat people through the streets, and exchanged shots with a militia seeking to reinstate order. In the aftermath, the public debated both the militia’s use of force and the actions of the mob. Some of the most prominent nativists continued their rise to political power for a time, even reaching Congress, but they did not attempt to stoke mob violence again. At a time many envision America in flames, The Fires of Philadelphia shows us a city—one that embodies the founding of our country—that descended into open warfare and found its way out again.
Zachary M. Schrag is professor of history at George Mason University.
Caleb Zakarin is the Assistant Editor of the New Books Network.