New Jersey Legacy: A State of Many Nations

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David Cohen
Published at : 17 Jan 2021
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New Jersey had been ethnically and religiously diverse since colonial times. However, the colonial ethnic groups (Dutch, Swedes, Finns, English, and Scots) and religious denominations (Puritan, Quaker, Anglican, Presbyterian) were all Protestant.

In the early nineteenth century immigration shifted to Germany and Ireland, and most of these newcomers were Catholic, not Protestant. They settled in New Jersey’s newly industrializing cities, such as Newark, Hoboken, and Jersey City. They also brought with them traditions of drinking beer and wine on the Sabbath, which were shocking to the old Protestant establishment.

Members of the American Party (commonly referred to as the Know-Nothings) sought to restrict immigration and naturalization in order to protect so-called American values. Middle-class reformers attempted to “Americanize” the German and Irish immigrants by promoting temperance. They also sought to use the newly created public schools to make the immigrants into “good Americans” (meaning, convert them to Protestantism). Not surprisingly, the German and Irish immigrants resisted these attempts to use the public schools for religious proselytizing. In response, they created their own parochial school system and requested that the state provide equal funding for their schools as well.

Rather than allowing the Irish to come into political power, the Protestant establishment in Jersey City in 1871 requested that the state legislature take over the city government. Both the issue of the state takeover of Jersey City’s municipal government and state funding to parochial schools came to a head in amendments proposed to the New Jersey State Constitution of 1844. The 1874 amendments banned the kind of special legislation that resulted in the Jersey City municipal government takeover and guaranteed a “thorough and efficient” system of free public schools. The trade-off was that the Irish came into political power in Jersey City and the principle of separation of church and state would be applied to the public schools. However, the parochial schools were denied access to public tax money. President Ulysses S. Grant adopted the New Jersey solution to public school funding as a model for the nation.
New Jersey HistoryImmigrationGerman-Americans

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