Return to Lecture 1 Index Return to History 2 Main Page
Foreign Immigrants in Industrial America
In 1782, as the United States was on the verge of finally winning a successful revolution for its independence, a French immigrant to New York, Michel Guillaume Jean de Crevecour, asked the question: "What then is the Amerian, this new man?" He answered his own question "He is either an European, or the descendant of an European," thus excluding some 400,000 Africans or persons of African descent and all remaining American Indians. In the same article, Crevecour contributed one of the most enduring ideas of what Americans came to think the immigrant experience was or should be, the notion of the melting pot, when he wrote, "Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world."
The United States has been built by immigrants. From the Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock in the seventeenth century to Europeans who landed on Ellis Island in the twentieth, people born elsewhere in the world came to America. Some of these people were fleeing religious persecution (Pilgrims, Puritans, Quakers, English Catholics, and Jews, for example). Some were fleeing political turmoil (Germans in the mid-1700s and mid 1800s, for example). But most came for economic reasons and were part of extensive migratory systems that responded to changing demands in labor markets. Some of these were actually recruited by agents acting on behalf of planters, railroads, and factories who needed more workers. Not only was there a large number of immigrants from Europe arriving through the east coast cities, but, between 1860 and 1910, there was significant immigration from China and Japan arriving via west coast cities. Until the 1880s, the American economy had needed both unskilled and skilled workers. But after the 1880s, the demand for labor was almost exclusively demand for unskilled workers to fill the growing number of factory and mining jobs. Many Americans came to regard the unskilled immigrants as "beaten men from beaten races."
Coinciding with this were changing conditions in some areas of Europe in the 1880s. Southern and eastern Europeans, dislocated from their land as mechanization and land reforms were introduced and possessing few skills, were attracted to the expanding industries in the United States. The agricultural regions of southeastern Europe were the areas in which these factors mixed. They had become linked to cities by the new transportation routes. Growing cities like Vienna, Budapest, and Berlin needed food. That encouraged farmers to acquire more land in order to expand production for distant markets. But the profit potential of commercial farming compared to that of the subsistence farming of the past stimulated the rise of large estates and increased the overall price of land. Small farm owners or aspiring owners found it harder and harder to acquire enough land to support themselves. The problem for these small owners was compounded by the dramatic increase in Europe's population after the Napoleonic Wars, which led to more people seeking land. Food supplies became more plentiful, diets improved, and life expectancy increased. Population pressures were increased because, with less land to transmit to the next generation, young people had less reason to delay marriage until after they received inheritance. Earlier marriage meant earlier childbearing and a longer period of child rearing as well. As chances for improvement in status decreased, people began to move in search of opportunities at home and in the United States.
There have been three great waves of immigration into the United States. The first occurred in the period 1815-1860. During that time, about five million immigrants settled permanently in the U.S. For the most part, the immigrants who came here during that period were English, Irish, Germanic, Scandinavian, and other northwestern Europeans. By and large, they were Protestant in their religion; and a sizeable percentage could read and write their native language if not English. The second major wave of immigration occurred in the period 1865-1890. During this period, 10 million immigrants settled permanently. These, too, were mainly from northwestern Europe, although by 1880 there were starting to be significant numbers of southern and eastern Europeans as well. Southern and eastern Europeans were predominantly Catholic and also predominantly unable to read or write even their native languages. Because the industrial revolution was slower in coming to southern and eastern Europe than to northwestern Europe, there had really been no economic to press for mass education; and because in Catholicism reading and interpreting scripture was a function for priests rather than laymen, there had been no religious motivation for literacy, either. The third great wave of immigration, which occurred in the period from1890 to1914 (the beginning of World War I) was mostly made up of peoples from southern and eastern Europe. In this period, some 15 million immigrants, many of whom were Austro-Hungarian, Turkish, Lithuanian, Russian, Jewish, Greek, Italian, and Romanian made the United States their permanent home.
The United States had entered a period of incredible prosperity in the 1880s and 1890s. At the same time, conditions in 19th century Europe worsened for millions of people as industrial revolutions and various catastrophes occurred in many parts of Europe. Indeed, four major factors had altered their society in Europe: a dramatic population increase, the spread of commercial agriculture, the rise of the factory system, and the proliferation of inexpensive means of transportation such as steamships and railroads. Millions of Europeans, unable to bear the pressures of these events began to envision America as a land of opportunity, a land where there were gold-paved streets and free land. Their hopes and dreams were not often fulfilled. One immigrant wrote that not only were the streets not paved with gold, most were not paved at all--and immigrant labor was expected to pave them. Simultaneously with this wave of immigration, many of the nation's social problems began to become obvious. The 1880s, for a variety of reasons, saw an increase in strikes, unemployment, alcoholism, illiteracy, prostitution, welfare, and crime. These problems would more than likely have occurred even if immigrants from southeastern Europe had been excluded, simply because this period was a time of urbanization, industrialization, and political corruption, and Americans were having a difficult time adjusting to the new social climate. Many Americans, seeking scapegoats, someone to blame for the problems, would begin to point to the immigrants as the source of the nation's problems.
Although it took "native" Americans a bit of time to define immigrants from southeastern Europe as "undesirable," politicians and community leaders were often quick to realize the "dangers" of actually allowing yet another racial group, Chinese and Japanese immigrants, into the country. Workers had been brought in from the Orient initially to help with the construction of the railroads in the West. But when the railroads were completed, most did not leave. Instead, they stayesd and became permanent residents, often opening small businesses in sectors of the economy that did not directly compete with whites. When their growing economic power began to be seen as a threat by whites in Western states, those states began to adopt laws aimed directly at making the Orientals uncomfortable. Because they were not Judeo-Christian, Chinese and Japanese businesmen had no problem with working seven days a week; because white Christian businessmen felt compelled to close on Sundays, the first "Sunday closing laws" were enacted as an anti-Oriental measure. Several states also adopted "queue ordinances" which required men to have short haircuts. These were not enforced against whites, but were enforced against Chinese, who for whom their long, braided queues had religious importance. Newspapers whipped up anti-Oriental sentiments with articles about a "Yellow Peril," portraying the Chinese and Japanese immigrants as undermining both wages and morals. The racism of national immigration policy is clear in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which made immigration from China illegal and in the 1906 "Gentleman's Agreement" which gave the U.S. the right to exclude Japanese immigrants.
Southern and eastern European immigrants were white, and initially presumed to be more acceptable. Soon, however, Americans were to define many white immigrants as undesirable and to restrict their immigration. At first, many American leaders felt that immigration was highly beneficial to the United States economy. Businessmen who read The Commercial and Financial Chronicle in 1882 were told that immigration was essential to American prosperity. As American industry grew, so did its need for unskilled labor. Businessmen were quite happy to exploit the new labor pool created by increasing immigration. However, businessmen began to change their minds as strikes became more common and labor unions grew larger and more powerful. Even though union leaders often disliked immigrants as much or more than they disliked business leaders, Americans assumed that the "anarchist" immigrants from countries like Russia were the driving force behind the increase in labor unrest. An example of this type of thinking was the reaction to the Haymarket Square bombing. Haymarket Square Riot (May 4, 1886) began when a bomb exploded among a squad of policemen assigned to cover a workers' rally in Haymarket Square in Chicago. Between May 1 (a worker's holiday in the socialist tradition) and May 4, a loosely organized "national" strike for the eight-hour day had been gaining momentum in Chicago. On May 3, the eight-hour day strikers moved to support of an already-existing strike at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. The police had fired on the crowd outside McCormick, and four people had been killed. The Haymarket rally, organized by a small anarchist group, was one of many called to protest the killings. Only 1300 people attended, and most of those left when it began to rain. There were only about 300 remaining when 180 Chicago police officers arrived and demanded that they disperse. Suddenly a bomb exploded among the policemen, killing one and wounding many more, including seven who died later. The police responded with wild, random gunfire, killing seven or eight people in the crowd and injuring about a hundred people, half of whom were fellow police officers. The source of the bomb is still unknown. The Haymarket bombing triggered a national panic; public officials, civic leaders, the press, and even some union leaders joined in equating foreign birth with anarchism and terrorism. In Chicago alone, hundreds of socialists, anarchists, and other radicals were rounded up. Eight anarchists (all but one of them German) were indicted for conspiracy, although no one was charged with actually throwing the bomb. After a highly publicized and very biased trial, seven of the eight were condemned to hang; the eighth was given a long prison sentence.
The Immigration Restriction League was founded in 1894 by a group of Boston lawyers, professors, and philanthropists who were alarmed by the large number of immigrants entering America each year. The League urged that immigrants should be required to demonstrate literacy in some language. In theory, at least, a literacy test would not discriminate against the people of any particular race, creed, or color. But in reality it would keep out many of the "new" immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, whom league members considered inferior beings, likely to become criminals or debtors if admitted. Congress passed a literacy bill in 1897, but President Grover Cleveland vetoed it. (In 1917, however, as wartime hysteria fed American xenophobia, another literacy bill was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson.)
Anti-immigrant politics put forth a number of justifications for limiting or stopping immigration. The ideas of Charles Darwin sparked great controversy in the half century after they were published, and many different (and sometimes downright idiotic) interpretations of evolution found their way into the public forum. One of these interpretations became what we now call the "Anglo-Saxon myth" or the "Aryan myth" (depending on which side of the English Channel one was on). Intellectuals like John Fiske, college professors like William Graham Sumner, scientists like Frederich Haekel, and others promoted the idea that the process of evolution had culminated in the "Anglo-Saxon 'race'" which was far superior to any other "race" on the planet. Such thinkers claimed that more "primitive 'races'" (i.e., any "race" that didn't originate in northwestern Europe) did not possess the mental, physical, or social capacities of "Anglo-Saxons" or "Aryans." The "Anglo-Saxons" or "Teutons" or "Aryans" were believed by adherents of these doctrines to have been responsible for all the finer points of civilization.
The alleged "scientific evidence" of the superiority of this "race" does not meet the test for scientific"evidence" at all. During the late 1800s, a variety of physical traits were alleged to be indicators of intelligence, criminality, and other behavioral traits. All of these were based on faulty sampling procedures and other errors in research procedure. "Aryan" and "Anglo-Saxon" are terms that denote linguistic patterns, not biological characteristics, and thus cannot be applied to "race," which is a pattern of genetic characteristics In fact, the "Anglo-Saxon" or "Aryan" myth is what sociologists call pure "ethnocentrism," the tendency to believe that one's own culture is superior to others. Francis A. Walker, a leading proponent of immigration, an article for the Atlantic Monthly in 1896 i that immigrants not of "Anglo-Saxon"origin were of inferior stock and, therefore, threatened the social, political, and economic well-being of the nation: "The problems which so sternly confront us to-day are serious enough without being complicated and aggravated by the addition of some millions of Hungarians, Bohemians, Poles, south Italians, and Russian Jews." ("Restriction of Immigration," The Atlantic Monthly, 77 (June, 1896): 822-829)
The "science" of eugenics was also emerging in the late 1800s. Its major theory claimed that cultural and social patterns were a result of heredity, and were thus controllable through selective breeding. Large numbers of Americans seized upon eugenics as a means of rationalizing their racism. Eugenicists could claim, with their procedurally improper "science" and flawed "empirical evidence" backing them up, that some humans with "inferior traits" were causing America's social problems. Since many Americans already assumed that southeastern Europeans, African-Americans, Jews, Asians, Middle Easterners, and Indians were of "inferior" blood, articles and theories published by eugenics simply gave them what they believed to be "scientific proof" that these "inferiors" were causing America's social problems. For a look at some of these faulty theories, see Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasures of Man.
One of the leading proponents of eugenics theory was Dr. Charles Benedict Davenport. In Heredity in Relation to Eugenics (1911), he argued that the weaknesses in society were due to the "unnatural" preservation, by the use of modern medicine, of the "feeble-minded" and "unfit." Written at a time when Italians, Poles, Greeks, Russians and Jews were the targets of anti- immigrant phobia, Davenport's book argued that "the population of the United States will, on account of the great influx of blood from South-eastern Europe, rapidly become darker in pigmentation, smaller in stature, more mercurial, more attached to music and art, [and] more given to crimes of larceny, kidnaping, assault, murder, rape and sex-immorality" and that "the ratio of insanity in the population will rapidly increase."
Advocates of the new "science" of eugenics called for more than simple immigration restriction, however. Scientists, politicians, and others relied upon the "evidence" of heredity to call for such drastic measures as sterilization, controlled breeding, institutionalization, and even the death penalty. By 1917, Dr. Louis Terman, the Stanford psychologist who brought IQ testing from France to the United States, was arguing that those whose IQs (as measured by the Stanford-Benet IQ test Terman developed) fell below a certain point should be sterilized so that they could not reproduce. (Twenty-six states were ultimately to adopt sterilization programs for people who scored low on the culturally biased test. The state of Virginia alone sterilized 28,000 people for scoring low on an IQ test.)
The Dillingham Commission was appointed in 1907 by the U.S. Senate to study immigration patterns. The Commission's appointment was largely due to the political pressures brought by groups like the Immigration Restriction League. These groups claimed that unplanned and unregulated immigration into the United States was causing unmanageable social problems. In its reports published in 1910-11, the Dillingham Commission concluded that since the 1880s, immigrants had been mainly of southern and eastern European stock. The Commission assumed that immigrants from places like Austria-Hungary, Russia, Italy, Turkey, Lithuania, Rumania, and Greece were "inferior" compared to the immigrants who had come before 1880, who were assumed to be of mainly northern and western European descent. However, it was not until the 20th century that the majority of immigrants were from southeastern Europe; until that time, more immigrants came from places like England, Ireland, and Scandinavia than from southeastern Europe.
Why did the Dillingham Commission point to 1880 as the beginning of a great wave of southeastern European immigration? Perhaps because so many Americans were eager to blame immigrants from southeastern Europe for emerging social problems, particularly urban problems, that it was easy to tell the majority group what they wanted to hear. Although many immigrants did settle in rural America, the vast majority immigrants settled in cities. The concentration of immigrant populations was highest in four of America's largest cities at the time: New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. Five out of every six Irish and Russian immigrants lived in a city. Three out of four Italian and Hungarian immigrants became urban dwellers, as did seven of ten English immigrants. The Dillingham Commission did not adequately consider factors such as wages, labor market conditions, population density, and a number of other factors independently of the nationality of recent immigrant groups, as it should have.
Why did immigrants settle in cities? Many immigrants came to America with very little money to buy farms or expensive farming equipment. Others settled in cities because farming in America was far different from the sort of farming they had done in Europe. Some immigrants, such as many Slavs, came to America too late to acquire free or cheap land. Some, such as Irish and Jewish immigrants, preferred the city because it provided a chance to worship with other Catholics or Jews without fear of persecution. One reason so many Irish settled in the city was that working the land reminded them painfully of home, where English landlords kept Irish tenant farmers in a constant state of oppression. Jews were also reminded of centuries of oppression and persecution, and often preferred cities to rural areas because cities afforded them the opportunity to recreate a mini-society of their own which emphasized religion, community, and education. Many European ethnic groups established such supportive urban enclaves and worked to find new arrivals positions within industries in which a number of others from the same ethnic background were already working. In addition, political parties, particularly the Democratic party, operated a sort of welfare system in cities that helped immigrants get started by offering them low level jobs that were a part of the patronage system of the time. (In return, of course, the immigrant was to become a citizen at the earliest opportunity and a loyal party supporter and voter as well.) The cities were thus often more attractive to immigrants than rural areas where they would have little in that way of a support system.
years following the end of World War I, the United States had a major, largely
government inspired "Red Scare" in response to the Commuist Revolution in
Russia. Many southern and eastern Europeans were deported for their
advocacy of Marxist ideas and the International Workers of the World was
effectively put out of business. In 1921, the United States Congress
passed a new immigration law severly restricting further immigration into the
United States by imposing a quota system. The number of immigrants allowed
into the United States was a percentage of the number of persons of a given
nation's ancestry already in the U. S. by 1880. While these quotas permitted
entry by far more people form England, France, Germany and other northern
European nations than wanted to come here, it severly restricted future
immigration from southern and eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Return to Lecture 1 Index Return to History 2 Main Page