American History 102: 1865-Present
Stanley K. Schultz, Professor of History
William P. Tishler, Producer

Lecture 08

Foreign Immigrants in Industrial America

While conditions in nineteenth-century Europe worsened for millions of its inhabitants, the United States entered a period of incredible prosperity. Millions of Europeans who suffered through the Industrial Revolution, economic depressions, and crushing famines, began to envision America as a land of unbounded opportunity. Unfortunately, the unprecedented economic turmoil that periodically swept the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century often dashed European dreams of gold-paved streets and free land. Furthermore, many Americans who sought scapegoats for the nation's festering economic and social problems pointed to the immigrants as the source of their problems.


The Nature of Nineteenth-Century Immigration

Although it took "native" Americans a bit of time to realize that immigrants from southeastern Europe were "undesirable," politicians and community leaders were quick to realize the "dangers" of actually allowing Chinese and Japanese immigrants into the country. The implicit racism of immigration restriction is most clear in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which made immigration from China illegal, and the 1906 "Gentleman's Agreement," which gave the United States the right to exclude Japanese immigrants.

The Dillingham Commission

In 1907, the United States Senate, under intense pressure from groups like the Immigration Restriction League, formed the Dillingham Commission to study the origins and consequences of immigration. In a series of reports published in 1910 and 1911, the Commission claimed that a crucial shift in European immigration patterns corresponded to the rise of festering social and economic problems in the United States. Before the 1880s, according to the Commission, most migrants to the United States had arrived from northern and western Europe. After the 1880s, however, "inferior" migrants from places in southeastern Europe, such as Austria--Hungary, Russia, Italy, Turkey, Lithuania, Romania, and Greece, increasingly dominated European immigration. In the end, the Commission's 42-volume report placed the blame for the nation's festering problems on these new migrants and recommended that the federal government use literary tests to prevent poor and uneducated immigrants from entering the nation and causing further social unrest.

Three great waves of immigration

  1. c. 1815-1860----5 million immigrants settled permanently in the United States, mainly English, Irish, Germanic, Scandinavian, and others from northwestern Europe
  2. c. 1865-1890----10 million immigrants settled permanently in America, again mainly from northwestern Europe
  3. c. 1890-1914----15 million immigrants journeyed to the United States, many of whom were Austro-Hungarian, Turkish, Lithuanian, Russian, Jewish, Greek, Italian, Romanian


However, it was not until the twentieth 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?
The 1880s was a time of high unemployment, growing labor unrest, political corruption, and urban decay. These problems would likely have taken hold even without immigrants from southeastern Europe. Many Americans, however, were eager to blame immigrants from southeastern Europe as the culprits behind the new problems.


The Causes of Immigration

"America was built by immigrants. From Plymouth Rock in the seventeenth century to Ellis Island in the twentieth, people born elsewhere came to America. Some were fleeing religious persecution and political turmoil. Most, however, came for economic reasons and were part of extensive migratory systems that responded to changing demands in labor markets....The American economy had needed both unskilled and skilled workers through much of the nineteenth century. But after the 1880s, the demand was almost exclusively for unskilled workers to fill the growing number of factory jobs. Coinciding with this were conditions in some areas of Europe, which were undergoing substantial economic changes in the 1880s. Southern and eastern Europeans, dislocated from their land and possessing few skills, were attracted to the burgeoning industries in the United States.


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.

Agricultural regions, the crucibles in which these factors were mingled, had become linked to cities by the new transportation routes. The increasing need of growing cities like London, Budapest, and Berlin for foodstuffs encouraged farmers to acquire more land in order to expand production for distant markets. But commercial rather than mere subsistence farming stimulated the rise of large estates and increased the overall price of land. Small owners or aspiring owners found it increasingly difficult to acquire sufficient land to support themselves. The problem for these small owners was compounded by the dramatic rise in Europe's population after the Napoleonic Wars. Food supplies became more plentiful, diets improved, and life expectancy increased. Population pressures were further heightened because, with less land to transmit, young people had less reason to wait for the landed inheritance once needed to start a family. Many simply went ahead and married. Earlier family formations, in turn, meant that women gave birth over a longer portion of their lives and more children were born. People of modest means then began to move in search of opportunities at home and in the United States...."
(Source: The Reader's Companion to American History, edited by E. Foner and J. A. Garraty. Published in Boston by Houghton Mifflin. 1991.)


Immigrants and Urban Settlement


Although many immigrants did migrate to rural America, a majority settled in cities. Immigrant populations, in fact, were highest in four of the largest cities at the time (New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Chicago). Furthermore, five out of every six Irish and Russian travelers, three out of four Italian and Hungarian immigrants and seven of ten arrivals from England, eventually settled in the nation's great cities.


Why did immigrants settle in cities?

Many immigrants came to America with little money to buy farms or expensive farming equipment. Others settled in cities because American agriculture was far different from what most had been accustomed to in Europe. Some, including many Slavs, simply came to America too late to acquire free or cheap land. Others moved to cities for different reasons. Many Irish opted for an urban life because they associated farming with the with English landlords who had persecuted Irish tenant farmers. Immigrants, particularly Jews, settled in urban areas because their forebears had already established vibrant cultural, religious, and educational institutions throughout many of the nation's largest cities.



Reactions of "Native" Americans to Immigration

The term "native," in this context, refers not to American Indians, but rather to Anglo-Americans who considered themselves "true Americans" even though their ancestors had been migrated from Europe just a few generations before. At first, many champions of American business, such as the editors of The Commercial and Financial Chronicle, argued that immigration would provide a ready pool of unskilled workers to man the nation's factories and would help boost the American economy. Many businessmen, however, began to change their minds as strikes became more common and labor unions grew larger and more powerful. Increasingly, they and many other Americans blamed "radical" immigrants to for the nation's labor problems. The reaction to the Haymarket Square bombing in 1886 demonstrates this kind of thinking in action.

Haymarket Square Riot (May 4, 1886)

"The Haymarket affair began when a bomb exploded among a squad of policemen at a workers' rally in Haymarket Square, Chicago, on May 4, 1886. Since May 1, a loosely organized national strike for the eight-hour day had been gaining momentum in Chicago. On May 3 strikers had come to the support of an already-existing strike at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company; police had fired on the crowd 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 thirteen hundred people attended, and most left when it began to rain. About three hundred remained when 180 police 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 gunfire, killing seven or eight people in the crowd and injuring about a hundred, half of them fellow officers.

The Haymarket bombing triggered a national wave of fear; public officials, civic leaders, the press, and some union leaders joined in equating foreign birth with anarchism and terror. In Chicago hundreds of socialists, anarchists, and other radicals were rounded up. Eight anarchists (all but one of them German immigrants) were indicted for conspiracy, though none was charged with throwing the bomb. After a conspicuously biased trial, seven were condemned to hang; the eighth was given a long prison sentence...."
(Source: The Reader's Companion to American History, edited by E. Foner and J. A. Garraty. Published in Boston by Houghton Mifflin. 1991.)


Justifications for excluding immigrants

American intellectuals tried to apply  Charles Darwin's theories of evolutions to human societies. Such thinking became the basis for what many historians refer to as the "Anglo-Saxon myth."

Anglo-Saxon Myth

During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, many college professors, scientists, and other intellectuals, such as John Fiske (right), promoted the idea that human evolution had culminated in the Anglo-Saxon race. Such thinkers argued that more "primitive" races (any "race" that did not originate in northwestern Europe) did not possess the mental, physical, or social capacities of Anglo-Saxons, who were responsible for the finer points of civilization. "Scientific evidence" of the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race was hardly evidence at all. Some scientists believed, for example, that the slope of a person's forehead was a reliable indicator of their intelligence. As the logic went, Anglo-Saxons were more likely to have a high forehead; therefore, "scientists" conjectured that Anglo-Saxons were necessarily more intelligent.


Political philosopher Francis A. Walker was a leading proponent of immigration restriction at the end of the nineteenth century. An article he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly in 1896 indicates his general belief that immigrants not of "Anglo-Saxon" origin were of inferior stock and 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."--Francis A. Walker, The Atlantic Monthly; June, 1896; "Restriction of Immigration"; Volume 77, No. 464; pages 822-829

Click here to see the rest of this article by Francis A. Walker.


The "science" of eugenics claimed that heredity determined cultural and social patterns and, hence, that selective human breeding would advance civilization. Many Americans seized on eugenics to rationalize "scientifically" their racism. Since many Americans already assumed that southeastern Europeans, African-Americans, Jews, Asians, Middle Easterners, and American Indians were of "inferior" blood, eugenics simply gave them "scientific proof" that these "inferiors" were causing America's social problems.

About this image

A group of poor men hold signs given to them by eugenics supporters on Wall Street (NY)

Copyright 1997 State Historical Society of Wisconsin

One leading proponent of eugenics theory was Dr. Charles Benedict Davenport. Davenport argued that weaknesses in society were due to the unnatural preservation, by the use of modern medicine, of the "feeble-minded" and "unfit." In his 1911 book, Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, written at a time when Italians, Poles, Greeks, Russians and Jews were the targets of anti-immigrant phobia, he held 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, kidnapping, 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, however, called for more than simple immigration restriction. Scientists, politicians, and others relied upon the "evidence" of heredity to advocate such drastic measures as sterilization, controlled breeding, institutionalization, and even executions of the feeble. People often associate such measures with Nazi Germany and Hitler's methods of "racial purification." Yet, proponents of eugenics and "racial purity" also enjoyed a great deal of popular support in the United States during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Immigration Restriction League

"This organization 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 be required to demonstrate literacy in some language. In theory 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 public charges if admitted.

A literacy bill was passed by Congress 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. After 1917, as key members lost interest or passed away, the Immigration Restriction League declined in influence."
(Source: The Reader's Companion to American History, edited by E. Foner and J. A. Garraty. Published in Boston by Houghton Mifflin. 1991.)

"It's the object [of the Immigration Restriction League] not to advocate the exclusion of laborers or other immigrants of such character and standards that fit them to become citizens, but public opinion must be made to recognize the necessity of a further exclusion of elements undesirable for citizenship or injurious to our national character."--Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr.


Immigrants from Europe were not the only new faces to arrive on the urban and industrial scene around the turn of the century. Beginning in the 1890s and lasting until the 1970s, a large number of black Americans began moving from the rural South to the urban areas of the North. Similar to Europeans, Southern blacks moved to Northern cities in search of work and an escape from social strife. The story of this mass exodus, often called the "Great Migration," is a fascinating and important aspect of American history; so important, in fact, that it is the subject of the next lecture: Lecture 09: The Great Migration: Blacks in White America.


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