(standing is an Irishman)
Puck Magazine, June 1889
Puck Magazine, June 1889
A great many people today can look at this map...
...and conclude, 'This can only spell good things for America.'
'Anglo-America absorbed millions of alien immigrants in the 19th century, then went on to become the biggest superpower in world history!'
As it happens, both these statements are true. It is also true that after metal helmets replaced leather ones, the number of soldiers' head injuries increased. So did America become a huge superpower because, or in spite of, these aliens? Or a little of both?
And if these waves of 19th c. foreigners did make her stronger, can the same be said of the millions streaming in yearly now?
The question is by no means flip. Many of the arguments used by immigration restrictionists in 2012 are identical to those used a hundred years ago. It's a case of Chicken Little, says our open-border contingent--'Your predecessors said the sky would fall; it didn't, and this time it won't either.'
Why, just look at this mosaic:
A propositional nation, n'est-ce pas?
The Earliest Immigrants
In 1891 Henry Cabot Lodge tallied the outstanding men profiled in Appleton's Encyclopedia of American Biography, breaking them out by ethnie:
J.R. Commons was a bit skeptical of the ranking, noting that not all immigrants came from the same classes:
The Huguenots and the French, according to Lodge's statistics, show a percentage of ability in proportion to their total immigration much higher than that of any other race. But the Huguenots were a select class of people, manufacturers and merchants, perhaps the most intelligent and enterprising of Frenchmen in the seventeenth century. (1)
He also argues that the English themselves migrated in different groups, from paupers to nobility, and that to be fair, one must expect more men of eminence to come from an urban milieu than a rural one. (Germans were the most under-represented on this list, according to Lodge; Commons counters that they were mostly country folk.)
These arguments aside, can one claim a country's 'eminent men' have something to do with its racial make-up? For the U.S., can one argue that parts of its European make-up have helped it, and others have hurt it? If you are White American, what stratum do you hail from--and can one say your people have truly assimilated? To what does one assimilate in this country? And will those who come after you do the same?
Most Americans who fix on an identity of 'white' today are on ethnically diverse ground. In the very earliest days of the Republic, mixing was already here:
It is the distinctive fact regarding colonial migration that it was Teutonic in blood and Protestant in religion. The English, Dutch, Swedes, Germans, and even the Scotch-Irish, who constituted practically the entire migration, were less than two thousand years ago one Germanic race in the forests surrounding the North Sea. The Protestant Reformation, sixteen centuries later, began among those peoples and found in them its sturdiest supporters. The doctrines of the Reformation, adapted as they were to the strong individualism of the Germanic races, prepared the hearts of men for the doctrines of political liberty and constitutional government of the succeeding century. (1)
Here we see ethnic settlement up to the 1850s and 1860s (drawn from the 1870 census):
English and Welsh settlement, 1870
Irish settlement, 1870
German settlement, 1870
Swedish and Norwegian settlement, 1870
This migrant era, up until about 1880, was a hodgepodge of NW Europeans:
(These are only the great waves;
Scots, Welsh, Dutch, and Scandinavians were also arriving at this time.)
Here we can see raw immigration numbers, compared with per capita import levels, for the entire 19th century:
We see the spike in the 1850s, heavily Irish and German, which led to the nativist Know-Nothing movement, followed by a huge dip during the Civil War. The 1870s and 1890s Depressions both led to big slumps. When J.R. Commons published this map, in 1907, Slavic and Mediterranean immigration was exploding.
The post-1880 immigrant: Who? Why?
Why did it matter that the immigrants who came later were from places other than NW Europe? J.R. Commons describes the change that came around 1882, when immigrants from 'Teutonic' races were replaced with
...Latin, Slav, Semitic, and Mongolian races. When the sources of American immigration are shifted from the Western countries so nearly allied to our own, to Eastern countries so remote in the main attributes of Western civilization, the change is one that should challenge the attention of every citizen.
He worried the newcomers were not fit for democracy:
Nevertheless, the peasantry of Europe to-day  is in large part the product of serfdom and of that race-subjection which produced serfdom. ... The [South/Eastern] European peasant, says Professor Shaler, "knows himself to be by birthright a member of an inferior class, from which there is practically no chance of escaping. . . . It is characteristic of peasants that they have accepted this inferior lot. .... They have no large sense of citizenly motives; they feel no sense of responsibility for any part of the public life save that which lies within their own narrow round of action."
How different from the qualities of the typical American citizen whose forefathers have erected our edifice of representative democracy! It was not the peasant class of Europe that sought these shores in order to found a free government. It was the middle class, the merchants and yeomen, those who in religion and politics were literally "protestants," and who possessed the intelligence, manliness, and public spirit which urged them to assert for themselves those inalienable rights which the church or the state of their time had arrogated to itself. With such a social class democracy is the only acceptable form of government. They demand and secure equal opportunities because they are able to rise to those opportunities. (1)
So who exactly came in the 1880s, 1890s, and 1900s?
In 1815, mathematician Elkanah Watson predicted census numbers for the following century. Here are his estimates, alongside the real totals from between 1790 et 1900:
Many look back today nonchalantly and ask, 'But why would any of this present a problem?'
The 19th century immigrant--alien mores
The Italians were often thought to be the most degraded of the European newcomers. They were swarthy, more than half of them were illiterate, and most all were victims of a standard of living lower than that of any of the other prominent nationalities.
...An old-fashioned New York gentleman in the 1830's burst out: "A dirty Irishman is bad enough, but he's nothing comparable to a nasty . . . Italian loafer."
Wherever they went, a distinctive sobriquet followed them. "You don't call . . . an Italian a white man?" a West Coast construction boss was asked. "No, sir," he answered, "an Italian is a Dago." (2)
It is worth noting that the great mass of northern Italian immigrants to the Western Hemisphere made their way to Argentina and Brazil, while most southern Italians came to the United States. A reminder about the two regions:
Eastern Jews did not receive a warm welcome either:
The New York Tribune in 1882 noted blandly: "Numerous complaints have been made in regard to the Hebrew immigrants who lounge about Battery Park, obstructing the walks and sitting on the chains. Their filthy condition has caused many of the people who are accustomed to go to the park to seek a little recreation and fresh air to give up this practice. The immigrants also greatly annoy the persons who cross the park to take the boats to Coney Island, Staten Island and Brooklyn. The police have had many battles with these newcomers, who seem determined to have their own way." (2)
Their reputation as money-grubbers followed them from Eastern Europe:
They had, of course, their own unique status, fixed by the ancient Shylock stereotype; they stood for chicane rather than crime or revolution... But the Jews' unscrupulous greed now seemed as potentially subversive as the doings of bloodthirsty Italians, "furious Huns," or Irish papists. [...] "Money is their God," wrote Jacob Riis of the Russian Jews as a whole. (2)
The 19th century immigrant and crime
Cities drew the new immigrants by millions, and cities bred poverty and crime. Commons:
The cities, too, furnish that choice of employers and that easy reliance on charitable and friendly assistance which is so necessary to the indigent labour looking for work. Thus it is that those races of immigrants the least self-reliant or forehanded, like the Irish and the Italians, seek the cities in greater proportions than those sturdy races like the Scandinavians, English, Scotch, and Germans.
Many felt our large cities were becoming overwhelmingly foreign:
Both Irish and Italians were often seen as a violent menace:
[Italians] soon acquired a reputation as bloodthirsty criminals. Since southern Italians had never learned to fight with their fists, knives flashed when they brawled among themselves or jostled with other immigrants. Soon a penologist was wondering how the country could build prisons which Italians would not prefer to their own slum quarters. On the typical Italian the prison expert commented: "The knife with which he cuts his bread he also uses to lop off another 'dago's' finger or ear. . . . He is quite as familiar with the sight of human blood as with the sight of the food he eats." (2)The severe ethnic balkanization of cities led to a general rise in street gangs:
"The Jewish gangs that grew up to protect the Jew against the Irish, the Italian gangs later in conflict with the Jewish gangs, the old comment in certain parts of Chicago that "Every Irish kid was raised to kill a Swede," the conflict between Negro and white that led to race riots in Chicago and East St. Louis, all trace the long-time irritation and conflict that contributed to the habit of violence, that led to coalescence of groups practicing violence against their neighbors,... (3)
In his 1943 work Race and Crime, Adrian Bonger analyzes the crime rates of various European peoples, both in their home countries and in the U.S. Here are the assault, murder, and manslaughter rates for immigrants to the U.S. in 1910, by place of birth:
The Prohibition movement was strongly interwoven with distrust of Catholic and Jewish immigrants. Alcohol-related crime was an intense preoccupation for many 19th century Protestant Americans. Here are some statistics; we note the place of Mediterraneans on this list:
John R. Commons has pointed out the great worry over the high crime rates of urban immigrants. Here are data on juvenile offenders in the North Atlantic in 1890:
The 19th century immigrant and corruption
1908 hit song-- the 'Tammany Tiger' Irish political machine ran NYC;
their sworn enemy was 'trust-buster' (and ex-NY governor)
their sworn enemy was 'trust-buster' (and ex-NY governor)
Commons, on 19th century American 'democracy':
This is exactly the political problem that grows out of the presence of races and immigrants. [...] A variety of races and nationalities living in the same ward are asked to elect aldermen and other officers by majority vote. No one nationality has a majority, but each sets up its list of candidates. The nationality with a mere plurality elects all of its candidates, and the other nationalities—a majority of the voters—are unrepresented. This is an extreme case, and has not often been allowed to happen. But the only means of preventing it is the “ward boss.”
The boss emerges from the situation as inevitably as the survival of the fittest. And the fittest is the Irishman. The Irishman has above all races the mixture of ingenuity, firmness, human sympathy, comradeship, and daring that makes him the amalgamator of races. He conciliates them all by nominating a ticket on which the offices are shrewdly distributed; and out of the Babel his “slate” gets the majority.
The representative becomes a tool in the hands of the boss. The boss sells his power to corporations, franchise speculators, and law-evaders. Representative democracy becomes bossocracy in the service of plutocracy. The ward system worked well when the suffrage was limited. Then the business men elected their business man unimpeded. But a system devised for restricted suffrage breaks down under universal suffrage. (1)A reputation for corruption followed the Irish:
At the end of the 1860's, the extortions of the Tweed Ring in New York City, supported to a considerable degree by Irish votes, aroused an outraged middle-class opposition. In the process, leading civic reformers struck a good many nativistic blows at "the rule of the uncultivated Irish Catholics." For a time the crusading cartoonist, Thomas Nast, flayed the Catholic Church, the Irish, and Tweed with equal fury. (2)
Picture depicts innocent voters dropping their ballots into a garbage basket while Tweed and his gang stands
Caption: (Boss) "You have the Liberty of Voting for any one you please;
but we have the Liberty of Counting in any one we please."
but we have the Liberty of Counting in any one we please."
The 19th century immigrant and labor
Throughout the 1800s (as today), immigration had been most staunchly supported by Big Business and the professional class, and most fiercely resisted by the wage-earner. Commons, in 1907:
It is an easy and patriotic matter for the lawyer, minister, professor, employer, or investor, placed above the arena of competition, to proclaim the equal right of all races to American opportunities; to avow his own willingness to give way should even a better Chinaman, Hindu, or Turk come in to take his place; and to rebuke the racial hatred of those who resist this displacement. His patriotism and world-wide brotherhood cost him and his family nothing, and indeed they add to his profits and leisure. (1)
Then as now, not all immigrants arrived with the same skill level:
It was only in the 1890s, in the midst of a terrible Depression, that Big Capital began to change its mind:
Arguing for thoroughgoing restriction, the general manager of the American Iron and Steel Association maintained that the depression was greatly aggravated by "the presence among us of thousands of idle and vicious foreigners who have not come here to work for a living but to stir up strife and to commit crime."
[...] When a showdown came in Congress in 1896-97, the area west of the Missouri River voted almost unanimously for general immigration restriction.... By 1896, a good majority of southern Senators and Representatives had swung over to restriction. (2)
And so it was, that in the 1890s the 'nativist' movement finally caught on, leading to several years of attempts at voting immigration caps, finally passed in 1921 and sealed by the 1924 Immigration Act (reducing non-NW Euro entries to a mere drip). The doors would not be opened again until 1965.
* * *
As attached as many white Americans are to their European heritage, for many if not most of us it is a mixed bag. Here is a snapshot of the ethnic patchwork on just a small snippet of the Wisconsin/Minnesota border:
The unprecedented waves of South and East European migration in the 1880s and 1890s rattled America deeply. They should have. The country's founding stock were at that time threatened with eclipse. Were these people assimilable?
Some say no--that this era marked the beginning of the end of our great Anglo-Protestant republican experiment. Some say yes--that after turning off the tap in 1924, many of the foreign groups who weren't already 'marrying out' were suddenly forced to do so. This intermingling between higher- and lower-ability Euro groups led to a 'leveling' by which today, globally, American Whites are behaviorally and cognitively similar to modern NW Europeans. Wiki:
An analysis of Census information and immigration records would suggest that 62 percent of White Americans today are of British Isles descent, and a total of 86 percent are of Northwestern European origins. Approximately 14 percent of U.S. whites are of southern and eastern European ancestry.
To add further weight, a World War II ethnic background of the U.S. put the top four backgrounds as 36 million British (English, Scottish, Welsh, Cornish), 32 million German, 29 million Irish, 12 million Italian and 10 million Polish.
These numbers would perhaps reassure old-time alarmists like Henry Cabot Lodge--most white Americans today are of at least part NW Euro blood. And even those of mainly Slavic or Mediterranean descent seem to have assimilated rather well.
Would Lodge be alarmed by these numbers?
Or, to bring us right up to date,
The debate rages about Latin Americans' future in the U.S. The mainly Spanish-blood arrivals of the 19th c. have given way to millions-strong waves of Amerindian mestizos. Is there evidence that ethnic Iberians can run modern, prosperous, just states? There is. Is there evidence that pure Amerindians or mestizos can run such a state? For the moment, there is not.
As far as Indians and Chinese, one could well look at these two countries and ask himself if he would like to live in such a place. Current migratory flows ('voting with one's feet') show that not many Euro-Americans are so tempted. Au grand contraire:
We find that our democratic theories and forms of government were fashioned by but one of the many races and peoples which have come within their practical operation, and that that race, the so-called Anglo-Saxon, developed them out of its own insular experience unhampered by inroads of alien stock. When once thus established in England and further developed in America we find that other races and peoples, accustomed to despotism and even savagery, and wholly unused to self-government, have been thrust into the delicate fabric. Like a practical people as we pride ourselves, we have begun actually to despotize our institutions in order to control these dissident elements, though still optimistically holding that we retain the original democracy. (1)
Commons wrote these words in 1907; he may just as well have penned them last week.
Optimists say that the U.S. will absorb and assimilate the current inflows just as well as she did the old. Nothing will change of the American character, spirit, intelligence.
Pessimists say the seeds of the U.S.'s demise were already sown in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, and we've been a ticking time bomb since.
Does the truth lie somewhere in-between? In all likelihood...
...we'll have our answer before this third American century is finished.
(1) Commons, J.R., Races and Immigrants in America, NY: Macmillan, 1907.
(2) Higham, John, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1955.
(3) Tannenbaum, Frank, Crime and the Community, Boston: Ginn, 1938.