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
"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...."
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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