Why Immigration Matters

by Thomas Kessner

Detail from a World War I poster. (GLC09522)It is difficult today to recapture the iconoclasm signaled by Oscar Handlin’s opening words to his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Uprooted more than fifty years ago: “Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.”

I say it is difficult to appreciate the impact of this statement because challenges to prevailing paradigms about this topic no longer strike us as particularly bold, daring, or fresh. But to a 1950s population that was used to marking historical time by presidential administrations, Handlin’s insistence that the fortunes of distressed common folk might better capture the American essence than presidents, wars, and legislative politics was bracing. And it suggested that the widespread “contributionalist” approach to immigration history was distorting and wrongheaded.

This contributionalist approach emphasized the master narrative of America’s rise to dominance and then tacked on, almost as an afterthought, a colorful assortment of celebrity songwriters, boxers, baseball players, and novelists, informing readers and students that these foreign-born Americans had also made contributions. The impression was inescapable: “Real Americans,” like Washington, Madison, Jefferson et al., directed the grand project of forging America; immigrants made contributions.

Handlin, and those who followed his lead, posed a simple challenge to these contributionalists: Imagine an America without immigrants. How liberal would be its traditions; how diverse its population; how progressive its politics; how strong its economy; how rich its art; how cosmopolitan its cities; how advanced its science and technology; how transforming its history; how free-swinging its character; how noteworthy its cause? Would America be America without its immigrants? To put a fine point on it: Immigration is not some marginal theme in American history; it has been a crucial axis of America’s distinctive development, from the very beginning.

At the dawn of American history, the men and women who, for one reason or a hundred, left England for the colonies, pitched their hopes beyond the known horizons of their own world and set out for an alternative, a New World that they would build themselves. And, as their preachers repeatedly reminded them, if it came to that, they would have to shoulder the blame for its failure. “We shall be,” the Puritan leader John Winthrop instructed his fellow travelers, “a city upon a hill. The eyes of all the people are upon us.” It was an audacious responsibility to leave behind a limiting past to depart for a different destiny. It is in these beginnings that some interpreters locate the seeds of America’s missionary impulse.

In an era when crossing an ocean was a life-threatening adventure, and leaving home meant forever sundering those ties that root a life in its social context, it was a troubled tribe whose members urged themselves upon this difficult path. They interest us not because they made assorted “contributions,” but because they taught a riveting New World lesson: that a people can be guided as much by hope for the future as by the graven image of its past.

The new nation that these early immigrants formed came from various strains—a byproduct nation composed of exiles, slaves, adventurers, and dissenters; persecuted, starved, and vulnerable people, grown sick of poverty, bigotry, and kings: It was a nation without a core character, a patchwork nation that developed from a series of layered migrations. The process of social re-mixing eventually yielded a new society, less provincial, less narrowly devoted than the ones the immigrants had left behind. “I could point out to you,” the French expatriate Hector St. John de Crevecoeur wrote shortly after the American Revolution, “a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations.”

What attachment can a poor European emigrant have for a country where he had nothing? The knowledge of the language, the love of a few kindred as poor as himself, were the only cords that tied him; his country is now that which gives him land, bread, protection, and consequence . . . The American is a new man.

Other nations embraced the unifying myth of extended family. Whether it was a Romulus and Remus from whom came all Romans, or a folkgeist that held Teutons in a spiritual bond, the common idols of the tribe created an encompassing racial and cultural nationalism. Centuries of fixed religious practice, shared history, and a residual feudal culture submerged the individual in the braided commonalities of the nation. In order to pass into acceptance, newcomers had to penetrate thickly interwoven norms, styles, and beliefs. The concept of “religious liberty,” for example, had little meaning to a society where religion, language, history, and culture formed one tight weave; only when these strands began to pull apart did it become possible to view them as independent variables.

Immigrant diversity made America different, not in colorful little ways, but in large ways that were essential to its development. Only the deluded could speak of a single Oversoul for its Babel of ethnicities. All Americans, except Native Americans, had at one time been strangers to the land they now claimed as their own, a land that proved reluctant to surrender its ambiguities. While other nations took a name—Britain , France , Italy—Americans insisted on a concept, the United States. Formed from many cultures, its nationalism, its shared identity, was thinner and less thoroughgoing, and more political than cultural.

With so many different backgrounds, Americans had to learn to live with many cultures, many versions of truth. How could they establish a single national church when the only thing they could agree upon with regard to religion was to protect the right to disagree? It was not that Americans were a naturally more tolerant people. It was that given their variety of backgrounds, they could either create a large protected zone of personal freedom or fight an endless round of cultural battles. Consequently, instead of maximizing the authority of the state, the Constitution designed a limited government, placing an unprecedented range of freedoms beyond government’s power. Where other counties saw tolerance as a fault—an expression of uncertainty—Americans embraced it as a pragmatic formula for domestic tranquility.

The willingness of the new nation to tolerate slavery is just one example of how far from perfect this attitude turned out to be, and a Civil War proved further that diversity brought with it a galaxy of discontents. Despite America’s faults, however, the country became the most attractive destination for the world’s disaffected and oppressed. “Kein konig dort [No king there.],” declared a German immigrant when asked to explain America’s allure. And then, of course, there was the American economy, powerful enough to transform a backward agricultural nation with immense natural gifts into the world’s leading industrial nation.

Call it modernization, urbanization, industrialization, or a combination of these and other large forces, the unsettling process shook millions free from their homelands in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, churning them from the lands of northern and western Europe toward the south and the east, undermining traditional peasant societies, and touching off a vast transfer of populations. In the 1870s more than 280,000 newcomers a year, mostly from Germany, Ireland, Great Britain, and the Scandinavian countries of western and northern Europe entered the United States. Only a decade later, the Danish-American journalist Jacob Riis observed a noteworthy change: In lower Manhattan’s congested districts, Italian newcomers were making their way “northward along the line of Mulberry Street and . . . the Russian and Polish Jew, having overrun the district between Rivington and Division Streets . . . to the point of suffocation, is filling the tenements.”

These were “New Immigrants” from southern and eastern Europe, and they would account for the bulk of the twenty-three million immigrants from Europe, the largest migration in history, who came crowding into America’s ports between 1880 and 1920. They came to escape decaying economies and outdated political systems. To longer-settled Americans their cultures, languages, and folkways were strange and threatening, and, for some, signaled the decline of civilization; “a wild and motley throng. . . . Men from the Volga and Tartar Steppes . . . bringing with them unknown gods and rites,” exclaimed Thomas Bailey Aldrich, the laureate of American nativism. In George Washington’s day, religious freedom had meant being any kind of Protestant you wanted; then with the arrival of the Old Immigration its definition was broadened to include Irish and German Catholics. Now the meaning of American freedom was being stretched again, beyond the ken of its experience, and the adjustment to the new immigration was not without ambiguity and difficulty.

The two largest groups of the New Immigrants in this period were the Jews of Eastern Europe and the Italians. Not only were they different from other Americans in many ways, they also settled in the most congested districts of America’s industrial cities (where, aside from all else, the concentration of media guaranteed that their experiences would be intensely described and broadcast), and they seemed so helpless and ill fitting. Both groups were described as illiterate, unwashed, undisciplined, and undesirable. Emigrants from Italy came with little urban experience, and most did not even intend to settle here, only to make some money and go back home. The fact that the Jews, on the run from oppressive governments, did intend to settle here was not thought to be much of an improvement. Indeed, the arrival of these “inferior races” touched off a process of immigration restriction that ultimately closed the vaunted Golden Door.

What could be expected of these immigrants, who seemed so much less promising even than the Irish and Germans who had preceded them? The answer certainly does not lie primarily in the contributions of a Joe DiMaggio or Irving Berlin. In their quotidian multitudes these immigrants brought to their new land much valuable experience and important gifts. For better and worse, they helped expose a young nation to ancient ethical and moral systems, novel political and philosophical traditions, and deeply textured cultural and economic experiences. Their diversity contributed to the evolution of American liberty. And like other immigrants before them, they peopled the land, pushed back its frontiers, built its cities, laid its tracks, worked its factories, enriched its cultures, and fashioned a remarkable technology. Of course they reaped concomitant benefits: the opportunity for liberty and a better life—and for even a poor child, the opportunity to dream ample dreams. But with time and success, many Americans who had traveled just this route forgot the awkwardness and the difficulties associated with the process. And now they feared it. So during the 1920s, American slammed the doors on this part of their unique past by passing a landmark law, known as the Emergency Quota Act, that put an end to open immigration. By declaring that that immigration could not exceed three percent of the number of a nation’s people already in the United States in 1910, this act severely restricted the flow of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.

Thomas Kessner is Distinguished Professor of History at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author of Fiorello H. LaGuardia and the Making of Modern New York (1989), Capital City: New York City and the Men behind America’s Rise to Economic Dominance, 1860–1900 (2004), and The Flight of the Century: Charles Lindbergh and the Rise of American Aviation (forthcoming, 2012).

Suggested Sources

Books and Printed Materials

You’ll find an embarrassment of riches when it comes to additional resources for all of the aspects of immigration to America covered in this issue. I’ll start with those that give broad coverage to immigration in general.

Here are some good printed sources with reliable bibliographies for further reading:
Cose, Ellis. A Nation Of Strangers: Prejudice, Politics, and the Populating of America (New York: Morrow, c1992).

Daniels, Roger. Coming To America: A History Of Immigration And Ethnicity In American Life (New York, NY: Perennial, 2002).

Dublin, Thomas, ed. Immigrant Voices: New Lives In America, 1773-1986
(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, c1993).

Jones, Maldwyn Allen. American Immigration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

On the Web, you may want to start with the most obvious website of all, that for Ellis Island:


Indeed, Ellis Island provides the best (of many) online timeline and graph tracing immigration from all parts of the world in its “Peopling of America” site:


As usual, some of the best websites for young students of American history have been mounted by television channels. Among those well worth a visit are:

http://school.discovery.com/ [Discovery Channel; search for "immigration"]

http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/newamericans/ [PBS]

The ever reliable American Memory initiative at the Library of Congress provides “Immigration … The Changing Face of America." This feature presentation links educators to primary sources from the Library of Congress' online collections:

http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/ndlpedu/features/ immig/immigration_set2.html


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This article did point out that immigrants were a big part of our history and how they helped shape America today. The article mentioned how the immigrants helped Americans build up tolerance especially cultural and racial tolerance "How liberal would be its traditions; how diverse its population...". I couldn't agree more with this. Where would we be today if Jewish or Irish were still immigrating? Would we still treat them cruelly and welcome them with disgust? I'm almost sure we would. I also agree with the article in which it says Immigration has been the crucial axis of America's development. That is how America started after all, people traveled over sea here to establish a king free coloney. Yet we brush the importance of immigration aside and the contributions the immigrants made. Why? Maybe we still have a part in us that believes we are better? We think we never needed them or their "help"? Whatever the reason is I think we should out a little more emphasis on how immigration helped us today.

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