Publication Date

January 1, 1995

Perspectives Section


Oscar Handlin once wrote that he set out to study the influence of immigrants in American history and discovered that immigrants are American history. As everyone knows, there has never been a time in our history when immigration has not been a concern. Sometimes newcomers were welcomed, other times they were denounced, and always there was ambivalence. Were too many immigrants arriving? Would they fit in? Would they take jobs away from those already here? Would they be a burden on society? Were some immigrants more desirable than others?

Such questions have been relevant since colonial times, and it is impossible to teach American history without taking immigrants into consideration. For example, no instructor would think of eliminating from the survey course a discussion of the forced immigration of Africans brought to America to work as slaves. In fact, not discussing this group of immigrants and their experiences in the United States would be considered a grievous omission. Yet there certainly are survey courses that pay slight attention to Asian and Latin American immigrants.

Immigration in Early America

Practically all textbooks on the colonial era mention immigration from Holland, the British Isles, the German states of Europe, and, to a lesser extent, from other areas of Europe. Collectively, these individuals, along with Africans who were brought to America as slaves, constituted the overwhelming majority of newcomers to our shores. Émigrés from the British Isles established colonies in present-day New England and Virginia, as well as in Pennsylvania, the Carolinas, and Georgia. New York and New Jersey were taken over from the Dutch; German immigrants found the middle colonies, especially Pennsylvania and Maryland, hospitable to their needs. Eighteen different languages were said to have been spoken in New York. Such points are worth making when discussing early America because many of our contemporaries, unfortunately, think that Americans have always spoken English and followed the customs of the British settlers.

The two major non-English groups to populate colonial America, the Scots-Irish and the Germans, made a significant dent. With their arrival, mostly in the early decades of the 18th century, we begin to see attitudes that would flourish in every period of American history characterized by the influx of large numbers of foreigners. There was welcome for the labor they provided, but anxiety that these strangers would not fit in easily and that they would undermine existing traditions while imposing their own values on our established culture. In Pennsylvania residents wanted the Scots Irish to be settled on the frontiers as barriers between themselves and the Indians, and also because the Scots-Irish were said to have such "irascible tempers" that they could not get on with others. As far as the Germans were concerned, Benjamin Franklin expressed a common sentiment when he stated that Pennsylvanians had to "Anglify" them before they tried to "Germanicize" us.

The fears of Pennsylvanians toward the Scots Irish and the Germans surfaced frequently in early American history, and when discussing these groups of colonists, instructors might note that such attitudes crop up again in successive periods of American history. New Yorkers and Bostonians, among others, denounced the Irish in the middle of the 19th century, Californians showed disdain for the Chinese on the West Coast after they had originally welcomed them circa 1850, and Americans of various backgrounds scorned southern and eastern Europeans in the early part of the 20th century. In more recent times, we have seen French Canadians in New England, Puerto Ricans in New York City, and Mexicans in the Southwest looked down upon simply because they were "different." Such attitudes are heightened during times of crisis when people see foreigners as serious threats. This point was illustrated in the early Federalist period when Americans feared that French radicals would undermine our new country and President John Adams was authorized, in the Alien Act, to expel or jail immigrants he deemed a threat to the nation's security.

It is also important to discuss in the early part of the survey course that different groups established ethnic enclaves and tried to preserve their faith, culture, and language. Maintenance of faith and language have always been important to immigrants, and often to their children and grandchildren, as a means of preserving warm family heritage while still moving comfortably within the dominant culture. Some immigrants, like the Huguenots, eventually blended into the mainstream of the population within two generations, but others, like the Dutch and especially many Germans in rural areas, clung to their heritage for more than a century. These latter groups worshipped in their own tongue, engaged in business activities with one another in the same language, and educated their children in traditional ways. They were reluctant to adopt the English language at all.

After emphasizing these points at the outset of a course, an instructor can come back to them periodically. Students should recognize that their ancestors often engaged in behavior similar to that of minorities in our midst today and that the attitudes many of us have toward various contemporary ethnic groups are no different from those held by previous generations of Americans toward our grandparents and great grandparents.

If one is teaching in or near Buffalo, New York; Wheeling, West Virginia; Milwaukee, or any number of other places, it might be appropriate to have students make inquiries about the German settlements that existed in those communities. There still might be businesses or cultural establishments that remind contemporaries of the ethnic heritage of that community, and there still might be older people who could reminisce about what the area was like when the ethnic flavor of the city was stronger than it is today.

The 19th Century

Between 1845 and 1854, more than 3 million immigrants, mostly Irish and German, reached American shores. The Panic of 1857 and the Civil War slowed the movement from Europe, but it increased after the war ended. It was after the war when we first began receiving tens of thousands of Scandinavians. Not until the 1880s, however, was there another mass migration such as that which had occurred before the Civil War. Then 5 million arrived, more than 90 percent from Europe, and Germans continued to predominate. In fact, from 1854 through 1892, more Germans entered the United States annually than any other ethnic group in all but three of those years when the Irish topped the list. By the middle of the 1890s, the numbers from eastern and southern Europe exceeded those from northern and western Europe.

Most survey courses in American history emphasize immigration in the late 19th century in connection with the industrial revolution and the growth of cities, and the focus certainly belongs there because more than 18 million people arrived in the United States between 1880 and 1920. But less attention has been paid to the immigrants themselves, men as well as women, to the kinds of lives they lived, to the occupations they engaged in, and to the political activities that commanded their attention. For example, in Wisconsin and Illinois, the Bennett and Edwards laws in 1889 and 1890, respectively, required that all public schools teach subjects like English and history in the English language. In both of these states there were uproars from the populace who believed that teaching in languages like German or Norwegian was absolutely necessary and that if English was required for instruction in these subjects, the younger generation would be torn away from their heritage. The feelings were strong enough in these two states that in the 1890 elections many of the legislators who supported teaching in English were tossed out of office.

The 20th Century

In teaching about immigrants in the Progressive era it is important to show how the assessments, goals, and values of most Progressive intellectuals differed from those of the various people moving from Europe to America. E. A. Ross, a prominent sociologist at the University of Wisconsin influenced by the eugenics movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, probably represented the views of many of his WASP peers when he wrote in his 1914 book, The Old World in the New, that northern and western Europeans seemed "to surpass the southern Europeans in innate ethical endowment," that Scandinavians had "a tendency toward insanity," and that "the Mediterranean peoples" were "morally below the races of northern Europe." In fact, Ross stated that 10 to 20 percent of the immigrants in the Progressive era looked "out of place in black clothes and stiff collar, since clearly they belong in skins, in wattled huts at the close of the Great Ice Age."

Some Progressive goals also differed from those of a number of the new ethnic groups that questioned whether women should vote and whether civil service tests, which required knowledge of the English language, promoted job opportunities for immigrants. Did votes for women not contradict the natural order of things, many immigrants asked, and did civil service tests not harm poor and illiterate immigrants who thought it unnecessary for an individual to read and write English in order to shovel snow in the winter or clean public offices at any time of the year? Historically, we are also accustomed to looking at settlement houses like Hull House in Chicago and the Henry Street Settlement in New York City as wonderful organizations for the newcomers. But how did the immigrants look upon these institutions, and what did they perceive they were receiving from them? What some Americans saw as an openness and generosity in efforts to help immigrants become Americans may have been interpreted by the recipients of this largesse as patronizing and demeaning.

World War I curtailed immigration from Europe, but instructors might want to point out, for purposes of comparison, that the flow from the Old World to the New in 1912 and 1913, if it had continued uninterrupted, would have made the decade of the 1910s the heaviest in the history of the nation. Seven million persons arrived in the first 10 years of the 20th century. Inevitably, given conditions in Europe and the promise of America, more would have come in the next 10 if the First World War had not broken out.

Obviously the industrial revolution and then the changes wrought by the war forced many more Europeans to seek opportunities in the United States. But in the 1920s we wanted "normalcy," which many Americans interpreted as keeping foreigners out of the country, and it is in that decade when our first quota laws, favoring people from Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany, and excluding all of Asian birth, first passed. Ironically, allowing immigrants in has always been more "normal" than keeping them out. Except for the 40-year period from the mid-1920s through the mid-1960s, receiving immigrants was business-as-usual and excluding them was atypical. And even in those years we averaged more than 200,000 new arrivals annually. The McCarran-Walter Immigration Act of 1952 essentially maintained the quota system of the 1920s but gave all nations a minimum allocation of 100 and stipulated specifically that anyone, regardless of place of birth, was eligible for citizenship.

Recent Decades

The Immigration Act of 1965, which ended the ethnic quota system and limited the number of immigrants from any one country to 20,000 per year, also tried to rationalize American immigration policies, foster family unity, and help those whose occupations were most needed. It also had the effect of tilting the sources of immigration from Europe to Latin America and Asia. During the past decade more than 80 percent of all newcomers have arrived from those two continents, and Los Angeles has replaced New York as the city where a plurality of immigrants first establish residence in this country.

The ramifications of this change are too important to ignore, and teachers can use the opportunity to draw historical parallels. For example, will the Asians and Latin Americans have the same influence in Los Angeles and California politics that the Irish and Jews of yesteryear had in the politics of New York City and New York State? And, as with previous generations of immigrants, can we be as certain that acculturation and assimilation will take place at a rapid pace so that by the fourth generation intermarriage will be commonplace and ethnic cultures will be diluted? Among Jews the intermarriage rate is now over 50 percent, and since 1981 individuals of Japanese heritage have married people of non-Japanese background over 65 percent of the time.

One immigrant group that has received less notice from historians are the Mexicans. Throughout the 20th century, however, there has been a steady stream of Mexican workers to this country, and over the decades more than 2 million have arrived. Although they have gone to practically all the states in the Midwest and the West, their largest concentrations are in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California. Because media headquarters and perceptions have been so heavily eastern oriented, Mexican immigrants have rarely received the attention that has been bestowed on groups like the Puerto Ricans and Cubans, who settled in the New York City area and in Florida. That is unfortunate. They are a major influence in the Southwest and the West, and their experiences, primarily as agricultural laborers at first, are only recently being given more than the most superficial coverage in textbooks. The latest editions of The Enduring Vision by Paul S. Boyer et al. (D.C. Heath, 1993), and A People and a Nation by Mary Beth Norton, et al. (Houghton Mifflin, 1994) are among those textbooks that have given more than a passing mention to this group. In the past, however, most of the survey textbooks for the introductory courses in American history, when they dealt with Mexicans at all, generally lumped them in the chapter with the protest movements of the 1960s and ignored the richness of their heritage and their influence in the areas where they reside. That they constitute the second largest minority group in the nation is but one reason why they are entitled to much greater recognition from textbook authors.

Today's native born Americans have fallacious memories and fantasies about how immigrants of yesteryear were somehow better people or more likely to adjust to the culture and traditions of the United States than those of the contemporary era (no matter when it was the contemporary era). People in our own day are often unaware that the Irish and Chinese in the mid 19th century, the Italians, Jews, and Slavs of the early 20th century, and the European displaced persons, mostly eastern Europeans, after World War II, were at first scorned before finally becoming accepted. While teaching about American Indians or African Americans, instructors can also point to these ethnic groups in whatever part of the country they happen to be, and ask what residents of their communities have thought about them. What about the Franco Americans (French Canadians) in New England or the Basques in Nevada, Idaho, and eastern Oregon? Have they always been accepted? What about the miners in Carbon County, Utah, in the early 20th century where 36 different languages were spoken?

Bringing Immigration into Lectures

Immigrant groups can always be brought into a lecture when one discusses labor. Men and women of different ethnic backgrounds often led workingmen's and women's revolts, and one might point to the Wilkes Barre miners' strike of 1897, the Lawrence strike in Massachusetts in the Progressive era, or the strong women who assumed leadership roles when Mexican Americans struck the New Mexico mines in the early 1950s. (The film, Salt of the Earth, brilliantly details this last strike, and it is well worth showing to students.)

Similarly, practically every aspect of culture that one might introduce can be laced with immigrant activities. Women and men of varying backgrounds participated in theater, music, and later movie and sports activities. The German Sangerbunds and theater of the 19th century were nationally known; Italian operas attracted some of the most sophisticated Americans; actors, actresses, newspaper editors, artists and teachers came from every ethnic background. Rather than celebrating or glorifying only the most famous, any topic being discussed can benefit from examples taken from ethnic and immigrant groups, especially those that are locally known by students.

Studying immigrants and immigration, therefore, is not an extraneous part of the survey course. The newcomers constitute the fabric of American life, and this has always been recognized by political candidates who were often chosen explicitly because of their ethnic heritage. (For example, from 1925 to 1976 every governor of Minnesota was of Scandinavian background.) The children and grandchildren of most European, Latin American, and Asian immigrants acculturate in American society, and by the fourth generation an overwhelming majority of them have already intermarried with a person of another ethnic background. (The experiences of African Americans, on the other hand, are unique and cannot be dealt with simply as those of another immigrant group.) America, therefore, truly is, and I believe shall continue to be, an ethnic melting pot, at least for people of European, Hispanic, and Asian descent. Even when they "Americanize," however, it is important to know the history of their forbears because it is a part of our collective past and has contributed to making the United States the nation it is today.

Sources to Consult

For those who seek additional materials for classroom use, the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups is an invaluable source. There are short essays on all American immigrant groups as well as additional material on, for example, nativism, ethnicity, and immigration restriction. The best textbook chapter on immigration, in fact the only general survey textbook that devoted an entire chapter to immigration, is Richard Hofstadter, William Miller, and Daniel Aaron, The American Republic, volume 2 (Prentice Hall, 1959). (Subsequent editions eliminated this chapter.) Mark Reisler’s By The Sweat of Their Brow: Mexican Immigrant Labor in the United States, 1900-1940 (Greenwood, 1976) is informative, as are Roger Daniels, Coming to America (HarperCollins, 1990), and Ronald Takaki’s Strangers From A Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (Viking Penguin, 1989). Natives and Strangers (2nd edition; Oxford University Press, 1990), by , Roger L. Nichols, and David M. Reimers, intersperses the history of American Indians and African Americans along with that of Europeans, Asians, and Latin Americans who settled in the United States. For those interested primarily in immigration since 1945, the definitive work is David M. Reimers, Still the Golden Door (2nd edition; Columbia University Press, 1992) while the best textbook coverage of the subject is Michael Schaller, Virginia Scharff, and Robert D. Schulzinger, Present Tense: The United States Since 1945 (Houghton Mifflin, 1992).

— is a professor of history at the University of Arizona. He teaches the second half of the American history survey course and is the author of The Leo Frank Case (1968), America and the Survivors of the Holocaust (1982), and Antisemitism in America (1994).

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.