ALA CV 302
EUROPEAN IMMIGRATION AND NATIVIST REACTION
Immigration in the first part of the 19th century
Between 1830 and 1860 a great number of immigrants came to the USA, around 5 million, who for the most part came from Europe, which was suffering from diseases, famine and revolutions.
At the same time, the growth of the American market economy needed more and more workers, as well as the expansion movement to the west. Therefore many western states advertised the benefits of immigration to the USA in many European newspapers – especially in the railroad sector (we remember that many of the workers in the railroad sector were Chinese, for example).
=> This period was amongst the most important one in terms of immigration numbers.
Who were the immigrants?
For the most part, they were German and Irish. The Chinese didn’t immigrate in such important numbers but nevertheless came to the USA during a very short period, that is from 1854 to 1860, at the height of the construction boom in the USA. As to the Irish, they came to the USA in massive numbers in the second part of the 1840’s, due to the epidemic of potato blight which created a nationwide famine.
Why the nativist reaction?
The Germans who came to the USA were very well accepted and integrated to society, as they were considered to come from the same stock as the White Protestant settlers. They usually found no difficulties adapting to American society.
But the Irish immigration is what really started to get the nativists’ ideas going. Indeed the first Irish settlers who came to the USA were of Protestant British origin, and were therefore well accepted. But the second wave of Irish immigration came from the Celtic part of the Irish population, which the British Irish considered as inferior – they therefore brought these ideas of racial superiority along with them.
There was then talk of the inferiority of the Celtic race, which was blamed for most of the evils in American society: unemployment, poverty, alcoholism.
Another problem was not directly related to ‘race’, but to religion, as most of these new Irish settlers were not Protestant but Catholic – as we know the important role played by religion in the USA we can imagine the distrust felt by most Americans towards the Catholic religion. Anti-Catholicism therefore became commonplace in the 1830’s, especially in Boston where most of the Irish immigrants had settled.
Non-Protestant Germans found the same problems, and were often more discriminated on the account of their practicing of the Catholic religion than their Protestant counterparts.
The Chinese and especially the Hispanics were also discriminated against as they were also considered as a separate, ‘non-white’ race.
=> It is important to understand that this nativist reaction happened as the native inhabitants were being outnumbered by immigrants in the beginning of the 19th century. The whole issue was triggered by fear of the Other, but also by economic competition. Indeed, the native workers were also scared that these newcomers might take their jobs or simply deteriorate the value of work.
Let’s then compare two autobiographical texts giving different accounts of immigration in the 19th century, one written by a German immigrant, and the other by a Chinese Immigrant.
Texts page 18 and 28
In both texts, written by the German and the Chinese immigrants, we find the same expectations, and to a certain extent, the same fulfillments.
The German immigrant, upon his arrival, stresses the abundance of work and food, see lines 7-11: “but I must say that so far they are quite well, everyone has work, and therefore plenty to eat”
In the case of the Chinese immigrant, America is represented as the land of plenty even before he emigrates there – see the probably exaggerated account of the returning immigrant’s wealth earned in the USA; see lines 5-6: “when a man of our tribe came back from America and took ground as large as four city blocks and made a paradise of it…”. The author therefore starts dreaming of the USA as a land of abundance, as we see on lines 12-13: “I, too, would like to go to the country of the wizards and gain some of their wealth.”
Similarly, the two men seem to make the same career from the moment they arrive. The German immigrant takes work in a shop as a coppersmith, but dreams all along to become self-employed, or to establish himself as a farmer. The Chinese immigrant begins as a servant in an American family, but quickly manages to open his own laundry.
Yet then, although the German immigrant doesn’t seem to fulfill his dream of being self-employed, he still manages to buy and sell land, to acquire ground on which to build a house: his dream of independence remains vivid throughout and he also achieves one step towards his dream by being able to build his own house – see lines 76-81: “As you know, dear brother, I bought a lot last spring on a rather lively street here in Chicago, and in the course of this summer built a house on it, so I now live on my own land with a garden and a house.”
But in the case of the Chinese immigrant, we see that although he achieves his dream of independence, this dream soon finds an end with American racial prejudice. Indeed, the author makes a list of the hardships he had to suffer, such as “many insults and some frauds”, on lines 21-22, or with an example on lines 26-27: “The men were rough and prejudiced against us.” The list goes on with every plan made by the Chinese immigrants finally thwarted by the white American men.
The conclusion to his text is indeed very revealing: “Under the circumstances, how can I call this my home, and how can any one blame me if I take my money and go back to my village in China?”, lines 34-35.
The word “home” is very important here as it is at the centre of the major difference between the German and the Chinese immigrant’s experience. The German immigrant indeed managed, in spite of some hardships to establish his own house and seems to be quite integrated in American society. In the case of the Chinese immigrants, his economic success is constantly counteracted by his awareness of being foreign, and of belonging to another ‘race’, which doesn’t allow him to fully enter American society.
=> The comparison between these two texts allows us to get a good picture of immigration in the 19th century, how it relied on the possibility of the American dream and the self-made man, but how this dream was often thwarted by the reality of racial prejudice.
Text page 21
This text was written by a Protestant minister who was wishing the address the evils of American society with the will to bring improve American society. The fact that it was written in 1885, that is many decades after the periods we’re studying allows us to read it as a retrospective look upon the evolution of 19th century American cities. Indeed, his target here is the growth of the cities, and the threat posed by this growth. One thing we have to be aware of though is that the author of the text establishes a systematic link between the growth of cities and the trend of immigration – hence the figures giving an account of the proportion of foreign population in big American cities. And indeed we need to bear in mind this systematic link between immigration and the growth of cities, because in this excerpt, all the evils denounced by Strong, such as intemperance, socialism, inequality, church disaffection, corruption, have a common point – they are all attacks on the American model of ‘civilization’. See line 1: “The city has become a serious menace to our civilization.” Our problématique in our study of this text will be to see how the author expresses his anxiety as to the perversion of the American model, a perversion that is brought about in his mind by foreign influences. This text may not deal directly with immigration and the reaction to this movement, it nevertheless deals with its most direct consequences. My outline will be threefold, as I’ll deal in my first and second parts with the threats against religion and politics, before studying in my third part the American ideals that this depiction of evil is pitted against.
I. The attack against religion
1. The Catholic influence
In this text dealing mostly with the evils of foreign influence, the first group identified as a threat is the Catholic Irish one. Although the author starts by giving figures of immigration in big cities, giving account of German and Irish population, it seems that by foreign, Strong mainly means “Irish”, as we see on lines 10-11: “Because our cities are so largely foreign, Romanism finds in them its chief strength.” With this conclusion, the main evil influence is identified as being not only the Irish, but the Catholic church.
Indeed this conclusion is followed by the depiction of one of the most widespread prejudice against the Catholics, and the Irish more particularly, that is intemperance, or alcoholism. See lines 12-13: “For the same reason the saloon, together with the intemperance and the liquor power which it represents, is multiplied in the city.”
We see here with this quote that the author makes the problem of alcoholism a direct consequence of immigration, bearing in mind that the most dangerous foreign elements are the Irish.
We see with the introduction to this text that for the author, the main evils that befall American cities are brought about by immigration and the foreign values it has brought along with it.
2. Church disaffection
It appears later on in the text that one of the consequences of the influence of the Catholic religion is the diminishing influence of the church on big cities’ population. This idea the author backs up with figures on lines 60 to 62: “In Boston there is one church to every 1,600 of the population; in Chicago, one to 2,081; in New York, one to 2,468; in St. Louis, one to 2,800.” These figures he compares with the national average of one church to 516 inhabitants. It is interesting to see that cities with a particularly large number of immigrants feature in the statistics the author gives as example, that is Boston, Chicago and New York. We know that Boston and New York were the settling point of a huge number of Catholic Irish, and Chicago of many Catholic German.
Again we see how much the author equates the decline of religion with the foreign influence of immigration, and the increasing influence of the Catholic religion in cities.
II. The dangers of inequality
1) Social extremes
One of the main evils of the cities, apart from alcoholism, according to the author, is the growing social inequalities between the rich and the poor. Indeed, Strong insists, using many figures of speech on the concentration of extremes of wealth and poverty. See lines 25-28: “The rich are richer, and the poor are poorer, in the city than elsewhere; and, as a rule, the greater the city, the greater are the riches of the rich and the poverty of the poor. Not only does the proportion of the poor increase with the growth of the city, but their condition becomes more wretched.” This denunciation of social inequalities may seem strange in such an openly capitalistic country, yet we must remember that in the American tradition the acquisition of wealth should not be made to the detriment of the poor, and to the detriment of the American model of social equality.
The author goes on with his description for most of the fourth paragraph, with for example on lines 35-36: “here inequality is the greatest and most obvious, and the contrast between opulence and penury the most striking.”
But this depiction of social inequality is not only a danger to the American model of morality, it also brings about the threat of foreign forms of politics.
2) The socialist threat
It seems that the foreign influence not only brings along a perversion of the Protestant ideals, but also political practices that are themselves foreign to the American model. It is interesting to see that, according to the author, the perversion of the American political tradition is linked with alcoholism, as we see on lines 16-18: “Of course the demoralizing and pauperizing power of the saloons and their debauching influence in politics increase with their numerical strength.”
One of the first consequences of the foreign influence and of the concentration of wealth and poverty brought together is the emergence of socialism in big cities. See line 30: “Socialism not only centers in the city, but is almost confined to it.” In fact, it seems that not only is socialism imported through foreign immigration, it is also fostered by the reality of social inequalities in big cities. Let’s look at the rest of the preceding quote, lines 30-32: “and the materials of its growth are multiplied wit the growth of the city. Here is heaped the social dynamite…”
Later on, Strong gives the author what he believes to be the remedy to the socialist threat to the American model, on lines 41-42: “Let a man become the owner of a home, and he is much less susceptible to socialistic propaganda.” He clearly advocates here the American dream of home-owning which we had seen expressed in the two autobiographical texts earlier on. The socialist doctrine is indeed in direct opposition with the American ideal of private ownership, which the author still sees as the main insurance against a corruption of the American model.
3. The aristocratic threat
But according to the author, the threat to the American political tradition doesn’t only come from the bottom of the ladder, but from the formation of an aristocratic social elite that is denounced throughout the text, culminating in his description of the corruption of city government in big metropolises. Strong quotes an identified exterior source to make his point here, on lines 71-72: “In all the great American cities there is to-day as clearly defined a ruling class as in the most aristocratic countries in the world”. Following this first statement, the author gives us a long account of the state of corruption in big cities, even providing us with an example, though he doesn’t reveal to us the exact name of the man he is using as such. Yet he later comes to this conclusion, on line 92: “Popular government in the city is degenerating into government by a “boss”.”
The use of the word ‘aristocracy’ to describe the reality of big city corruption is meant to be very striking in the American mind – indeed, the American political tradition was built in rejection of the European, more particularly British, model of aristocratic government. Indeed, we remember that after the glorious revolution, the king had lost most of its power, but the country was still led by the decision of the House of Lords. Throughout American history, we find this firm denunciation of European society as corrupt and immoral. The author goes as far as describing these corrupt politicians on line 97 as “old feudal nobles”. We are obviously here at the extreme opposite of American ideals.
III. American ideals?
1. Temperance and thrift
Yet as usual, it is interesting at this point to examine the underlying comparison that this text establishes a corrupt model and the American ideal principles. And indeed underneath the fierce denunciation of the immorality of co-existing social extremes we find the strong American belief in such values as temperance and thrift. As we already said, it may be surprising to read such a violent attack against wealth in a country whose religion sees wealth as a sign of divine election. Yet wealth, in the author’s mind does not necessarily mean “expenditure” and debauchery. See the references line 21 to “luxuries gathered”; line 22: “the most extravagant expenditure”; line 24: “the ennui of surfeit”, and so on. Although wealth and social success can be seen as achievements in themselves, the Protestant tradition of economy and temperance is what should usually prevail. Another aspect in the Gospel of Wealth that was being celebrated at the end of the 19th century was the moral responsibility that the rich had in caring for the poor – a moral responsibility that is clearly not respected here.
On the political level, we saw on many occasions that the American model built itself on the rejection of European principles of corruption and unfair representation. In the very last lines of the text, the author refers to the fundamental text of the American political tradition, that is the Constitution, on lines 100-101: “Manifestly those who framed your Constitution never dreamed that twenty thousand citizens would go to the polls led by a ‘boss’.” It is interesting that this comment is attributed to Herbert Spencer, a British philosopher and sociologist. Indeed the effect of having a Englishman judging the American society should work as a humiliation, or just a wake-up call for the American population, whose tradition was built on the rejection of the British model.
The description the author gives us of the ‘bosses’ who seem to control the American political life in big cities remind us of those aristocrats that still prevailed in European countries, see lines 74-75: “and though they toil not, neither do they spin – wear the best of raiment and spend money lavishly”. Again this description is taken from a quote, whose author is not revealed to us, but which we understand to be an exterior source, probably exterior to the United States.
It seems here that one of the rhetorical devices used by the author is to attack Americans on the ground of nationalism, that was built upon the pride they find in their own political system.
Conclusion: Although this text does not clearly denounce immigration as the main reason for this threat to the American model, the attack to foreigners is obvious, simply because the threat is described as coming from influences that are foreign to this American model. Yet, we might be entitled to address a criticism to this text by saying that many of these evils, such as inequality, uncontrolled immigration, political corruption also find their source in many aspects of the American society… And indeed the following decades will show us that many of the hardships that the USA suffered were brought about by the very exaggeration of its own system.