immigration in early america -- 12/2/15

Today's selection -- from American Economic History by Jonathan Hughes and Louis P. Cain. Immigration was a significant part of America's early history and periods of heavy immigration generally correlated with periods of strong economic growth. Culturally, however, there was backlash, especially against the unwelcome prospect of increasing numbers of Catholics and the fear that America would fall to the "legions of Rome":

"After independence, immigration con­tinued to be unrestricted and remained so until long after the Civil War. Scholars have raised new and intriguing questions about this massive migration of human beings and what it meant to the economic growth and development of the United States.

"First, we should note that we are speaking only of im­migrants about whom some quantifiable evidence re­mains. We will never know what the unrecorded flow was across the Canadian and Mexican borders, although literary evidence indicates it was considerable. There is also the question of continued slave cargoes landed after the end of legal imports in 1808. There is no doubt that slave imports continued illegally, but they were apparently very limited in number. ...

"Before the decade of the 1830s, immigration was a relatively minor source of population increase. It then expanded rapidly, and the increase built steadily. The annual average number of immigrants in the period 1821-1825 was 8,000; in 1826-1830 it was up to 20,587. In the next five years, 1831-1835, it rose to 50,498, then to 69,330 between 1836 and 1840. By 1841-1845, the expansion had grown to an average of 86,067 per year. At that point in history, a series of poor harvests and the failure of the potato crop in northern Europe disrupted European society and produced the first real deluge of immigrants -- 1.4 million between 1845 and 1850, a portent of those to come. During the next seven years, there was an enormous immigration of 22 million from Europe.

"The first upsurge came from the British Isles. The British government proved itself utterly indifferent to the famine in Ireland, and estimates are that more than a million died in the late 1840s as a result. Those who could fled the Emerald Isle, either to other parts of the United Kingdom, to Canada, or the United States. In the 10 years 1846-1855 inclu­sive, nearly 1.3 million Irish are known to have immigrated into the United States. Uncounted addi­tional thousands entered the country from Canada. During the same decade, the German-speaking regions of Europe produced nearly 1 million immi­grants to the United States. Political upheavals in 1848 contributed some famous names to this flow (for example, Carl Schurz, later U.S. senator from Missouri). However, most of this migration was due to harvest failures, as indicated by the fact that the flow from Scandinavia and other countries in northern Europe more than doubled before the wave died down at the end of the 1850s. ...

"The United Kingdom's share is more than 50 percent of the total in every year save 1846 and 1854. ... Ireland and Germany together normally accounted for 65 to 75 percent of total immigration. The ordinary share of just three countries in these years was from 79.4 to more than 90 per­cent. Other northern European nations accounted for most of the remaining immigration.

"Based upon what we know of the colonial white population, which was mostly English-and German-speaking peoples, these immigrants should have been received congenially in America, But nativism resulted, as the anti-slave, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know-Nothings -- ­members of a secret society whose main goal was to prevent 'foreigners' from gaining political power -- ­demanded a 21-year residency requirement for naturalization in the 1850s. Indeed, it has been argued that the downturn in the immigration cycle beginning in the mid-1850s is attributable to the rise of the nativist movement.

"The main bone of contention in the 1850s was religion. With the influx of the Irish and the Rhineland Germans, the old nonconformist Protestant sects of the United States were about to be swamped by Roman Catholics. There was talk that the nation would fall to the legions of Rome. Later, when the countries of origin were Italy, Greece, and those of Eastern Europe, the talk be­came straight racism. By then, the children of the Irish and German immigrants had joined the native white Americans in demanding an end to the flow of people from southern and eastern Europe."


Jonathan Hughes and Louis P. Cain


American Economic History (8th Edition) (Pearson Series in Economics)




Copyright 2011, 2007, 2003 Pearson Education


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