Immigration in Industrial America and the Rise of Nativism

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  • 0:06 The 'New' Immigrants
  • 1:59 Arrival & Settlement…
  • 4:04 The Rise of Nativism
  • 7:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

Between the Civil War and WWI, America experienced a massive third wave of immigration. Learn about where these immigrants came from, where they went and how 'native' Americans responded to them.

The 'New' Immigrants

Between the Civil War and WWI, the United States experienced a Second Industrial Revolution. In that time, America became the world's leading industrial power, fueled by advances in technology and the vast, new resources of the North American continent. A flood of immigrants, eager for jobs, fueled this industrial growth and a population boom in Northern cities.

Of course, virtually every person in America has an immigrant heritage; even many Native Americans have some black and/or white ancestry, according to genetic testing. After the first wave of voluntary immigration in the Colonial Era, the United States saw a second spike in the mid-19th century. There were exceptions, of course, but most of these were literate, white, Protestant Christians from Northern and Western Europe, especially Ireland and Germany, where democratic ideals were germinating. Many even spoke English. However, the Civil War brought this to a screeching halt.

Then, between 1870 and 1900, the largest mass movement in history took place, when nearly 25 million people from all over Western, Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as Russia and Asia, arrived in America on large, fast, cheap, steam-powered ships. Many of these so-called 'new immigrants' were illiterate, spoke absolutely no English and had no experience with democracy. Predominantly between the ages of 15 and 30, the new flood of immigrants represented more religions than ever, including millions of Catholics and Jews. The U.S. Census in 1900 revealed that 25% of the American population was foreign-born.

Arrival & Settlement in America

By far, most new arrivals came through New York City. Beginning in 1886, they were welcomed by the famous Statue of Liberty, a gift from the people of France. More than eight million immigrants were processed by the state of New York until 1900, when the federal government took over and built Ellis Island. For the next 54 years, about 12 million people passed through the immigration station, most of them processed within five hours. They were questioned to make sure they were not criminals or insane, had enough money to pass through to their destination and were not carrying infectious diseases. Only about two percent of hopeful immigrants were actually sent back home, and a tiny fraction died while quarantined there. Today, about a third of all Americans can trace their ancestry to immigrants who passed through Ellis Island.

Late in this period, Chinese, Japanese and other trans-Pacific immigrants were processed through Angel Island near San Francisco. Because of federal restrictions, some hopeful immigrants waited months or even years on the island before being sent home or being granted entry into the United States.

Most new immigrants settled in Northern cities and formed the backbone of the industrial labor force. But, of course, many of them did move on. For example, refugees from the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway flocked to Minnesota and the Dakotas. About half of all German immigrants settled on farms in the Midwest. Some sparsely populated Western states actively tried to recruit newcomers, promising jobs and farmland. But, many immigrants couldn't afford to move away from their ports of entry, and others preferred to remain in ethnic enclaves like Chinatown or Little Italy, where they crammed into unsanitary, unsafe dumbbell tenements, but felt more comfortable surrounded by the people and language they knew from their homeland. The least popular destination for immigrants in the late 19th century was the Deep South.

The Rise of Nativism

Industrial leaders welcomed the growth of Northern population centers because it presented a large, inexpensive, enthusiastic labor pool. But, that doesn't mean business owners respected immigrants. On the contrary, the Robber Barons loved immigrants because they could pay them far less! But, many Americans were hesitant to accept the new immigrants for a variety of reasons. The preference for American-born inhabitants versus those who are foreign-born is called nativism.

Working class men, especially pre-Civil War immigrants, recognized that the newcomers presented a threat to their own jobs. Some in the upper and middle classes applied the evolutionary concept of 'survival of the fittest' to society as a whole; these so-called 'Social Darwinists' didn't think it was good to dilute the American gene pool with less-fit people, such as those who were poor and non-white. Most Americans were Protestant Christians, and many of them were uncomfortable with the large numbers of Jews and Catholics. What's more, a lot of people feared that devout Catholics would be more loyal to the pope than to the American president. Ardent patriots were concerned about the influx of people from homelands without democracy or capitalism.

Furthermore, many Americans from all walks of life were wrestling with the political issue of prohibition in the late 1800s. Alcohol was becoming more widely viewed as a social evil that led individuals and families to ruin. But, many of the new immigrants came from homelands where alcohol was deeply entrenched in the culture. This alone prompted Americans from across many different economic and social groups to view immigrants as morally inferior.

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