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Early American Immigration Terms


The adoption or assimilation of American culture by foreign immigrants.

American Dream

The ideal of freedom and opportunity that allows all Americans to aspire to a higher standard of living than that achieved by their parents.

American Party

The name chosen for the short-lived political party of the Know-Nothing movement in the 1850s. The American Party nominated Millard Fillmore for the presidency in 1856, but Fillmore finished behind both the Democratic and Republican candidates.


The process through which a particular immigrant group abandons its ethnic traditions to adopt the cultural mores of mainstream America.


The status of being a citizen of the United States. Citizenship can be attained either through birthright (for those born in the United States) or through naturalization (for those who immigrate to the United States from foreign countries).


A racist and pejorative term for low-skilled, low-wage Asian laborers.

Demagogue, Demagoguery

A political leader who wins support by inflaming the passions and prejudices of the public at large.


A period of economic malaise during which business and employment decline.

A depression is a severe economic downturn marked by a sharp rise in unemployment and a steep decline in manufacturing and production. Before the Great Depression of the 1930s, economic crises were referred to as "panics."

Know-Nothingism, Know-Nothings, Know-Nothing, Know Nothing, Know Nothings

A brand of American nativist politics first associated with the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s, Know-Nothingism has since also acquired a general connotation of ignorance and uninformed xenophobia. It is now a vaguely pejorative term for anti-immigration viewpoints.

Nativism, Nativist, Nativists

Opposition to immigration on the grounds that an influx of foreigners will marginalize the English language, undermine American culture, destabilize American politics, and weaken the economic status of American workers.

Anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment most prevalent during the decades leading up to the Civil War, when large numbers of Irish and German immigrants poured into the U.S.

A xenophobic policy (or ideology) which stresses the interests of a country's native inhabitants over those of immigrants. Many (though not all) white Anglo-Saxon Protestants of nineteenth-century America became embodiments of this philosophy, to varying degrees. Those most concerned about foreign immigration joined nativist political parties. The most prominent of these parties was the American Party (a.k.a. the Native American Party, a.k.a. the Know Nothings), which began in 1843 and called for a 25-year residency qualification for citizenship and sought to elect only native-born Americans to political office. The Know Nothings enjoyed political victories on state and local levels, notably in Massachusetts and Delaware in 1854 (the pinnacle-year of their success). But the slavery issue eclipsed the nativists in importance and public attention, and ultimately divided their membership along sectional lines.

Opposition to immigration based on fears that an influx of foreigners will marginalize the English language, undermine American culture, destabilize American politics, and weaken the economic status of American workers.


The process through which a person attains citizenship in a country other than the one in which he or she was born.

The process by which an immigrant becomes an American citizen.

Nonpartisan Party

The seemingly oxymoronic name given to a combined party of Democrats and Republicans in California in the 1870s. The Nonpartisan Party emerged as Democrats and Republicans joined forces in an attempt to defeat the insurgent political force of the anti-Chinese, anti-business Workingman's Party of Denis Kearney.

Plutocrat, Plutocracy, Plutocrats

A person who wields great political power by virtue of his financial wealth.

Refugee, Refugees

A person who flees from his or her home to another country out of fear of violence or persecution for political, religious, or ethnic reasons.

Social Construct

A social category, such as race, which is created through social practice rather than being an innate fact of nature.

Two-party System

Since the 1790s, American elections have, for the most part, been contested by two political parties. Periodically, the political coalitions change, and new parties replace old, but the political arena quickly settles into a two-party contest. In other nations, multiparty systems are more common. Voters are presented with more viable options, but governing usually requires the formation of a coalition between the competing parties.

The electoral system of the United States, which ensures that two parties will almost always dominate political affairs.

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