Early American Immigration Timeline
How It All Went Down
Franklin Pushes English
Benjamin Franklin fears that heavy German immigration will undermine and overwhelm the English colonial community in Pennsylvania. Franklin writes of the Germans, "Few of their Children in the Country learn English. They import many Books from Germany... The Signs in our Streets have Inscriptions in both Languages, and in some places only German... In short, unless the Stream of their Importation could be turned... they will soon so outnumber us, that all the advantages we have, will not in my Opinion be able to preserve our Language, and even our Government will become precarious."
Paine Celebrates Immigrants
Thomas Paine, a recent immigrant from England, publishes Common Sense, the pamphlet that galvanizes much of the colonial population to support the radical assertion of independence from the British Empire. In the pamphlet Paine celebrates America's embrace of immigrants, describing the colonies as "the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe."
Rule of Naturalization
The Constitution of the United States takes effect, including in Article I, Section 8, the provision that "Congress shall have power... to establish a uniform rule of naturalization."
Congress establishes a liberal naturalization policy that offers citizenship to all "free white persons" after two years' residency in the United States.
A slave revolt roils the French sugar island colony of Saint-Domingue, leading to more than a decade of civil war and ultimately to the founding by ex-slaves of the independent republic of Haiti in 1804. The violence of the Haitian Revolution drives thousands of refugees—black and white, slave and free—from the island, many landing in the ports of the American South, where locals fear they will spread the "contagion" of racial uprising.
South Carolina Restricts Haitian Slaves
South Carolina passes a law restricting importation of slaves from Saint-Domingue (Haiti) to prevent the local slave population from being infected with the insurrectionary spirit of the Haitian Revolution. South Carolina's law, later copied by several other southern states, sets a limit of two imported slaves per owner, effectively blocking the large-scale importation of both Haitian slaves and their owners.
Naturalization Act of 1795
Congress passes the Naturalization Act of 1795, extending the period of residency required for citizenship from two to five years.
Baltimore Restricts Haitian Slaves
The city government of Baltimore passes an ordinance requiring owners of slaves imported from the West Indies between 1792 and 1797 to remove the slaves from the city, reasoning that these slaves may be "dangerous to the peace and welfare of the city" due to their exposure to the spirit of insurrection fostered by the Haitian Revolution.
Alien and Sedition Acts
The Federalist-dominated Congress passes the Alien and Sedition Acts, which allow the president to deport any foreigner deemed threatening, and which also lengthen the residency requirement for citizenship from five to fourteen years.
Alien and Sedition Acts Reversed
The Jefferson Administration reverses the Alien and Sedition Acts, reducing the residency requirement for citizenship from fourteen to five years.
Congress Outlaws Foreign Slave Trade
Congress outlaws American participation in the international slave trade.
Census Includes Immigration
The federal Census begins to collect data on immigration for the first time.
Immigrants of 1820s
During the decade of the 1820s, 151,000 immigrants arrive in the United States.
Immigrants of 1830s
During the decade of the 1830s, 599,000 immigrants arrive in the United States—four times as many as had come in the preceding decade.
Immigrants of 1840s
During the decade of the 1840s, more than 1.7 million immigrants arrive in the United States—almost three times as many as had come in the preceding decade.
Irish Potato Famine
The failure of the potato crop in Ireland leads to widespread famine and massive emigration. Between 1845 and 1849, more than a million Irish starve to death, and at least a million more are forced to leave the country—many bound for America. By the early 1850s, Irish Catholics will make up large minorities in most of the major cities of the Northeast seaboard.
Revolutions of 1848 and Immigration
Between 1848 and 1851, political upheaval spreads throughout much of Europe. In France, Italy, Germany, and elsewhere, liberals and radicals launch revolutions against the traditionalist governments of kings and emperors. Eventually the revolutions of 1848 will fail; the victories of counter-revolutionary forces throughout Europe prompt a mass exodus of political refugees, as supporters of the failed revolutions seek to escape persecution and retribution. Tens of thousands come to the United States.
Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
Protestant workingmen in New York City, alarmed by the rising tide of Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany, organize a secret society called "The Order of the Star-Spangled Banner" to fight against Catholic immigration. Its members swear an oath of secrecy, promising to respond to any questions about the Order by replying only, "I know nothing." They quickly come to be called "Know-Nothings."
Gold Rush Immigration
The Gold Rush spurs heavy immigration from around the world into California. Europeans, Australians, Peruvians, Mexicans, and Chinese join American Forty-Niners in their mad dash to the gold fields.
Immigrants of 1850s
During the decade of the 1850s, nearly 2.6 million immigrants arrive in the United States.
The nativist Know-Nothing movement reaches the peak of its power and popularity, winning elections across the country with its anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic message. Know-Nothings win control of local governments in major cities (and major immigration centers) Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, and San Francisco. They dominate state legislatures in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maine, Indiana, and California, and claim to control more than 90 congressmen.
Encouraged by the electoral successes of candidates associated with their loosely organized nativist movement, Know-Nothings call a convention to organize themselves formally into the American Party. The American Party platform calls for a 21-year waiting period before immigrants are eligible for citizenship, a ban on immigrant office-holders, a ban on Catholic public school teachers, and prohibition of alcohol (considered by Know-Nothings to be a uniquely Catholic vice). For a brief period before the rise of the Republican Party, the American Party appears to be on track to become the main opposition party to the ruling Democratic Party.
Know-Nothings win control of the state government of Ohio, but otherwise make no further electoral advance over 1854. The heightening sectional crisis related to the slavery issue begins to subsume the Know-Nothings' nativist politics.
Lincoln Denounces Nativism
Abraham Lincoln eloquently denounces the Know-Nothing movement: "I am not a Know-Nothing," he writes. "How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of Negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me pretty rapid. As a nation we began by declaring 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it, 'all men are created equal, except Negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal, except Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for example, where despotism can be taken pure and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."
Buchanan Wins With Immigrants
Democrat James Buchanan wins the presidency with heavy support from immigrant voters, defeating the nativist candidates of both the Know-Nothings' American Party and the brand new Republican Party. Ex-President Millard Fillmore, the American Party candidate, wins 23% of the vote, but the politics of nativism are quickly being displaced by the politics of sectionalism. Anti-slavery Republicans, not anti-immigrant Know-Nothings, will become the lasting opposition party to pro-slavery Democrats within the two-party system.
Immigrants of 1860s
During the decade of the 1860s, more than 2.3 million immigrants arrive in the United States.
Roman Catholic Largest Denomination
The Census of 1860 finds that Roman Catholicism has become, for the first time, the largest single religious denomination in the United States. Heavy immigration from Catholic Ireland and Germany accounts for most of the religion's growth.
Congress passes the Homestead Act, which grants 160 acres of free land in the West to settlers who make improvements and occupy the land for five years. The promise of free land inadvertently spurs heavy immigration from Europe, where the dream of land ownership is impossible for most ordinary Europeans to achieve.
Railroads Hire Chinese
Charles Crocker, one of the "Big Four" directors of the Central Pacific Railroad, hires 50 Chinese laborers to work on the transcontinental railroad project when white workers threaten to strike for higher wages.
Anti-Chinese Politics in California
Just two years after the hiring its first Chinese laborers, the Central Pacific Railroad's work force is 90% Chinese. White workers outraged at the loss of jobs to "coolie" labor organize the anti-Chinese Workingmen's Party in San Francisco.
The first significant Japanese immigration into California begins. Early Japanese migrants typically settle in isolated, all-Japanese agricultural communities.
Immigrants of 1870s
During the decade of the 1870s, more than 2.8 million immigrants arrive in the United States.
Congress passes the Page Law, which bans Asians from entering the United States involuntarily for the purposes of either male contract labor or female prostitution. Asians who choose to migrate freely are still free to enter the country, however.
Panic of 1873
Economic depression, which began on the East Coast with the Panic of 1873, reaches California. In San Francisco thousands of workingmen find themselves out of work, fueling resentment of both wealthy tycoons and Chinese low-wage laborers.
San Francisco Anti-Chinese Riots
A San Francisco mass meeting called by the Workingmen's Party of the United States (originally a Marxist party) devolves into an anti-Chinese riot. Rampaging white workers, incited by charismatic anti-Chinese leader (and Irish immigrant) Denis Kearney, smash and burn more than a dozen Chinatown businesses.
California Workingman’s Party
White workers in San Francisco organize a new Workingman's Party, hoping to seize control of the state government in order to drive out the Chinese and punish the wealthy businessmen who employ them.
Workingman’s Party Platform
The California Workingman's Party officially adopts a platform calling for the removal of all Chinese from the state and the election of only workingmen to state office.
Denis Kearney Nob Hill Meeting
In San Francisco, the Workingman's Party organizes a mass meeting of more than a thousand men atop posh Nob Hill. Speaking from the literal doorstep of the palatial mansion of Central Pacific Railroad magnate Mark Hopkins, Workingman's leader Denis Kearney declares that the "Central Pacific Railroad men are thieves, and will soon feel the power of the workingmen. When I have thoroughly organized my party, we will march through the city and compel the thieves to give up their plunder. I will lead you to the City Hall, clean out the police force, hang the Prosecuting Attorney, burn every book that has a particle of law in it, and then enact new laws for the workingmen. I will give the Central Pacific just three months to discharge their Chinamen, and if that is not done, Stanford and his crowd will have to take the consequences."
Denis Kearney, leader of the California Workingman's Party, travels east to attempt to galvanize a national movement to restrict Chinese immigration. (Since almost all Chinese migrants reside in California, the issue has received little attention outside the state.) Kearney's crass demands that "Chinese must go!" are off-putting to many in the east—the Chicago Times calls him a "flatulent little brat"—but his journey does help to make Chinese immigration a major political issue in Washington, D.C.
Kearney Incites Riot
In San Francisco, Workingman's Party leader Denis Kearney is repeatedly arrested for attempting to incite riot. Kearney's incendiary rhetoric includes threats of armed rebellion. "There isn't an honest man in office today," he declares on one occasion. "The only way to get laws passed in our favor is to surround the Capitol with bayonets and shoot those who vote against us."
Workingman’s Party Victory
The California Workingman's Party wins its first electoral success, electing one of its candidates to fill a vacant state senate seat for Alameda, a community just across the bay from San Francisco.
Workingman’s Party Grows
The Workingman's Party claims to have 15,000 members within the city of San Francisco alone, at a time when the city's total population is about 200,000.
California Constitutional Convention
Responding to widespread citizen unrest, California calls a convention to draft a new state constitution. Delegates to the constitutional convention—elected by popular ballot—include 51 Workingmen and 81 Nonpartisans. (The Nonpartisans are a combined ticket of Republicans and Democrats, who agree to join forces to oppose the insurgent Workingmen.) While the Workingmen comprise only a minority of the convention's delegates, they substantially dictate its agenda, and the new California constitution sharply curtails the rights of both corporations and Chinese.
Blaine Supports Exclusion
Senator James G. Blaine of Maine becomes the first prominent easterner, and the first prominent Republican, to throw his weight behind a national policy of Chinese Exclusion. "The question in my mind lies thus," Blaine says, "Either the Anglo-Saxon race will possess the Pacific slope or the Mongolians will possess it. We have this day to choose... whether our legislation shall be in the interest of the American free laborer or for the servile laborer from China... You cannot work a man who must have beef and bread, and would prefer beer, alongside of a man who can live on rice."
Fifteen Passenger Bill
After much debate, Congress passes the so-called Fifteen Passenger Bill, which will prohibit any ship from carrying more than fifteen Chinese passengers to the United States. The bill—a de facto form of Chinese exclusion—never takes effect because it is vetoed by President Rutherford B. Hayes, who fears that American relations with China will be ruined if it is allowed to take effect.
New California Constitution
California votes to ratify its new state constitution. Most political leaders and newspapers in the state oppose the new constitution, decrying its radical anti-corporate and anti-Chinese provisions. But with strong support by the Workingman's Party, the constitution passes with a majority of more than 10,000 votes.
Workingman’s Party Declines
In California, Workingman's Party candidates for governor and lieutenant governor are defeated. The party begins to decline as a major power in state politics.
Immigrants of 1880s
During the decade of the 1880s, more than 5.2 million immigrants arrive in the United States.
Chinese Population of 1880
California's Chinese population—comprised almost entirely of male laborers—is about 75,000, up from 50,000 in 1870. Chinese workers make up an estimated 15-20% of the state's labor force, usually toiling for "coolie wages" that are dramatically lower than the wages demanded by white workers.
Workingman’s Party Ends
In California, the Workingman's Party virtually ceases to exist as most of its supporters drift back into the Democratic Party, which has come to favor many Workingman positions.
Kearney Admits Defeat
Denis Kearney, former leader of the California Workingman's Party, declares that, "There is no Workingman's Party now, and it would take a telescope... to find a vestige of the giant that shook not only the state but the nation."
Chinese Exclusion Act
Congress passes the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning immigration from China into the United States for ten years. Chinese Exclusion marks the first systematic federal legislation to restrict free and open immigration into the United States.
Immigration Act of 1882
The Immigration Act of 1882 renders several categories of immigrants ineligible for citizenship. Besides Chinese, those barred include criminals, "lunatics," "idiots," and persons deemed "likely to become a public charge"—a category that will, in practice, come to encompass many unmarried women.
Plessy v. Ferguson and Chinese
In the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the United States Supreme Court rules that the southern Jim Crow system of racial segregation is legal. The lone dissent to the 7-1 ruling comes from Justice John Marshall Harlan, a southerner and former slaveowner. Harlan's minority opinion offers an eloquent defense of equality under the law: "In view of the Constitution," Harlan writes, "in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law." Yet even Harlan's defense of black equality rests, in part, on anti-Chinese prejudice, for Harlan objects to American blacks being denied rights that are allowed to Chinese: "There is a race so different to our own," he writes, "that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States. Persons belonging to it are, with few exceptions, absolutely excluded from our country. I allude to the Chinese race. But, by the statute in question, a Chinaman can ride in the same passenger coach with white citizens of the United States, while citizens of the black race in Louisiana, many of whom, perhaps, risked their lives for the preservation of the Union, who are entitled, by law, to participate in the political control of the State and nation, who are not excluded, by law or by reason of their race, from public stations of any kind, and who have all the legal rights that belong to white citizens, are yet declared to be criminals, liable to imprisonment, if they ride in a public coach occupied by members of the white race."