Study Guide

Early American Immigration Introduction

Advertisement - Guide continues below

Early American Immigration Introduction

America is a melting pot. Aside from having killer fondue, this mostly means that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants.

People have been immigrating to the Americas since, like, 1492 (and, you know, way before that). From the colonial period to 1882, immigration into the United States was essentially free and unrestricted. Millions of immigrants poured into the country, helping to transform a peripheral outpost of the British Empire into one of the most populous and prosperous nations in the world.

And during the First Industrial Revolution, the United States saw a big wave of immigrants from Western Europe, mostly Ireland and Germany. See, before the Civil War, some parts of the country experienced a growing need for cheap labor. Industrialization (you know, factories and railroads and stuff) required the helping hands of working-class urban folks rather than rural landowners. The North happened to have outlawed slavery, which was good for former slaves, and bad for unscrupulously cheap bosses. 

Who was left to work in dangerous conditions for minimal pay? Immigrants.

Lots of global events around the 1840s meant that people were fleeing the revolutions and upheavals of their home countries. 

  • The Chinese empire, for example, was collapsing under European colonialism and revolts, and tens of thousands of people were trying to flee to the United States.
  • Revolts and oppression in Germany, Austria, and the Russian Empire were also creating political refugees.
  • Most famously, or hugely for this time period, British colonialism in Ireland, combined with famines of the potato variety, led to a mass migration of Irish families to the Northeastern United States.

But immigration always generated opposition, and nativist movements regularly appeared in American life.

So, as usual, white, native-born Americans weren't sure they wanted people who were "different" moving in next door. Not only were they different, which white Americans have traditionally struggled to get over, but they were also competition. Wages were low already, so when a factory owner could pay an immigrant half as much as an American citizen, that was an easy decision for the pocketbook to make.

For these reasons, immigrants weren't always welcomed with open arms and a pat on the back.

What is Early American Immigration About and Why Should I Care?

Who cares about the history of immigration to America 100 or 200 years ago? 

Sure, immigration today is a major political issue, inflaming strong passions on all sides of the debate over what should be done—or not done—to change our country's immigration laws. 

But America in 1750 or 1850 was a very different country, and immigration issues back then looked very different than they do today. There were no minutemen guarding the Mexican border, no armies of activists marching through the streets of Los Angeles shouting "¡Legalización Para Todos!," and no Spanish spoken in our classrooms or our DMV offices. What can the distant past possibly teach us about the very different world we live in today?

A lot, actually.

It turns out that past immigrant experiences, and past controversies over immigration policy, bear startling similarities to the situation we face today.

250 years ago, Benjamin Franklin worried that a huge wave of German-speaking immigrants then pouring into Pennsylvania would make it impossible for the colony's English settlers to preserve their language or government.

160 years ago, millions of Americans feared that sudden, heavy immigration of a foreign and "inferior" race—the Irish—would undermine the country's Anglo-Saxon social and political traditions.

130 years ago, American workingmen in San Francisco fought to kick out Chinese immigrants who were willing to work brutal jobs for lower wages.

In retrospect, we can see that none of these great immigrant threats destroyed the American Republic. In fact, today most Americans celebrate rather than condemn the contributions made to our economy and culture by German, Irish, and Chinese immigrants and their American-born descendents. But controversy continues to surround the immigration of other, more recent, arrivals to this country.

Is history simply repeating itself, then? You'll have to make up your own mind about that.

Early American Immigration Resources


Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (1990)
Readers looking for a solid, readable overview of the history of American immigration and its impacts on American life will find a fine starting point in Roger Daniels' Coming to America.

Thomas Dublin, Immigrant Voices: New Lives in America, 1773-1986 (1993)
It's impossible to understand the history of American immigrations without understanding the individual experiences of immigrants to America. Here Thomas Dublin collects a remarkable selection of true first-person accounts spanning two centuries of American immigration, from the late-18th century to the late-20th century.

Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (1998)
Jacobson's challenging but important book makes the argument—startling to many—that the American social construct of "whiteness" has changed dramatically over time. 19th-century Americans believed that non-English European immigrants—Irish, Germans, Scandinavians, and Italians—actually belonged to separate, and often "inferior" races: the Celtic race, the Nordic race, the Iberic race, etc. Jacobson chronicles the tortuous path by which these many white races blurred into a single "Caucasian" white racial category as European immigrants drew sharp distinctions between themselves and Black Americans.

John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925 (1965)
John Higham's Strangers in the Land is an old book, written more than forty years ago, but it remains the seminal history of nativism in American politics and culture. Readers who want to understand the forces that drove anti-Irish Know-Nothings, anti-Chinese Workingmen, or anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klansmen should begin here.

Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (1995)
How the Irish Became White covers some of the same conceptual territory as Jacobson's Whiteness of a Different Color, but focuses entirely on the Irish experience. Ignatiev argues that the Irish in America—initially demonized and regarded as an inferior race—only rose to a respected place in white America by becoming enthusiastic participants in racist attacks on Blacks and Asians.


Ugly Stereotypes
In the eyes of famous cartoonist Thomas Nast, Blacks and Irish are equal, and equally stereotyped.

Anti-Chinese Agitator
Denis Kearney, leader of the California Workingmen's Party.

Know-Nothing Patriotism
A Know-Nothing flag from the 1850s. "Native American" in this context doesn't mean "Indian" but rather "native-born white citizen."

Nativist Politics
Ex-President Millard Fillmore runs for president on the Know-Nothing ticket in 1856. Note the slogan at bottom: "I know nothing but my Country, my whole Country, and nothing but my Country."


Primary Sources on Immigration
Harvard University's Open Collections Program is a project that allows the public to access, via the internet, thousands of resources held in the Harvard libraries. The Open Collections Program's website on Immigration to the United States is a treasure trove of primary sources on American immigration history.

San Francisco's Chinatown
The Online Museum of the City of San Francisco contains a wealth of material dealing with the Chinese presence in California in the 19th century, and the nativist backlash against it.

Census Data
The United States Census is the best source of raw data on immigration (and many other topics in United States history). Here the Census Bureau presents a table detailing the nationality of the country's foreign-born population since 1850.

Historical Documents

Emma Lazarus, "The New Colossus"
Emma Lazarus' poem, "The New Colossus," as inscribed upon the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

Acts of Exclusion
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Nativist Manifesto
Denis Kearney's "Appeal from California: The Chinese Invasion," 1878.

Early American Nativism
Alien and Sedition Acts, 1798.

Historical Immigration Data
Historical statistics on the foreign-born population of the United States.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...